‘Tis the season of gay tourism. I don’t mean my friends and I hopping on that Olivia Cruise to Lesbos. I mean other folks, gay and straight, coming to Dupont Circle and its environs to enjoy our own particular October foliage: the Reel Affirmations film festival, the annual High Heel Race down 17th Street. Sunny weekends tempt out-of-towners to inspect D.C.’s gay cafes and Lambda Rising Bookstore.
In this season we put on our autumn leather and parade in front of onlookers and one another, enjoying being seen at parties and openings. I become a tourist myself, watching and listening. I play tour guide by urging students to meet up with me for the drag race” or a film. In this way I hope to introduce the newly out, the questioning, and even the merely curious to the spectacular gay carnival that is my neighborhood.
We do have it all here — restaurants, clubs, drag king shows, a flourishing women’s spoken-word community, lobby groups and health clinics, books and films on every LGBT theme. I often smile when I pass obvious tourists on Connecticut Avenue, from dykes dressed in identical outfits and fanny packs to the guy shouting excitedly into his cell phone, “Dan, I’m not sure where I am, but there seem to be a lot of rainbow flags around here!” There’s plenty that’s wrong with Washington — in the city and in the federal administration — but at the end of each day, I walk home to a community overflowing with educated activists eager to make a difference. Bureaucratic Washington is hell, but gay D.C. is heaven.
At the same time, recent attacks on lesbians and the tragic murders of several transfolks have reminded me that D.C. is by no means consistently safe or benevolent towards its queers, and as I walk I need to keep my wits about me. There is nothing more frustrating for a lesbian than the suggestion that she is not free to wander about without risk, or that accepting a male volunteer escort might be advisable upon leaving clubs late at night. This month’s gang rape of a lesbian, resulting in a swiftly organized protest by the D.C. Avengers, has forced me to re-examine my own stubbornness about walking alone at night.
Like other women, I learned at a young age to walk with keys in fist, eyes alert, karate moves well-practiced. Yet on some nights I do want a pal to walk me to Metro. And while I’ve never been queer bashed, I know that a “flamboyant” gay guy is just as vulnerable to harassment as a woman alone — and these days the target is also an androgynous trannie whose gender-blurring pushes some predator’s buttons.
When I bring new friends, students, or other guests to local gay events, I thus find myself feeling protective, knowing they may not have a background in negotiating urban spaces and codes. In showing off my gay neighborhood, I know I have also come to accept its risks, as I have accepted and negotiated being “out.” Many times I’ve given patient directions to Virginia-plated joyriders driving around the Dupont Circle area, only to have these youth then scream “Eat me, dyke!” before speeding off in a cloud of fumes. Part of the price for being visible? My own home isn’t a perfect sanctuary, as I learned when a hired plasterer left ex-gay literature on my pillow.
Still, in these days since Lawrence v. Texas, I feel a new sense of what can only be called entitlement — the right to wander without harassment in a community of my own, to hold hands with my girlfriend, and be as rainbow as I wish. To be here now, in a gay neighborhood at a time of changing rights, in a climate both hopeful and homophobic, is the most exciting location I can imagine.
My friend Toni and I often talk about the mixed responses we received when we came out and threw ourselves into lesbian culture. Well-meaning relatives warned that we were “limiting” ourselves and cautioned that as bright women we should not confine ourselves to the gay ghetto. These remarks were in some ways reflective of an earlier era, when out homos were more likely to lose their jobs. I’ve come to believe that the “gay ghetto” is in fact more diverse and progressive than many other subcultures.
Once, the summer I turned nineteen, I was too scared to walk into Lambda Rising, too scared to wear a gay t-shirt. I biked the C&O canal towpath wondering if I’d ever have a date. Because I’ve stayed in the area, I can wear my own coming-out history like a leather jacket — feeling, in that autumn leather, the pleasure of staying in one place long enough to know its streets. Even when those streets grow temporarily menacing in the wake of hate crimes, this is home, where generations of gay activists have grown up, loved, passed on.Â
In the turning tree leaves, those names, past events, famous nights, little moments whisper to me now: Can a neighborhood feel like a lover? It can, when it knows so many of our secrets, turning points, desires. Come walk with me: I live here. Let’s keep looking out for each other, too, as neighbors, tourists, friends.
Bonnie J. Morris, Ph.D., is on the women’s studies faculty at George Washington University and Georgetown University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.