January 17, 2005 was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Many Americans spent the day remembering how Dr. King worked for equality, and how he cried out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Oddly enough, on the opposite side of the nation, a very different goal is being planned.
Spokane is a city on the eastern side of the state of Washington, and it is notparticularly recognized for its diverse culture. But some residents want that to change. Local business owner Marvin Reguindin envisions a gay district in Spokane, similar to gay districts in San Francisco, or in Seattle on the other side of the state. “We’re talking about an actual physical part of town we would like to establish as a gay district,” Reguindin explained. “It would help youth struggling with their sexuality to realize they don’t have to go away to a big city to be gay. You can be gay right here in Spokane.” This city of 200,000 people already has businesses that cater to gays, an openly gay City Council member, and the Stonewall News Northwest, a gay newspaper. But what Reguindin and others want is a physical neighborhood for gays to congregate.
In any newspaper story worth its salt, there has to be some sort of conflict, and the OregonLive.com article from which I have quoted does not disappoint. Several citizens have voiced their opposition to this idea. Most of the people who disagree do so because of religious reasons. “A gay Mecca is not what we’d like to see Spokane marketed as,” said Penny Lancaster, director of the Community Impact Spokane, a network of evangelical Christians. “I’d rather see us promoted as a conservative, family-oriented community without any reference to sexual orientation.” Bishop Walter Mize of the Christ Holy Sanctified Church worries about the sexual predators and other social ills that tend to plague homosexual areas in the U.S. “Most people don’t know about the underbelly of it,” Mize said. “It’s a culture based upon sex.” Whether you think a gay neighborhood would be a good or bad idea, it’s hard to disagree with Mize’s final statement: gay culture is based upon and almost wholly defined by sexuality.
Personally, I take a pretty libertarian view on this issue. I frankly don’t care what people do in private. I don’t parade my sexuality in public, and I expect others to be similarly circumspect. But I do find the idea of founding a gay neighborhood distressing in the sense that it appears to be a step backward, toward the segregated society of our past. Dr. King struggled peacefully for a tearing down of the barriers that separated black and white people from each other. No longer do people have to sit in the colored section of a bus or restaurant. No more do we need white-only and colored-only drinking fountains. No more do black families, traveling cross-country, have to sleep in their cars because they cannot find a motel that will take them in. We are all Americans, and we should see past the limiting factor of the color of one’s skin and look instead to the content of one’s character. At least that was Dr. King’s vision.
But this vision isn’t shared by the people who, I believe with good intentions, want to foster a gay neighborhood. They are certainly free to establish one, and they are not trying to do it through the ham-fisted force of government; for that I applaud them. “It is our desire to create an environment where diversity and different interests and lifestyles of all types can flourish,” said Tom Reese, an economic development officer for the city of Spokane. He explained that the city government was neither promoting the idea nor standing in opposition to it. The development of such a neighborhood is dependent on independent contractors and developers, and at this point there isn’t a firm idea whether the neighborhood should spring up in an existing part of the city or be created new. This is an issue the developers and the people of Spokane will have to determine.
However, there is one aspect of the story that deeply disturbs me. In an attempt to reveal the economic might of Spokane’s gay populace, the Inland Northwest Business Alliance, an association of gay and gay-friendly businesses, is planning on launching a “visibility campaign.” This campaign is aimed at all city businesses. Business owners will be asked to mount publicly visible signs describing their support for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered populace of Spokane. In return, members of the GLBT community will drop off special cards at such businesses, letting the owners know just how much of their business is due to patronage by the gay community. I object to this campaign because it smacks of financial blackmail. If you, as a business owner, don’t go out of your way to put out the welcome mat for the GLBT community, you must obviously be a bigot and the GLBT crowd will stay away from your shop. But answer me this: if I am a fast-food restaurant owner and you visit my restaurant, what does your sexuality have to do with the burger and fries you just ordered? How does a rainbow sticker on my window make the super-sized Diet Coke you are drinking taste any better?
Spokane business owners will thus be forced to make a decision: should they run the risk of alienating their non-GLBT patrons by putting up the signs, or losing their GLBT visitors if they choose not to display them? This campaign is a passive-aggressive way for the Inland Northwest Business Alliance to demand of all business owners, “We expect you to make a visible choice: us or them. And we will be watching.” In a relatively small city like Spokane, an act of this nature can cause a fairly deep divide–not just between the gay and straight communities, but between those who approve and disapprove of the signs. While this campaign is intended as a way of showing support for the gay community, it will tend to divide more than to unite Spokane’s residents. Quinn’s First Law is in full force.
For centuries, people have gathered into communities based on their similarities. Sometimes these gatherings were forced on people, as with the Jewish ghettos of Europe, but more often than not people will gather of their own free will. Most large cities have sub-communities which spring up this way. San Francisco is known for its gay districts, as well as for Chinatown and other ethnic enclaves. When The Pirate King and I visited San Francisco in October, we drove through areas where the signs were written almost exclusively in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Russian or Spanish. Each was an area where people of similar language and background gathered. Celebrate diversity, right? But diversity for diversity’s sake isn’t automatically a good thing. A metal bar comprised of different layers of metal isn’t very strong, because the different layers can be split off from each other with a well-focused force. But if you mix the metals into an alloy, the bar will be far stronger and harder to break.
It is not our Chinatowns that make America great. America is great because of the second and third generations of Americans who don’t see the need to stay bound to an ethnic enclave forever. America is not great because of its diversity, it is great because of its unity. Thence comes the motto E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.