The Queer Issue
IT'S TIME TO PULL THE PLUG on the Seattle Gay Culture Center. A handful of activists are limping along trying to raise $20 million to build "the safe place, civic face, spiritual home and heart of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allied Community." There are plenty of reasons why this effort will fail, not the least of which is the Center's teeny-tiny donor base. For example, visit the Center's website and you'll learn that "Seattle Gay Culture Center is a key aspect of our strategy to develop community confidence, political standing and economic resources for metropolitan Seattle's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community." Does anyone seriously believe that Seattle's GLBT community lacks confidence, is politically weak, or lacks economic resources?
More problematic, though, is where exactly this center would be located. The obvious answer might be Capitol Hill, our gay ghetto. Queer pioneers who migrated to the city transformed Capitol Hill, taking advantage of the (then) inexpensive homes and apartments in the neighborhoods around Broadway. Suddenly, we reached critical mass. Our social networks evolved into cultural institutions: Greater Seattle Business Association, Lesbian Resource Center, Seattle Counseling Services, and others. We secured and defended laws in Seattle that prohibited discrimination in employment and housing. We concentrated our political power in the 43rd legislative district, and successful gay candidates ran for the state legislature and the city council. By banding together and creating community around our sexual orientation, we became a potent force.
Even if Center organizers could afford Capitol Hill real estate (they can't), demographic shifts may make it increasingly difficult to claim that this or any other location could be the geographic "heart" of an increasingly integrated gay and lesbian population. Look around. Pride banners are hanging in West Seattle, Rainier Valley, and Ballard. Same-gender couples are strolling hand-in-hand in Belltown, Wallingford, Fremont, and Queen Anne. Lesbian mommies and gay daddies are moving to Shoreline, Bothell, and Federal Way, where they can afford a home with a large yard in a good school district. We really are everywhere. If assimilation means anything, it means we've outgrown our need for a gay community center.
We certainly no longer need our ghetto. On Capitol Hill, the GLBT community created a culture and a politics as petty as any small town's. We became intolerant of those who defy GLBT community norms. Witness the gasps of horror and disbelief that accompany revelations that one of "our own" is a Republican, or a churchgoer, or a resident of Bellevue. Some of us became as narrow-minded as the people from the hometowns we fled. We stopped paying attention to the one thing that drew us all together and instead noticed the things that made us different. And not surprisingly, we started to fragment along racial, gender, and class lines. The ghetto that had sustained us had become a liability. To some, this fragmentation came as a relief; we could finally become individuals, part of a broader community. "Gay" didn't have to come first, or even second or third. It was simply part of who we were. And it certainly no longer had to proscribe where we lived.
Fortunately, the community is changing. Now, our boldest leaders are no longer found in the political and cultural homogeneity of Capitol Hill. The most subversive queers I know are working with youth service agencies in Bellevue, or are out on Vashon organizing roadside clean-up. They head churches that defy their denominations' leadership. They are delegates attending the Republican National Convention. Even as Capitol Hill remains a "safe zone" for many--especially the freshly "out," just beginning to explore their queer identities--many of us are settling in communities that are more broadly defined, communities that speak to our values, not our sexual orientation.
My partner and I are big fans of one community center. It's a modest wood-frame building located on a small island in the San Juans. It's a place where the island residents meet to talk about growth, litter, or the last big storm. Our sexual orientation is a fact, not an issue. We're planning on calling this island our home, and I often imagine our future there. People will ask about the ferry schedule, and we'll jokingly tell them what we have planned for our day. We'll be just two members of a tight-knit island community, a community that could care less that we're gay. We'll be joining a handful of other queer folks who fled the ghetto to take our place in the island culture. And we couldn't be happier.