By Buddy Early, November 2018 Issue.
It’s been over two decades since I accidentally walked into a bath house in Washington D.C.’s gay district. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. Well, as much as five seconds can be those things. I had only heard of such places, and if I hadn’t been fresh out of the closet I may have stayed and enjoyed myself doing what people do in those places. Still, it was a part of an eye-opening night out in a community populated largely by LGBTQ people.
Over the next few years, I would spend a lot of time visiting gay neighborhoods in other cities – DuPont Circle, San Francisco’s Castro District, West Hollywood, Hillcrest in San Diego, New York City’s West Village. I marveled at how, you know, gay they were. Blocks of businesses all catering to us. Bars, restaurants and shops with names like The Crack, Uncle Trudy’s and Inhibitions – a gift shop where you could pick up a rainbow you-name-it; an amateurish periodical with older, hairy men eating oatmeal or cereal or whatever served in a bowl they’re holding as if they were about to shot put it; and lavender bath bombs.
Gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. For blocks. And the lesbian bar.
I learned more about those communities than I did about my own. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Phoenix had no gay ghetto? After my first visit to Phoenix’s one-and-only gay restaurant, I walked out onto the street and did not find what I was half-expecting. I was disappointed not to bump into a gay dude walking from his apartment to the gym, or two gay men walking from their apartment to the gym … or five gay men leaving the gym to get a gay smoothie.
The nightlife in Phoenix was not what I was hoping for. I longed for that convenience of bar-hopping down a street on foot, waiting for that magical moment when I would lock eyes with someone who figured they wanted to see me naked.
I had to accept that Phoenix wasn’t like other cities. The gays and lesbians here were more scattered. Some seasoned gays even told me Phoenix was the way it was because people moved here from other places, and they were over the gay neighborhood concept. I guess it made sense. But those same seasoned gays taught me about Phoenix’s LGBTQ history. It’s actually pretty rich, some of it documented in papers and photographs and some of it handed down through stories shared over drinks. I learned to revere Phoenix’s LGBTQ history, even if it never had that physical core that I fantasized about.
It has occurred to me recently that the notion of Phoenix having an actual LGBTQ neighborhood is one worth revisiting. With so many of the equal rights we’ve attained coming under threat, and many Americans deciding they aren’t afraid or ashamed to display their true hate, having a community that is a safe space may be exactly what we need.
Our community could have that place where we are the majority, could protect one another, organize and rally, and I could stumble bar-to-bar until I lock eyes with someone who figures they’d like to see me naked.
In fact, I think we’re already witnessing a revitalized LGBTQ community in Phoenix. Despite my habit of often ridiculing millennials and the younger generation that follows (I don’t remember what they’re called, post-Millennials or generation fluid or something), I see a desire to be a community once again. The Melrose District has drawn a great number of these young LGBTQ folks and certainly allies, as people are deciding that when it comes to living, working and playing, convenience is important. The pendulum has swung; whereas we have long been a community of LGBTQ people that desperately wanted to blend into the rest of our city, and be seen as just like everyone else, to one that recognizes there is such a thing as LGBTQ culture, and it’s wonderful.
I’m excited to see what else our community can bring to that stretch of Seventh Avenue known as the Melrose Curve and the adjacent neighborhoods. Is this going to be our Oak Lawn? Our Capitol Hill? Our Short North? There’s enormous potential – for a vibrant community hub and (natch!) for me to find someone who agrees to see me naked.
Count me in.