Gay bars are dying.
That fact, surprisingly, reflects an issue that arises as California’s political districts are being drawn for the first time by an independent citizens’ commission.
According to the gay-oriented travel guide Damron’s, the number of self-described gay bars and clubs in the U.S. has dropped 13 percent since 2005.
The reason is that as gay people report feeling more accepted by society, many feel less need to self-segregate.
What does this phenomenon have to do with redistricting? Potentially, a lot.
Demographer Dr. Gary Gates with the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute has been following the gay bar story — and that it fits with wider trends: “That’s totally consistent with what we’re seeing with gay neighborhoods.”
The Census Bureau released data on gay couples in California, Delaware, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Wyoming on June 23. The 2010 Census shows all-time highs of people self-identifying as members of cohabitating same-sex couples.
Gates and research partner Abigail Cooke just released a study looking at the California data. It found that self-identified gay couples are showing up not just in urban gay meccas but in suburbs and small towns. But many of them were there all along.
“The evidence suggests that this is more about people’s increased visibility than it is about migration,” Gates said. “In rural areas, which tend to be more socially conservative, you’re seeing more willingness of people to identify themselves.”
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission this month released their draft maps for the state legislative and congressional districts. Among its tasks is to maintain so-called “communities of interest,” which are racial or ethnic groups that have often been broken up in gerrymandering schemes in order to reduce their political power.
On Tuesday night, the commission heard a report from Equality California, a gay-rights group that claims 700,000 members. According to “Statewide LGBT Community of Interest Database and Maps” prepared by the Sacramento firm Redistricting Partners, gay Californians — as measured by donations to gay political causes and Equality California membership, as well as those who report being in cohabitating gay couples to the Census — still tend to be exactly where you think they might be: San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, particular areas of San Diego and Pasadena, and attractive Sacramento neighborhoods like Land Park and Curtis Park.
“The LGBT communities in California are a community of interest using the community of interest standard,” writes Equality California interim executive director Jim Carroll in an introduction to the report. He goes on to argue that “LGBT communities should remain intact.”
However, at least some of those communities may not cooperate over the long term. According to research by Gates and others, many same-sex couples are doing something straight couples have been doing for generations: getting older, having kids, and moving to the suburbs.
Gates and Cooke found that gays are still concentrated in urban areas along the coast, but gay families with children paint a different picture. While they have a smaller percentage of gay people overall, the highest percentages of gays who were coupled and raising children were found in such counties like Colusa, Glenn, Imperial, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Benito and Tulare.
Even cohabitating couples without children follow this pattern, with largely-rural Madera County being a hot spot for gay male couples living together.
Equality California and other groups have watched the redistricting process closely. Pioneering San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was a perennial loser in 1970s elections — that is, until the city switched from city-wide elections to neighborhood-based districts in 1976, allowing “The Mayor of Castro Street” enough of a concentrated gay voting population to get elected.
But Paul Mitchell, principle at Redistricting Partners and the author of the report, points to a more recent example. Two decades ago, and then again 10 years ago, San Diego intentionally created a city council district with a large gay population. Two current members of LGBT Legislative Caucus have since held that seat on their way to Sacramento: That seat then helped send Sen. Christine Kehoe and Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, both D-San Diego.
Mitchell also stressed that changing demographics don’t change the need to protect communities of interest: “The African American community has also spread out to the suburbs, but that doesn’t reduce the need for us to create African American in the inner city.”
Equality spokesman Mario Guerrero called the draft maps released by the commission on June 13 “a mixed bag.” Another set of draft maps will come out by mid-July, with the final maps the commission will vote on due in mid-August.
For instance, in Sacramento, the draft maps keep a lot of gay voters in one Congressional district, but tend to split the community when it comes to state Senate and Assembly seats.
Down in San Francisco, the gay community would get somewhat split-up between two Assembly seats, compared to the current maps, but would end up more concentrated when it comes to Senate seats. These kinds of splits are mirrored in several other areas.
These trends — both the spread of gay people living openly, and of gay populations mirroring trends in the straight population — are playing out nationwide.
Though gay communities elsewhere still tend to be more urban than in California, the Census shows a sharp rise in self-reporting gay couples living together in Southern cities like Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla. Early Census data from 2007 appeared to show a gay population explosion in largely rural states, with states like Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas appearing to show growth in their gay population of between 50 percent and 70 percent in less than a decade.
This had more to do with greater reporting than with any actual increase in the number of gay people. It’s also partially due to a concerted campaign by gay rights groups to get gay couples to self-identify for the Census, which was set up to specifically identify these couples for the first time. Conservative groups unsuccessfully sought to bar the Census for gathering and releasing this data, arguing that it violated the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), despite the absence of any questions about marital status asked of same-sex couples.
The push by gay groups to be counted represents an underappreciated sea change in the gay rights movement, Gates said.
“Ten or 20 years ago the gay movement would have been very nervous about asking these questions. They didn’t want the government to know who was gay. You got fired for being gay.”
Meanwhile, lesbians are far more likely to be raising children than gay men, and they’re also more likely to live in suburbs or rural areas. Latino and black lesbians and gays are more likely to be raising children than their white counterparts, a trend that matches the straight population.
Gates also noted that the greater visibility of gay voters is making it less legitimate than ever to view them as a single group. The gay areas that are getting diluted the fastest are the heavy concentrations of gay people in particular urban neighborhoods — which, in turn, statistically, end up being the areas that groups like Equality California are trying to keep together. But they’re also areas that aren’t very representative of gay America overall.
“When you look at highly-clustered gay neighborhoods, you’re largely capturing wealthy, white gay men,” Gates said. Outside o
f being gay, he said, they are members of “the most privileged group in our society.”
If you look at gay couples where one or both members is black or Latino, Gates said, “West Hollywood and Silverlake vanish.” The hot spots for those couples are places where other black and Latino people live, such as Compton and East Los Angeles. But Mitchell said that there are still large numbers of gay people who aren’t rich living in and around many of these same urban enclaves.
Guerrero said that one of the most exciting things about Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, isn’t just that he’s Latino or the first openly gay Speaker.
“He represents a district that isn’t known for having a huge LGBT population,” Guerrero said.