1995 volume 13(2) pages 133 – 157

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Forest B, 1995, "West Hollywood as symbol: the significance of place in the construction of a gay identity" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13(2) 133 – 157

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West Hollywood as symbol: the significance of place in the construction of a gay identity

Benjamin Forest

Received 17 February 1994; in revised form 27 September 1994

Abstract. The 1984 municipal incorporation of West Hollywood, California offers an opportunity to explore two related themes: (1) the role of place in the creation of identity generally, and (2) the role of place in the creation of sexual identity in particular. Work on the second subject has largely concentrated on the political economy of gay territories, although there has been an ongoing concern with the symbolic importance of these places. Although these studies have provided valuable insights on these themes, they do not reflect the renewed concern in human istic geography with the normative importance of place, and the study of morally valued ways of life. These latter topics provide alternative avenues into questions of identity. In the coverage of the incorporation campaign, the gay press presented an idealized image of the city. In defining a new gay identity, the gay press utilized the holistic quality of place to weave together the 'natural' and cultural elements of West Hollywood. This idealized 'gay city' united the place's real and imagined physical attributes with social and personal characteristics of gay men. More simply, the qualities of the city itself expressed intellectual and moral virtues, such that charac terizations of the city became part of a narrative defining the meaning of 'gay'. This new gay male identity included seven elements: creativity, aesthetic sensibility, an orientation toward enter tainment or consumption, progressiveness, responsibility, maturity, and centrality. The effort to create an identity centered on West Hollywood was relatively conservative in the sense that it was not a fundamental challenge to existing social and political systems. Rather, it reflected a strategy based on an ethnicity model, seeking to 'demarginalize' gays and to bring them closer to the symbolic 'center' of US society.

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