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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
How did West Hollywood become so Gay?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Los Angeles has been a town of many firsts for the GLBT community, including, in the 1950s, the first enduring U.S. Gay and Lesbian organizations and publications. West Hollywood, an enclave within L.A., is widely regarded as the world's first Gay city.

Popularly known as "WeHo," West Hollywood is a small city of just 1.9 square miles located in the northwest part of Los Angeles County, surrounded by L.A.'s Hollywood district and the independent city of Beverly Hills.

The land that is now West Hollywood was occupied by the Tongva Indian tribe when Spanish missionaries and ranchers settled the area in the late 18th century. More than 100 years later, the Los Angeles and Pacific Railway was built, and a small town called Sherman grew up around the main rail yard and trolley barns to accommodate the workers.

The people of Sherman declined to be incorporated into the city of Los Angeles. Because the town was outside the jurisdiction of the L.A. Police Department, gambling casinos flourished and alcohol flowed freely during the Prohibition era. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Sunset Strip running along WeHo's northwest border became the "playground of the stars," a major nightlife destination for celebrities of the burgeoning motion picture industry. Nearby, posh apartment complexes housed Hollywood luminaries. One of the most lavish - Lesbian actress Alla Nazimova's Garden of Allah - became infamous for its wild parties. But during World War II, celebrities opted for a more wholesome public image as the country's political climate became more conservative, and the Strip fell out of favor.

During the first half of the 20th century, Gay people also began gravitating to West Hollywood. The area was beyond the reach of the notoriously homophobic L.A.P.D. and convenient for the Gay creative talent working behind the scenes in the film industry. So many Gay men bought and renovated working-class bungalows in the 1960s and 1970s that the area around the Strip became known as the "Swish Alps."

In the 1960s, the Sunset Strip underwent a revival and became a hub of the hippie counterculture with the advent of new music venues such as the Roxy and the Whisky a Go Go. But the Gay social scene centered on Santa Monica Boulevard. A plethora of clubs, restaurants, and boutiques catering to Gay patrons sprang up on the west end of the street, dubbed "Boys Town" (though it also included a long-lived Lesbian bar, The Palms). But not everyone was Gay-friendly. Barney's Beanery, a popular eatery since the 1920s, for decades posted a sign reading "Fagots [sic] Stay Out," the target of numerous protests over the years.

The grittier east end of Santa Monica Boulevard, near the border with Hollywood, became a well-known prostitution stroll frequented by male hustlers and transvestites. In the 1970s, the area was home to cheap motels, massage parlors, and sex shops. A Time magazine article in April 1976 described the stretch as a "a flexible ribbon of smut that expands or contracts according to the apathy or indignation of the surrounding stucco-house neighborhoods." Indeed, there were periodic campaigns to clean up the area, but the illicit activity never completely disappeared.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the city saw an influx of Russian Jewish immigrants. With a large population of renters, residents grew concerned when L.A. County proposed scrapping rent control amid skyrocketing real estate prices. A coalition of Gays, Jews, and seniors organized a grassroots movement to establish a separate city. West Hollywood was incorporated on November 29, 1984, and elected the first-ever city council with a Gay majority and the first openly Lesbian mayor, Valerie Terrigno. The council quickly passed strong rent control and anti-eviction laws and an ordinance banning antiGay discrimination. Terrigno herself removed the "Fagots Keep Out" sign from Barney's Beanery. In 1985, WeHo began offering domestic partnership benefits, becoming the first American city to legally recognize same-sex relationships. But Terrigno resigned later that year after she was charged with embezzling from her former employer, and the scandal divided the Gay community.

While West Hollywood has never had an actual Gay majority, it has perhaps the largest proportion of Gay residents of any city - estimated at around 40 percent of a total population of 39,000 - and is a hub of Queer culture. The Christopher Street West Pride parade and festival, first held in 1970, moved from Los Angeles to West Hollywood in 1979; in 1987 the city started its annual Halloween Carnaval, which attracts half a million revelers. Rainbow flags fly on Santa Monica Boulevard year-round, and even the L.A. County Sheriff vehicles that patrol the city sport a rainbow logo.

While San Francisco's Castro, New York City's West Village, and Chicago's North Halstead area are renowned Gay enclaves in the midst of larger cities, only in West Hollywood are the reins of political power firmly in the hands of the GLBT community.

"In the sixties, many of us - myself included - stood on the outside and shouted epithets," said Steve Schulte, an original WeHo city council member and later mayor. "But one of the really important lessons of the eighties is that Gay and Lesbian people have to run for office and get elected."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.

FOR FURTHER READING:

Faderman, Lillian, and Stuart Timmons. 2006. Gay L.A. (Basic Books).

Gierach, Ryan. 2003. Images of America: West Hollywood (Arcadia Publishers).
 
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