The gayest place in America?

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — My earliest sense of what it meant to be gay in the nation’s capital came more than a decade ago when I was a summer intern. I was a few blocks from Union Station when a congressman walked by and gave the reporters I was standing with a big, floppy wave hello.

“You know what they say about him,” said one of them, the inflection of his voice rising to a squeak so there could be no mistaking what he meant.

I didn’t know, in fact. I wasn’t even sure what the congressman’s name was. But the message was as clear as it was unsettling for a 20-year-old struggling with his own sexual identity: There were plenty of gay people in Washington, even at the highest levels of government. But instead of being widely accepted, they were usually whispered about derisively, suspect characters to be mocked and maligned.

Today, having moved here 10 months ago after six and a half years of living in Manhattan, I hardly recognize that closeted, often intolerant Washington I first glimpsed as a 20-year-old. I now live in the gayest place in America.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider what surveys by Gallup and the Census Bureau have found about the gay population here. When the District of Columbia is compared with the 50 states, it has the highest percentage of adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to Gallup. At 10 percent, that is double the percentage in the state that ranks No. 2, Hawaii, and nearly triple the overall national average of 3.5 percent.

The Census Bureau looked at where the highest percentage of same-sex couple households were and also found that the District of Columbia ranked far higher than the 50 states, with 4 percent. The national average is just under 1 percent.

One of my first observations about my new city was the throngs of gay men I would see over the course of a typical day all over town — walking their dogs in my neighborhood before work, riding the Metro, working in the halls of Congress.

I’m not the first to have noticed this change.

“There’s an openly gay presence that makes you think you’re in the Castro or West Hollywood, and it wasn’t always the case,” Robert Raben, an assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration who was one of several openly gay people appointed by President Clinton, told me. “The federal government was a nightmare for homosexuals for decades, and then it wasn’t.”

Such ubiquity isn’t just an abundance of gay bars, though there are at least six within walking distance of my house in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Northwest Washington. On the days I make the 20-minute walk from home to my office near the White House, I will pass one example after another of this city’s thriving gay economy: a Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams furniture store; a clothing retailer whose window displays regularly feature bare-torso, well-endowed mannequins in nothing but tiny briefs; three CrossFit gyms; the offices of two gay newspapers, The Washington Blade and Metro Weekly (most cities cannot even sustain one); a bathhouse; and the national headquarters for the Human Rights Campaign.

Anyone walking through the Dupont Circle neighborhood the other night would have found themselves fighting for sidewalk space with the hundreds of spectators — many of them straight — who had gathered to watch the 17th Street High Heel Race, an annual sprint for drag queens who tear down the block in heels. And when I tried to make plans a few weekends ago, I found most of my friends were booked solid because they were attending one of two huge gay-themed events: the Human Rights Campaign annual black-tie dinner, featuring Jennifer Lopez as the main event; or the Miss Adams Morgan drag pageant, which is such a large production it takes over the Washington Hilton.

When our federal district is measured against other cities with large gay populations, a comparison that experts say is better than comparing to states, it still ranks at the top of the list. Gary J. Gates, who studies census data for the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, reports that Washington has 18.1 same-sex couples per 1,000 households. That places it eighth among cities with populations larger than 250,000.

Sorry, New York, but you have only 8.75 same-sex couples per 1,000 households. In Manhattan alone, it’s higher, at 16.7, but still not higher than D.C. The top three are San Francisco (30.3 per 1,000), Seattle (23) and Oakland (21). The numbers capture only those who acknowledge being in a same-sex relationship.

Every gay man or lesbian I spoke to for this article had a horror story about what it was like working in the closet, fearing they would be found out. It was only during the Clinton years that the White House finally ended the decades-long practice of denying security clearance to people known to be gay or lesbian. That meant in order to be considered for many high-level jobs involving access to classified information, gays and lesbians had to concoct a web of lies about their personal lives.

Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist who worked on Capitol Hill for years, described how he and his gay friends had to make sure they all gave the same references to government agents investigating their backgrounds, an insurance policy so that if the question of their sexual orientation came up, they could be certain no one unpredictable would spill the truth.

Hilary Rosen, a longtime Democratic lobbyist, told me that in the 1980s she once unsuccessfully tried to persuade Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, to support a bill that would have given more AIDS-prevention money to San Francisco. “He said to me with much concern and affection, ‘Oh, Hilary, why would you want to help those people?’ ” she said. “When I told him I was actually one of those people, he shook his head, tried to change the subject and voted against us.” In a sign of how much has changed, she noted, Mr. Hatch recently voted for legislation to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in federal nondiscrimination law.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Hatch said, “That was then.”

Fred Sainz, the vice president for communications and marketing at the Human Rights Campaign, recalled working as a young man for various Republican lawmakers. He was closeted at the time but knew that at least two of the general counsels he worked for and one senior administrator were secretly gay.

“It was poisonous to be gay,” he told me, “even when applying for a government job.”

But it was hardly shameful only in Republican circles. Richard Socarides, a lawyer who was one of President Clinton’s openly gay appointees, said that in the early 1990s when he was applying for a job on Capitol Hill in the office of Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, one of the senator’s associates said that Mr. Harkin might need to be concerned about hiring Mr. Socarides because of his sexual orientation. Mr. Socarides got the job regardless.

Nor was it only political office that compelled you to be closeted. Sean Bugg, executive director of the Next Generation Leadership Foundation and editor emeritus of Metro Weekly, recalled being a reporter covering tax issues on Capitol Hill in 1990 when he bumped into another reporter he recognized at the Dakota Cowgirl, a popular gay bar at the time. “He shot away from me like you wouldn’t believe,” Mr. Bugg said, adding that there was still a sense you were never truly safe being even half-open about being gay back then. “This was the time when the military was still doing surveillance in gay bars.”

Such shyness is unheard-of in the D.C. bar scene today, with old stalwarts like JR’s, with its one-for-every-taste clientele, and newer additions like Number 9, which can feel like perpetual happy hour for the city’s gay political-media complex. Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told me an especially ambitious young man once hunted him down on the dance floor of a local gay bar and handed him his résumé. Apparently he had heard Mr. Cecil went there sometimes on the weekends. While he admired the young man’s intrepidness, Mr. Cecil said he did not give him the job.

Of course, it’s not all utopian for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community here. There are still occasional attacks, like one this summer when a male drag performer was beaten in the heart of what is considered one of the most tolerant neighborhoods. Gays are also no longer ghettoized in one area of Washington. Gradually, they have fanned out from Dupont Circle, which is now full of heterosexual families, all across the city.

All of these anecdotes and statistics raise a puzzling question about the District’s gay and lesbian population: Why are they all here? They could not have just moved in. Unlike cities like Austin, Tex., that rank high on the list of same-sex households (No. 15), Washington has not experienced a huge population boom in the last decade.

One answer seems to be that they have always been here. Gays and lesbians do seem to be drawn to politics in disproportionately high numbers. Mr. Elmendorf told me he thinks that gay people, because they were mostly without children, were able to resist the draw of higher pay in the private sector.

“All the straight people would leave, worrying about how they were going to send their kids to Sidwell Friends,” he said, referring to the elite private school that graduated Chelsea Clinton and currently educates the Obama daughters.

The repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2010 also helped draw more gay people out of the closet. Washington has always had a large military population, many of whom were scared of being too open about who they were until the law changed.

As gays and lesbians moved from the recesses of society into the mainstream, few major cities have seen such an obvious impact as Washington.

Consider the story of Franklin E. Kameny, a pioneering gay rights activist whose personal history is emblematic of how Washington’s acceptance of gays has evolved. A Harvard-trained astronomer with the Army Map Service, Mr. Kameny was fired from his job after being arrested in 1957 by members of the morals division of the city police force.

Mr. Kameny sued, filing appeals all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost. But when President Obama signed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he invited Mr. Kameny and sat him in the front row at a White House ceremony. I had the chance to meet Mr. Kameny, who died in 2011, about a year before this occasion. His message then, having just received an official apology for being fired decades earlier, was that gay rights activists had to remember to be patient. Today, a stretch of 17th Street NW, in the heart of the Dupont Circle neighborhood, is named for him.

That’s where the drag queens hold their Pamplona-like running every year.


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