Once you arrived, you never left, except when absolutely necessary, for work or required Christmas visits "back home." You wouldn't accept a date with anyone who lived outside, in the Straight World. On vacation, you visited other gay neighborhoods.
Many gay kids today don't grow up dreaming of a safe haven. Being gay is no big deal at school. Their families and straight friends are perfectly accepting. Why not stay where you are?
But the gay neighborhoods are still there, waiting for those of us who grew up in homophobic small towns, who are tired of the incessant heterosexism of the Straight World, or who want to see what it was like to have a home.
I've lived in four gay neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canada, and visited about a dozen others. Here are the biggest and best:
The Montrose, Houston (top photo).
Today Houston has gay rights ordinances and a gay mayor, but when I lived in Texas in 1984, there were sodomy laws and rednecks with shotguns, and police cadets were warned about the "homosexual deviants" lurking at the corner of Montrose and Westheimer. Just walking down the street was perilous. In spite of the dangers, gay people carved out a newspaper, a bookstore, political action groups, and lots of fun cowboy bars.
Dupont Circle, Washington, DC.
A bit cramped, hard to find parking, but an architectural gem, and only a mile from the White House.
Who would expect a thriving Community Center a stone's throw from government homophobes? Dupont Circle is home to over 50 gay organizations, everything from the Human Rights Campaign to the LGBT Fallen Heroes Fund.
Washington Square West, Philadelphia
Philadelphia has some of the world's best gay clubs and restaurants, and it's the site of the first Gay Rights demonstration in history. But its biggest claim to fame is Giovanni's Room, the second oldest and largest gay bookstore in the world, founded back in 1972, when there were almost no gay-positive books in existence, and certainly none available in mainstream bookstores.
It closed recently, bankrupted by online giants, and re-opened as a thrift store with proceeds going to AIDS services.
Wilton Manors, Fort Lauderdale.
This was home for 4 years. There were great beaches, gyms, clubs, and restaurants, but what I remember most was the great sense of camaraderie.
Maybe it was because many residents were older, and had lived through the horrors of the pre-Stonewall police state.
Maybe it was because, once you left Wilton Manors, you ran into some of the most horrifying Bible-thumping redneck cities in the country.
But in Wilton Manors, everyone was welcome; everyone knew your name.
Hawthorne, Portland (Oregon).
I thought Texas had the biggest of everything, but when I visited Portland in 1995, I found a bookstore that covered an entire city block, a bath house with room for 3000 patrons, and a bar crowded with the biggest, most buffed men this side of Muscle Beach.
More after the break.
Halsted and Broadway, east of Clark, the first gay neighborhood I ever heard of, back in college. I haven't visited often -- an occasional conference or job interview -- but each visit has been an adventure. The Cellblock, the Sweat Lodge, the Jackhammer, Man's Country. The only dark room I've seen in the U.S. Plus private parties, biker runs, bear clubs, even a gay nudist group.
You'll be lucky if there's any time left over for the museums.
Rue Ste. Catherine, Montreal.
Montreal is one of my favorite cities in North America, with enough museums, architectural masterpieces, and cruising spots for a hundred memorable visits. But what I like most is the food. Especially Vietnamese, which is hard to find in the U.S.: The Cafe Saigon, Pho 21, La Gout de Vietnam. But also Moroccan, Greek, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Japanese... You need to work out six hours a day just to keep up.
The Castro, San Francisco.
I'm not talking about Glide United Methodist Church, the first to open its doors to LGBT members. Or the Radical Faeries, the first gay pagan group. Or the many other gay religious groups based here.
I'm talking about the Castro.
Get off at the Castro Street Muni Station at dawn, when the air is chill and the sky is just beginning to turn blue. No one is around except a few early-risers having breakfast at Orphan Andy's. Walk south past the Castro Theater, past the rainbow flags, through the hush of morning,
You are in heart of the gay world, safe, and accepted, and loved. This is what heaven looks like.
The Most Historical:
The West Village, New York.
This is the best documented gay neighborhood in the world, the subject of countless histories and biographies. Gay Liberation was born here. During the 1970s and 1980s, a group of writers called the Violet Quill wrote a dozen novels set here, cementing the still-common belief that all gay people live in the West Village.
Even in Manhattan, most gay people live elsewhere. The West Village is home to an older, affluent, conservative gay crowd, the type who go to the opera and listen to Barbra Streisand. And remember their history.
Home for 13 years. Crowded, expensive, no decent jobs, no place to park. Lots of hustlers, con artists, and wannabes. Lots of Attitude.
It's the best place in the world.
See also: Why San Francisco is Still Gay Heaven; Our Search for the Gayest Place in America.