Marketing the Rainbow

Click on the pictures for a larger version

Click on the links for case studies

"Birds of a feather, tend to flock together".

The birth of gayborhoods

Minorities who still have something to fight for - as most do - have the tendency to stick together: not just emotionally or politically, but also physically. There is strength in numbers, but it also protects you from possible bullying or other negative attitudes. They look for places that are safe, welcoming and financially viable. Being less likely to have children has also given LGBT people greater flexibility to move, for instance because the quality of local schools or the kid-friendliness of an area are less important.

In many countries this has led to the growth of LGBT neighborhoods, also called gay village, gayborhood, boystown, gay enclave, gayvenue, queer ghetto, gay district, or gaytown. Examples are Earl's Court in London, Le Marais in Paris, The Village in New York, the Castro in San Francisco, litterally Boystown in Chicago, "Gayxample" in Barcelona, Madrid's Chueca, Sydney's Newtown, Palermo in Buenos Aires, Green Point in Cape Town, Toronto's Church and Wellesley neighborhood and Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg.

Wikipedia dedicates a whole page to this subject, with a listing of hundreds of such 'recognized' areas around the world. Remarkably absent is Amsterdam: see below for an explanation.

So, what is it?

Gayborhoods formed as gay culture itself emerged in the postwar period and began to flourish.

Amin Ghaziani, associate professor of sociology at UBC, defines a gayborhood as having four defining features:

  1. It's a geographical center of LGBTQ people (including queer tourists),
  2. it has a high density of LGBTQ residents,
  3. it's a commercial center of businesses catering to the queer and trans community, and
  4. it's a cultural concentration of power.

"It's the neighborhood where you'll see pride parades begin, dyke marches take off, and street parties go into the night." 

Once the 'hood starts growing, and the feeling of safety and community grows with it, the area will be decorated with symbols of the LGBT community, most prominently the rainbow in all its facets: flags and banners, stickers in the windows of shops or on cars, neon lights and buildings illuminated in the 6 (!) iconic colors, pedestrian crossings, murals, next to statues of bears, memorials, Michelangelo's David in gardens or on balconies, billboards with specific advertisements, street signs and public signage, triangles of all sorts (originally pink), ACT-UP signs, and many more memorabilia and symbols (sometimes part of the secret LGBT language). Then there are the typical necessities like a community center, health facilities, bookshops, plus cafés and clubs with ominous names, often puns or references from the gay vocabulary.

It usually is a festive and colorful display of identity.  

There Goes the Gayborhood

Not only is this trend creating communities, but it often has the effect of gentrification: gays (as 'outcasts') go to a less desirable neighborhood in a city. Contrary to a persistent urban legend, LGBT people are more likely to be impoverished than their straight counterparts, especially women and transgender people. In 2010, UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated the rate of poverty among lesbians to be 22.7 percent, while trans people are four times more likely than other Americans to live below the poverty line.

Then an upgrade takes place: remodelling, beautification, cultural changes (art), new shops and restaurants. This is sometimes called gaytrification

An undesired effect of the development, is that the area becomes wanted by the rest of the population: demand drives up the price of real estate, and the original settlers are often driven away - accelerated by the fact that the district is no longer as gay (and safe) as it used to be. Businesses move or close, bars disappear (after complaints from the new condo-owners) and the area is taken over by the mainstreamers. 

One tenant says: “I’ve repainted everything, put plants on the fire escape and done a lot of maintenance. If I leave this apartment it will be in a far better state than when I arrived. And by that very simple step, I have almost gentrified myself out of my own building.”

Since San Francisco became an LGBT mecca in 1960s, over 160 gay bars have closed in the city, including the businesses that once lined the Castro district - as the Bay Area became a playground for wealthy Silicon Valley employees who flocked to the city following the tech boom. In New York, 86 active gay bars operated during the height of the club scene in 1970s, today there are about 40 - despite the growing number of the 600,000 self-identifying GLB residents.

In New York, the gayborhood moved from The Village to Chelsea, then to Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan - and next to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The Park Slope neighborhood became popular with lesbians, while Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in Queens became focal hubs for the transgender community, which is the largest in the world with 50,000 members. The movement from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Queens also illustrates the effects of gentrification. 

Scientists speak

The 2002 publication of Richard Florida’s "The Rise of the Creative Class" placed gay people at the heart of urban regeneration, part of a gentrifying vanguard along with creative and tech workers and “high bohemians”, who together helped to repopulate and refurbish previously rundown urban areas. His model suggests these groups suck in more economic investment by creating the sort of attractive environment in which “wealth creators” like to live. Florida’s point, however, is that sexual tolerance in itself is not the sole factor, but a litmus test that measures a city’s ability to attract many diverse groups.

Interestingly, this process isn’t necessarily started by gay men. According to sociologist Sharon Zukin, it’s lesbians who are the “canaries in the urban coal mine”. Women often form gentrification’s vanguard, after being displaced from areas that are no longer affordable on incomes relatively lower compared to men’s.

This isn’t commonly remarked on because a lesbian presence tends to be less visible. Ghaziani explains: “Lesbians come first, but tend to plug into the existing institutions of an area – coffee shops, theatres, grocery stores. When gay men arrive, however, they tend to build new institutions – new restaurants, stores, bars – and property values start to rise. Straight people arrive last, lesbians are pushed out, and the process repeats.”

A veneer of tolerance

A recent study of the University of British Columbia found that straight people living in "gayborhoods" say they support gay rights in theory, but many interact with their gay and lesbian neighbours on the street in ways that contradict those sentiments. "There is a mistaken belief that marriage equality means the struggle for gay rights is over," said Amin Ghaziani. "But it is far from over. Prejudice and discrimination still exist - it's just more subtle and difficult to detect." While many residents said they don't care if people are gay or straight, some indicated that they don't like gay people who are "in your face." When asked about resistance from LGBTQ communities to the widespread trend of straight people moving into gaybourhoods, some of the people interviewed responded with accusations of reverse discrimination and described gay people who challenged them as "segregationist" and "hetero-phobic". Many expressed sentiments like: "you wanted equality— this is what equality looks like.""<sic> 

Some said they believed they should have open access to cultural gay spaces, and were surprised that they felt "unwelcome" there. "If a group of straight women hosted a bachelorette party in a gay bar, for example, they were surprised that they felt 'unwelcome,'" said Ghaziani. "That feeling of surprise, however, exemplifies a misguided belief that gay districts are trendy commodities when they are actually safe spaces for sexual minorities. The people we interviewed say their desire is for everyone to 'just get along,' but that desire implies that gaybourhoods are utopias where everyone can live, rather than places where minorities can find relief from discrimination and social isolation," he said.

USA vs. the Netherlands

These models mostly apply to North America, but have partly been seen in other Western countries too. But there is a distinct difference between the USA and the Netherlands. In the US, where full legal and social equality is not yet reached, gays and lesbians still flock together in gayborhoods, buy their bread at the lesbian baker, their flowers in the gay flowershop and have their legal stuff done by a gay lawyer. They stand together on the basis of solidarity and mutual support – the same reason why LGBT are lumped together in one acronym. An American gay or lesbian customer who is being shown that a supplier honestly understands their struggle, their position and their desire to progress is much more likely to become - and remain - a patron of that supplier.


The Netherlands have always been a more integrated and accepting society. Being the first in the world to open up marriage to same-sex couples in 2001 underlined that once more. Full equality has since been reached, acceptance is high and the need to form communities is – and always has been – much less important. A Dutch consumer is harder to woo with expressions of support and recognition than the American. The attitude would be “been there, done that, what’s your real message, WIIFM?”. This may also have to do with the Dutch spirit of doing business, finding the best deal. If a gay baker offers the same products as his straight colleague, but at a higher price, a gay consumer would argue: “so why would I buy from you?” Still, when a company shows an honest support for LGBT’s, loyalty may be built.  At least, when the quality is not inferior and the price is not higher… because to pay a premium for something that is considered to be “business as usual” (i.e., "respect me") does not occur in The Dutch Way.

Organized gayborhoods

Often, these areas spring up more or less informally - but sometimes they are created on purpose. For instance, the community organisation LGBT Detroit has been trying to encourage the (unofficial) founding of a gay village in the city, as a way of providing more solidarity and support for a community that’s weaker for being geographically dispersed. The organization’s director Curtis Lipscomb is not afraid that this intiative will kill itself via the gentrification process seen elsewhere: “San Francisco and New York are transient cities where a different population arrives and departs all the time, but that is not the case in Detroit. There is also a significant bible belt community here. So while you might have some straight residents who become interested in a gay-friendly neighbourhood once it starts showing visual improvements, you still have people with strong negative feelings about LGBT people. This is still a socially conservative community that still believes that LGBT people should be treated differently.”

And now...

So - gentrification is a caused for the steady migration of LGBT from one gayborhood to the next. However, the migration is also a sort of exodus: not all members of the community end up living in a new boystown. Many have never even lived in one. This is also largely due to a changing society, where tolerance grows into acceptance in an ever increasing way.

Ghaziani said in March '19 that LGBTQ people are moving to “cultural archipelagos.” In fact, only 12 percent of LGBTQ adults live in a gayborhood. Meanwhile 72 percent have never lived in one. Interesting finding was that lesbian couples were more drawn to rural settings than gay male ones. In addition, these lesbians couples tend to live in areas with a lower median housing price than their male peers.