Gentrification of the Queer Bedroom

by

I.
For many gay men, hooking up is an integral part of life. And in the past decade, several popular geolocation-based dating apps have launched to help facilitate the process. Grindr, the most popular of these apps, currently boasts over five million active monthly users, more than ten million total downloads, and about 10,000 new downloads per day.[1]

Grindr has changed how gay men interact. What was meant to be a way to facilitate conversations with a nearby stranger has become a mode of connection with as much cultural clout and relevance as the gay bar. An app that was created to supplement the going out experience has in many ways become the entire experience.

While Grindr was intended to foster conversations with strangers in gay spaces, it also starts conversations outside these spaces, including in mixed-sexuality, mixed-race, and mixed-income neighborhoods.

Jazz, a 23-year-old Washington Heights resident, didn't notice the neighborhood's sizeable gay population when, as a kid, he would visit his aunt there. After making Washington Heights his home four years ago, he, like many gay men his age, tried using Grindr. By his own account, Washington Heights has changed immensely in his lifetime. For example, Jazz described the brand new businesses moving in, many of which are owned by non-natives. He pointed in particular to the new Planet Fitness:

When we came here, there was nothing there, and then Planet Fitness opened up. Then, even my mother said to me, “Jazz, trust me, growing up here, you did not see no white people whatsoever.” Now, you see them constantly. Like back then, when I was coming here, if you saw a white person here, pretty much they were lost or they were visiting something or they were here for crack. It was one of those three things.

Steven, 26, a lifelong Washington Heights resident who identifies as black, Dominican, and Native American, noted that the Planet Fitness was a middle-ground business—one that could please both old and new residents; a healthy option that is still low cost. He's pretty sure that newer residents actually "wanted a Whole Foods or a supermarket."

The cultural shift that Steven and Jazz identify in their Washington Heights neighborhoods is what many New Yorkers know as gentrification, a term first coined and applied by British sociologist Ruth Glass.  "One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle class—upper and lower," Glass wrote in her 1964 introduction to London: Aspects of Change: 

[O]nce [the] process of “gentrification” starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.[2]

Glass describes a macro process by which neighborhoods change and people are displaced. For Jazz, Steven, and many others in the gay community, gentrification is also a personal phenomenon that extends to private interactions. As gay men begin to feel out sex lives increasingly defined by people who are within walking distance at a particular instant, gentrification is felt in the bedroom.

When Jazz turned on Grindr in Washington Heights, he saw language that is ubiquitous on many of these hookup apps. "I'd try dating and I'd see ‘no Blacks, no Asians, no femmes,’ and I'm like 'Oh, okay.'" He added, "If they do date a black guy, they want a black guy who is ‘thuggish’—I'm a nerd."

The racially charged language took Jazz, who identifies as half black and half Dominican, by surprise—especially since the men he was viewing lived in his own racially diverse backyard.

I talked to one guy named Rafik, I think he was some type of Russian or European and he asked me what I am and I said I'm half black, half Dominican and the first thing he said to me was, “Dick size?” Then the second thing he said to me was “Do [you] wear Timberlands?” … The second one…he'd ask me questions and I guess I'm supposed to answer for all black people like, “Why are black people's necks, the back, a little bit darker?”

These early Grindr experiences not only affected the way Jazz felt as a gay man, but also the way he felt as a Washington Heights resident. A place that he associated with memories of his own family had now changed into a place that made him feel unwanted.

In contrast, Steven said that the Heights' gentrification hasn't drastically altered his sex life. But, he added, "About 20% of the guys that I encounter who are not men of color will bring up how nice it is to be with a black top, and I'll ask them to elaborate, and they always say, 'Well, it's so nice.'"

II. Sex After #BlackLivesMatter
Kyle, who identifies as black, now lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant after having lived in Ridgewood, Queens, for six months, and the Lower East Side for six months prior to that. From 2014 to 2015, Bed Stuy saw a rent increase of over 7.5% according to a report from real estate brokerage MNS.[2] Most of that growth has been in newly renovated units. Kyle describes the up-and-coming Bed Stuy as by far the most sexually exciting of these locales. When I ask him whether the sexual energy is palpable there, he answers: "Yeah, that's a good way to put it."

Kyle is attracted to all types of men, but really likes white men—a fact that causes him to wrestle with a lot of guilt. "I feel like I spent a lot of 2014 thinking about what it meant to be a black man in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign… I was constantly looking at myself and what I call my 'Uncle Tom' guilt over dating white men and liking gay white men," he said.

Though Kyle is aware of the ways in which he is sexualized, he does not always reject them. He recalled meeting one man on the Lower East Side who was "all about ass," and made many references to his "black booty." He said, "He wanted to put on D'Angelo and fuck black guys. And it was great. And the sex was hot." He added, "I get asked for dick pics a lot. People assume you're a top, especially white guys. They always assume you're a top. And sometimes I want to top and I'll go for it." Though he sometimes tops, Kyle identifies as a versatile bottom—he can be both the insertive and receptive partner, but prefers to receive.

[They say], “that big black ass,” you know, but it is a big black ass. To an extent, you know what you're walking into… I'm not too offended by it, it's like an elephant in the room. We're not colorblind, and we're obviously attracted to each other, so let's have a good time.

Kyle has even changed his mannerisms and demeanor to play into common black stereotypes. On having to play with his gender in order to have sex, he said:

I feel like I have to match the tone that I set in the conversation. I feel like with hooking up, there's nothing at stake, you can play whatever role you want to. I can gauge from the conversation if this person wants me to be, you know, the thug Kyle and really hard, and that's what they want, or they want me to be accessible negro Kyle Obama, or what they may want, and at the end of the day, it's doing what you have to do to get that nut when you're hooking up. So, fuck it, if I have to throw on some sweatpants and go over, then fine, I'm cool, I'm down for that, because I'm going to leave and we'll both be satisfied… Like, I had to pull out my Air Force Ones, I had to pull out the baggier jeans, you know, I had to pull out my hoodie, the XXL Givenchy… I'm going to put “man” at the end of everything I say to you on the app, you know.

III. Latinos in “Bouge-Wick”
Rents in Bushwick, a once heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood, rose to an average of $2,467 for a one-bedroom in August of 2014, up twenty-three percent from $2,160 in August of 2013, according to MNS.[3]

Devin, a gay, 29-year-old, Latino Queens native of indigenous descent, moved to Bushwick four years ago. Still emotionally raw after a breakup, he didn’t hook up for about six months. However, from the time he moved in, he could sense the sexual energy, especially among other Latinos. "Tons of Puerto Rican gay men in the neighborhood. That's kind of declined in the last year or so."

Devin was on Grindr for about three years, but he deleted the app after he lost interest in the men that he would find on it. "There were a lot of skinny white gay boys who look like Abercrombie & Fitch, or the alternative gay boy who's punk or goth, or the conventional gay white boy that you see…there was a lot less queer men of color," he said. In contrast to the sense he had when he first moved in, Devin said, "I felt like there wasn't a niche for me there."

Devin's experience logging into Grindr is drastically different now then it was four year ago.  Before, he saw predominantly black and Puerto Rican men of varying ages, late teens to mid forties, and they weren't "chiseled and cute to European standards." He added, "They weren't buff bodies, but they were regular guys from the neighborhood." Devin, who identifies as a man of size, also said that many of these men had no reservations about sleeping with men of varying body types.

But recently, Devin noted, he saw more language on Grindr that said "’no fats, no femmes, no black or Asians, no Latinos,’ in different variations. They weren't all interlocked. It was a very, very big trend, which I actually caught on, lots of exclusion towards black men, or lots of inclusion to only have black men."

The change in hook-up atmosphere has deeply unsettled Devin. He has been asked to speak Spanish when meeting up with people from hookup apps. "I get uncomfortable with it, because…they're fetishizing me for my culture. When it does happen…it's repetitious and annoying."

Though some men have asked him to speak Spanish to them during intercourse, others have actually pushed back against his preference for other men of color. "In my blurb I'd write…, 'Black and Latino men to the front of the line,' so I'd also get apprehension for that. Lots of resistance for that, like, 'Oh, that's racist.’" Devin said these accusations of racism came mostly from older white men.

Giovanni, 38, a lifelong resident of Bushwick, remembers the crawl of gentrification, beginning with old sweatshops and factories being converted into lofts. He remembers when he started to see more gay people and artists moving into the neighborhood, their subway stops getting closer and closer to his at Dekalb Avenue on the L. For Giovanni, the advent of gentrification has been mostly positive:

It would piss me off but at the same time, you know, I realized that I had more options now. As far as restaurants, bars, performance venues…there are all these kinds of things going on that I would venture into the city to find and now I find myself living in Bushwick and having everything available there.

Giovanni downloaded Grindr for a few months in 2012 to find out what his new neighbors were like. "I saw the influx of people coming into the neighborhood and I wanted to connect, I wanted to reach out, I wanted to see who was there and what was up, who was available, and I knew it would be easier that way than going to a restaurant, because it had just started, it was fresh and new," he said.

I don't want my neighborhood to be the next Williambsurg, so gentrified that you can't even… I see that happening… The Maria Hernandez Park, now our district person is trying to get a little area for a dog run, and I'm just like, it pisses me off, because we have other things to work for… We still have other bigger fish to fry.

He discovered that he could not only find new residents on the app, but also neighborhood natives. In his short time on Grindr, Giovanni saw that his profile garnered more interest from white men than from men of color. "Usually white people would hit me up like 'Hey, papi chulo' and I didn't like that at all, I felt like that was a little demeaning … it's like a comment that weighs a lot for me."

When he would push back, Giovanni said white Grindr users would say that it was coming from a good place. He added, "I've always compared it to me being like 'Oh, what's up, white hottie? I don't like you because you're white, but you using 'papi chulo,' it's kind of like saying you only like me because I'm Latino."

Overall, Giovanni says that he's excited by the "newfound energy" and "new vibe" that he feels throughout Bushwick—but he wishes that the neighborhood had always been like that.

IV. A Detour to Washington, D.C.
Like Giovanni, 37-year-old Michael Twitty of Washington, D.C., sees his area changing—but he is sure the change is only for the worse. Twitty, who has lived in D.C. his whole life, has seen the district change immensely. He was quick to remind me that the racial makeup of D.C. was "not like New York—this was straight up colored and white," and that gentrification's original benefactors were upwardly mobile white gay men. Though he said it is largely forgotten, D.C. has a long history of being a mecca for black gay men. "We used to have the largest black gay pride—like national black gay pride—which has withered in the past few years," he said.

Though Twitty is part of the black gay community, he said that he goes so far back in the gay history of Washington, D.C., that he remembers when the lines were more blurred.

My feet always straddled both worlds. I can't claim to be solely of the black gay community in Washington, and I can't claim to be part of the mainstream gay community in Washington, but this I can tell you: D.C. has always been full of black LGBTQ life. We were called the black San Francisco for a reason.

While Twitty pointed out that there were several gay neighborhoods that have suffered from gentrification, he specifically spoke about Southeast Washington. Near the Navy Yard, the area used to be home to some of the neighborhoods biggest gay bars, including Tracks, which closed in 1999, ousted by plans for development. It is now home to the U.S. Department of Transportation's headquarters, as well as Nationals Park, the Washington Nationals' stadium. For Twitty, the violation of the space by governmental and corporate interests was a step backwards for race relations in the district’s gay community.

What people don't realize is that our ability to mix with white people on a dance floor was transformative for both sides of the equation. We had the largest dance floors on the East Coast. These were not small places. These were the original warehouse clubs, honey.

According to Twitty, while the spaces of the past were racially mixed, online hookup spaces can often be based in notions of otherness, and an unwillingness to learn. In order to navigate online spaces, he frequently has to challenge ideas about who he really is. "No, I am not a dumb, black fuck. I am not just a black penis that you're going to relate to," he said. Twitty added that he is most hurt when "white people treat each other like they're full human beings, then Latino and black men as if they're just fantasies." While pre-gentrification dance clubs were spaces to rub shoulders and exchange culture, online spaces offer no such education through friction.

In fact, for many men of color, those who even engage with white men may be "asking" for such treatment. Twitty mentioned that many black men who sleep with white men are often chided by their peers. He's heard black men say to one another, "'You got what you deserve if they don't treat you right. If they don't know how to act, that's what you get for being in their spaces.' I've heard that from people who are leaders, honey, top to bottom. 'That's what you get when you operate with them.'"

V. Uptown, Brown Bodies, and HIV
Gregorio Pablo Arbolay-Rodriguez, Jr., is a New York native currently studying for his Ph.D. He lived in Harlem from 2009 to 2013. When Gregorio first moved into a small, ten-unit building, about half the occupants were people of color. "When I left, every single unit was occupied by young, white professionals," he said.

While Grindr was the first—and is still the most popular—hookup app, many others have since come along to cater to more niche markets. Scruff, for example, is aimed towards men who like scruffier, hairier men, while Growlr is for those who like “bears” (usually heavy set, sometimes hairy men). When Gregorio's relationship opened up and became non-monogamous, he began using these newer hookup apps—but not Grindr.

I didn't really use Grindr as much, just because I feel like that represents a demographic that I'm not sexually interested in. In terms of Growlr or Scruff, I felt like there was definitely a lot of need for code-switching where I was living specifically … I definitely was often subcategorized into these sort of tropes that are often associated with Latino gay men in terms of sexuality, and, like, gender performance.

Code-switching is a performative technique that many marginalized groups employ in order to operate successfully in dominant spaces. For gay men of color looking to hook up, that can mean changing the way they act or dress.

For example, Gregorio told me that when he told potential partners that he was a Latino from the Bronx, he would often have to play up everything that comes along with the stereotype of the "uncut Latino male from the Bronx," including downplaying his education and usual mannerisms. For Gregorio, code-switching was necessary in order to operate on hookup apps in Harlem as a man of color because of white expectations. At times, the code switching would go even further.

"There was quite a few times I was expected to fulfill the role of being this passive, effeminate bottom or this super masculine bear top," he said. He added that he saw a lot of racially coded language on apps that implied a desire to project stereotypes onto men of color. He saw a general preference against Asian men and black men, or general preferences for specific men, like Latinos, Middle Eastern, and black men. "[It was] sort of fetishizing these black and brown bodies," he said.

Towards the end, in 2013, definitely a lot of the conversations I was having were quite racially charged in terms of a lot of these men talking to me specifically because I had this brown, hairy body. A number of them were impressed that this brown person is intelligent and can hold conversations and…that I'm getting my Ph.D.

Like Devin, Gregorio has been asked to speak Spanish during sex. When his hookup found out that Gregorio's Spanish was as barely passable as his own, he was disappointed.

Many white men, he said, were very unwilling and uncomfortable when engaging in conversations about race. Rather, sexual partners who were not men of color were more comfortable discussing whether he had a large, uncut cock, and asking for pictures of his hairy ass. "All these conversations about sex were about, not only just like my specific body type, but my specific body type described by the assumption of what my body would look like, just looking at my face or me giving out my racial background," he said. Greg's story echoes those told me by other men of color; many white men engage an idea, rather than a person.

Gregorio came out to me as HIV positive during our conversation, and wanted to talk about the different ways that white men have reacted to his status. While people of color and white men equally engaged with him sexually after he disclosed that he was HIV positive, white men were less trusting about the particulars of his health. "There was this inherent idea that I'm lying about my status…It was represented by a lot of guys by questions like, 'When was your last test to make sure your viral load is undetectable?'” he said. “I'm not going to go ahead and tell you a specific date."

Gregorio also said that many white men assumed his HIV-positive status prior to engaging with him, even though he did not put in his hookup app profile. And while white men were more apt to ask about his lab results, they were also more willing to have condomless sex. "It was white men who specifically wanted me to go ahead and fuck them without a condom." Without even discussing or disclosing his status, Gregorio said, "There was this initial assumption that I'm positive and that I would be interested in condomless sex with them."

V. Uptown, Brown Bodies, and HIV
One night, when Michael Twitty was out at a gay leather bar in Washington, D.C., an older white man grabbed his genital area, looked him in the eye, and said, "Well, how big does it get, and how many diseases do you have?" According to Twitty, he was being read as “okay, you gotta give me some huge member, some wild sex, and I know that you people are medically compromised, so how big of a risk is it, because I really want to take this walk." To some men, Twitty explained, men of color are a "walking bag of bugs."

Further complicating the relationship between health, gentrification, and gay men of color is the increasing prevalence of meth in gentrifying neighborhoods. Some men I talked to mentioned that in the past few years, they had seen an uptick in the number of men doing crystal meth, which is a popular drug among gay men,[4] though it's spoken of in code. On hookup apps, men signal crystal meth use by writing a word with a capital "T" in it – usually, the word "parTy," a reference to "Tina," a slang term for the drug.

Among gay men, meth use is widely associated with higher rates of HIV and STIs. But it is also associated with euphoric sex—an escape from the dreary reality of having a highly stigmatized sex life.

Devin says that in the past three or four years, he's not only noticed a rise in meth users on hookup apps in his area, he's also noticed that these users have become much more aggressive about asking whether or not he wants to "parTy" with them.

Buck, 50, an HIV-positive black gay man and active crystal meth user, shared that he has noticed many more people of color, especially young men, using meth in Bed Stuy than in the past. When faced with the opportunity to introduce a man in his 20s to meth, he couldn't do it.

I see black guys selling it, younger, early 20s, you know. There's these young gay guys who hit me up online, and I'm always like, “Yo, what's this?” There's like this 22-year-old who's like, “I want to do ‘da da da da,'" and I'm like, I just can't. There's a part of me, like, wouldn't it be delicious to see this whole thing… But it frightened me, it's like I didn't want that on my hands. I'm conscious. You may not believe me, it may sound like all bullshit, but it's a war, it's a fight.

Both Buck and Devin say that though many men of color are willing users, meth has only become more readily available in communities of color in the past few years, as these neighborhoods have changed.

Chaz Brack, a 54-year-old, HIV-positive black gay man who has lived in Clinton Hill for about twenty years, feels the sting of invisibility in his neighborhood after gentrification. According to Brack, there is a "vast wasteland of nothingness between being eroticized and being ignored."

He added, "I just feel invisible, because of my economic situation, and because of being in recovery … I would guess it’s because of gentrification. I live in affordable housing, which is why I’m still here—because the rents have doubled, sometimes tripled over the last ten, twelve years."

In contrast to his encounters with white men, his meetings with men of color would have a warmer, more familial relationship that would become sexual over time. For Chaz, the bond between men of color is more important than that between white men and men of color, even when it comes to hookups. “There’s too much riding on our relationships for it to be casual in the very dismissive kind of way with each other,” he said.

Chaz says that blackness only has to be a part of white men’s worlds if they want it to be, and that choice to see or not see blackness extends to the bedroom. “I live in a world where I have to negotiate whiteness all the time, because I’m a black man. But they don’t live in a place where they even have to look at blackness unless they’re trying to get something."

For Buck, who has lived in Bed Stuy for seven years, "race talk" has come into sexual play before—and it’s always made him uncomfortable. "When [a] white guy felt like he had the liberty to even say, 'give me that black dick' even that felt like…[squirms]. Or even that talk that would be more hood or street language, which is not the language that I use." 

Buck has been hooking up online for over a decade, ever since he first started dating Ralph, a man he met at a sex club. Ralph moved in after three months, and brought his computer with him. For Buck, online hookups were new. "I'd be high and just be like, 'How about that one? How about that one?!' kind of thing.”

While the new world of apps has brought with it a unique set of challenges, Buck is quick to point out that many of the racist tropes we see now in digital spaces are not new, but are being recycled in a new, more intrusive way. On the websites he would use some years ago, he said, "[Some white men] would say clearly, no blacks … [it] would always hit me a certain way. It would hurt, I would be offended," he said. Some talk went further. He added, "Some of the white guys … would be like, 'I want that big n****r dick,'" he said.

Often, white men may not even speak with him. They just lead with pictures of their ass. He said, "[T]hat's just saying, 'You're a black dude and I know you probably have a big dick and you want my ass.''

Both Buck and Chaz expressed a sense that the gentrification of their respective neighborhoods—Bed Stuy and Clinton Hill—had become all too palpable. As we got off the G train at the Bedford-Nostrand stop, Buck said that he had never seen this kind of crowd getting off his train in Bed Stuy. "It's like one day, someone just put out a sign that said 'Move here!'"

Buck said the sexual energy in Bed Stuy is much different than it was before. "The gentrification of Bed Stuy has been a plus for me as far as sex and online hook ups. I feel like, right around here and Bushwick, it's just like BAM! It's there."

But he also added, "I think gentrification has decimated the community in this neighborhood, because it did have the reputation of being quite gay in the 90s and, yeah, I mean, I had so many friends that lived in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill." Chaz also noted the loss of many important organizations and social services in the area, and the loss of the Starlite Lounge, a notable bar for queer men of color.

In addition to feeling pushed out of physical spaces, Chaz also feels unwelcome in digital spaces. He noted that logging in meant seeing very few faces that looked like his. "I like boys of all colors, you know. It was all pretty much very young and very white. So, I'm less interested in that demographic," he said. When I asked him why he didn't feel welcomed, he answered quickly: "Didn't get no hits!"

While gentrification has filled Buck's neighborhood with sexual energy, it has also changed neighborly traditions. He mentioned that in Bed Stuy, there's a much stronger police presence now than there has been in the past. "You begin to think, 'Oh, they're not here to protect me, they're here to protect them,'" he said.

Buck also said that he likes mixed neighborhoods, but that he can't shake the feeling that he is someone who is regarded with suspicion. He also enjoys greeting people, which he says his new neighbors do not do. "It just feels like, 'Okay, we're here, but we're not here to connect with you and become your neighbor.' You're not here to connect with me, even though I've been here all this time," he said. 

Mathew Rodriguez is a queer, Latino, award-winning journalist, editor, and essayist. His work has appeared in Slate, The Advocate and Modern Loss. You can find him on Twitter at @mathewrodriguez.


 

 



[1] “Happy Fifth Birthday, Grindr!" PR Newswire. 25 March 2014.

[2] Glass, Ruth. “Introduction: Aspects of Change.” London: Aspects of Change, ed. Centre for Urban Studies. London: Macgibbon and Gee, 1964. xviii. 27. 

[4] Holas, Nick, “Managing crystal meth: tina and gay men.” Archer. 21 January 2015.