The Gayest Place in America
“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.