Why is Gentrification so Gay?

By Dana Collins

What exactly does “gay” have to do with gentrification? Looking at a case study of gay urban community in a global South city of Manila, the Philippines, this article looks at how gay community is both part of neoliberal urban development and resists it on the most intimate of levels.

Is there a role that gay men play in shaping the gentrification of urban neighbourhoods? Some claim that gay men are like a “canary in the mine”, forewarning the massive class transformation of the hood, replacing families (who have often lived there for generations), local cultures and businesses, with a cosmopolitan professional class that has a penchant for lifestyle consumption. Gentrification is only possible because of globalisation where we witness the onslaught of neoliberal commodity culture taking over urban spaces. Gay-led gentrification is when gay men, both economically and stylistically, lead the reinvestment into neighbourhoods that have, over a period time, experienced both political and economic disinvestment. Gay men move into economically depressed areas that have character to their eyes, and reinvest through stylised home renovations and cottage industry business development. Yet gentrification is complicated; it is not solely a process of economic disinvestment and reinvestment in urban space. When we scratch beneath the surface, we are encouraged to explore what sexuality has to do with globalised urban development patterns that are making their mark on cities worldwide.

Over thirteen years I studied the gay urban community in the Malate District, in the City of Manila, the Philippines. My focus has been different than other studies of Metropolitan Manila that look at this rapidly urbanising National Capital Region (NCR) as an overbearing, crushingly unequal, global South city. I wanted to understand why it was that gay men turned away from these global forces and rather followed, and acted upon, their experience of city space in meaningful, intimate, and connected ways. In other words, Malate’s story illustrates what “gay” has to do with gentrification because gay men countered the homogenising forces of neoliberal globalisation by applying distinct meanings of “gay” to the urban locales in which they lived, worked, and played. Their meanings were literally worked into the redevelopment of the neighbourhood.

The “gaybourhood” globally is both a site of co-optation and resistance, and therefore it is a key site for struggle over neoliberalism. Gay urban spaces are deeply performative, and what this means is that gay men performatively create the meanings of an urban space, and therefore these spaces tend to be generative of gay men’s desire, identity, and community, and are often associated with experiences of sexual freedom and irreverence. This is what ultimately becomes the colourful neighbourhood that is such a huge part of the gay imaginary. Yet with gentrification, this playful sexual space begins to be policed (and co-opted) because of a hope on the part of entrepreneurs and typically city hall that there will be a narrowing of sexual community into a profitable consumer enclave, where freeing expressions of sexuality are discouraged. This is the moment when certain racialised and classed gay men are marginalised from the gaybourhood. I’ve used a concept – intimate neoliberalism – to show how the spaces of neoliberal globalisation, such as a gentrifying neighbourhood like Malate, produce new controls over gay men that manifest in intimate ways. Yet at the same time, the gay men who made gay community employed intimacy as a way to struggle over these controls. When you look worldwide, gay community is made through the neoliberal relations of tourism, global urbanisation, and gay consumerism; these offer both economic fuel and a late capitalist ethos of individualism and consumerism that are so apparent in the gaybourhood. But gay community is also a reimagined connection to a place that sexual Others claim, and sometimes in the face of violence that gay men experience elsewhere. Intimacy shows the deep penetration of neoliberal control into gay men’s desire, identity, and lifestyle. It is also how gay men use intimacy – in the form of desire, identity, and relationships – to resist the alienating forces of neoliberal globalisation. These practices of intimate resistance, including key rejections of the global commoditisation of urban space and identity, were very much a part of the making of Malate’s gay urban community.

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Gaybourhood History 101

Malate already had a global history: (1) It’s a former-sex and current tourist district; (2) it’s a neighbourhood made up of a history of global mobility – militaries, tourists, and Filipino overseas contract workers; (3) it’s a neighbourhood where historical conservation efforts battle with urbanisation, like high-rise condo and mall developments; and (4) it’s an arts, entertainment, and bohemian district influenced by the bohemian urbanism of European and US cities. It’s the perfect case study of how gay mattered to gentrification. Malate was an internationally renowned sex tourist district until the early 1990’s when then Mayor Lim shut down the foreign-catering sex tourism industry as part of a wider national concern over making Philippine tourism more wholesome. He (and subsequent city Mayors) used urban renewal projects to erase Manila’s sexual spaces that had arisen with sex tourism. How did they do this? They enforced sex work’s illegality, closed down sex establishments, and they invested in urban renewal that promoted a more respectable urban space. In place of strip clubs, for example, their projects supported condo development, flower and souvenir stalls, neighbourhood lighting projects, and a bay front redevelopment project where, for example, the statue of a Filipino family (father, mother, child, dog) was erected over the very place where just ten years prior male sex workers and gay men cruised one another for anonymous sex. This city-directed urban renewal attempted to cover up the sex industry, which is one neoliberal relation, through investing in another neoliberal relation of mall and condo construction, and by revamping a Bay Walk from a gay sex cruising site into a more wholesome tourist site.

The “gaybourhood” globally is both a site of co-optation and resistance, and therefore it is a key site for struggle over neoliberalism.

Gay business owners however rejected these efforts by city government because they saw them as too mass commercial – they viewed condo and mall development as ruining the unique sense of place in this potential gaybourhood. They responded by working for another neoliberal reinvestment – renewing Malate into a cosmopolitan gay neighbourhood that catered to Western consumer lifestyle. So gay entrepreneurs moved into this economically depressed district and opened their stylised cafés, restaurants, bars, and lifestyle stores. They made their homes there as well, forgoing setting up house behind the walled residential districts in Makati, Manila’s much wealthier financial district. And contrary to city government’s approach, gay entrepreneurs did not want to erase Malate’s sexuality – Malate’s gay and sexual history is what drew gay men there in the first place – but rather they wanted to give it a face lift. They wanted to change Malate from a sex district into a gay consumer enclave.

City government and gay entrepreneurs did agree on one thing – they viewed sex workers as a class threat to Malate’s transition into a consumer enclave. While city government drew from policing to deter sex work, gay entrepreneurs used economic deterrents to exclude sex workers and working class gays – they imposed door charges, dress codes, and drink purchase minimums, for example. But why? Gentrification always involves displacement, and the presence of gay men who were not a professional class was an uncomfortable reminder that gentrified gay spaces could easily slip back into commercial sex spaces if sex workers and consumers were to again dominate. These two parts of gentrification (city directed and gay entrepreneurial) worked together to narrow the focus on who made an appropriate patron of Malate’s emerging gay neighbourhood. The new appropriate patron became gay men who could afford to emulate a Western-style gay-identification, participate in lifestyle consumerism, and who had the cultural knowledge of gay neighbourhoods globally. Malate’s gentrification therefore created new terms of inclusion and exclusion that relied on gay men’s race, class, and national position. As one of my interviewees claimed: “If you’re white, you can dress however you like. But if you’re young, Filipino, and you simply walk around Malate with a white person, no matter how nicely you dress, you are automatically assumed to be a prostitute.”


Just Another Day in the Gaybourhood

The opposite side to these new neoliberal urban controls is how one group of gay men used intimacy to resist being alienated from a neighbourhood, which they also claimed as their own. Gay hosts – who are working class, Filipino and gay-identified men, who work, informally, as paid sexual companions and tour guides to international gay tourists – resisted defining their work as sex work, claimed Malate’s gay spaces as their gay space, and formed gay community despite their marginalisation during its gentrification. Hosts worked within the neoliberal relations of tourism, offering paid companionship to tourists. But they also worked at not commodifying their relations with tourists. Rather they built what they described as desirable connections through hospitality. José’s claim gets at a common emphasis that all hosts made about hospitality: “Normally it’s like if I go with someone, it’s mostly like for fun than for the money…and I like to travel… If I buy my own ticket, it’s going to cost me, but if someone’s going to take me there…‘it’s free’ and I get money and I get sex. Oh it’s the whole package.” When hosts explained hospitality to me they often distanced it from work by emphasising what they gained from these intimate relations. Hosts did rely on the income they earned – they support extended family, one another, and they wanted to return to Malate to take part in its consumerism. But their experience of hospitality as not work and as desirable shows their struggle with neoliberal controls – they use love and desire to reimagine their tourism work and to make it more meaningful. They have purpose (and economic support) in the gaybourhood through their tourism work.

This is where the public (rather than neoliberal) of Malate’s urban space had won out for hosts – Malate in their eyes facilitated desire and encouraged sexual and gender freedoms.

Despite their own self-definitions as gay men who simply participate in the gay nightlife of Malate, the police and gay entrepreneurs regularly targeted hosts as sex workers. How did they respond? Hosts regularly claimed Malate as their gay neighbourhood, and often used its gay spaces to develop their identities as urban gay men, for sexual exploration, and to meet tourists for hospitality. In other words, they stayed, and used the gaybourhood much like gay men use urban spaces worldwide. Most hosts had migrated to Manila to earn more income. But within Malate’s gay spaces they claimed to have been transformed – they had “found themselves” as gay men. This is where the public (rather than neoliberal) of Malate’s urban space had won out for hosts – Malate in their eyes facilitated desire and encouraged sexual and gender freedoms such as dressing in drag in the streets, expressing a range of gay masculinities and femininities, and experiencing sexuality in the streets, such as at street parties, gay pride celebrations, and in the everyday promenade along Malate’s city blocks when they tried to meet tourists. Hosts often claimed that the district literally “brings gay men Out” in both senses of the word. Some even claimed that Malate allowed one to both imagine and perform becoming a different kind of gay man, which was not possible in the provinces where hosts grew up – “It’s a gay area. Malate is the centre of the gay people…and comparing to other places only in Malate where you can hang out and relax and having fun…You can really express your feelings as you being a gay, it’s the only place where you can express your real feelings and you can show off to them who you really are…There’s the girlie girlie looking (gays), there’s the macho men that is gay, and they don’t mind kissing each other in Malate.” So despite the narrowing of gay life within neoliberal consumer culture, hosts became gay men through, to a degree, freeing public performances where they experienced being gay as they had always imagined it to be. The lesson here is that gaybourhoods do not simply make gay men into consumer copies of one another, but rather, they are sites of struggle where hosts (and others) work to make meaningful identity, work, and community. Gentrification is co-opting and shaping gay spaces worldwide. But it’s also important to follow the meanings, actions, and desires of workers from below, and their contributions to the gaybourhood. These loving and desirable acts also make gay urban space what it is, and they offer insight into the cracks that are an inevitable part of neoliberal globalisation.

Featured image: Intersection of Nakpil St. and Orosa St. in Malate, Manila, Philippines.


About the Author

Dana Collins is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton. She is author of The Rise and Fall of an Urban Sexual Community: Malate (dis)Placed, and she has published widely on her research in Manila. Her future research lies in the areas of “crisis” studies and food justice in the Philippines.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.


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