By Tyler Trykowski
Could gays of the 1980s imagine what it would be like to be gay in 2013? From the Supreme Court pondering marriage equality to NFL players weighing how best to come out, the way we're gay today is nothing like it's ever been before.
And for that modern gay man, West Hollywood may not be the mecca it once was. Instead, young gays are flocking to Silver Lake and other low-key Eastside neighborhoods.
Frank Rodriguez argues as much: “The gay ghetto is dead,” he declares to me one morning, gesturing at his phone. “This,” he says, “is what's replaced it.”
If anyone would know how being gay has changed today, it's Rodriguez. For nearly 20 years, he has been a force in the Los Angeles Eastside's gay community. He founded Sucker, a gay punk rock club that made waves here in the late 90s, and recently edited a photo book featuring atypical gays called The Company Of Men.
He also wrote BUTT Magazine's Los Angeles Fag Map, a guide to gay culture here for the bold and brave. Its recommendations are primarily on the Eastside.
In waving at his phone, he's suggesting that one reason for that is the rise of dating apps and websites, such as Grindr and its derivatives. They've been accused of ruining everything from gay bars to safe sex – and while that might be hyperbole, it's indisputable that in just a few years, these apps have thoroughly changed old standards for dating in the gay community.
The man who exists in that community, by and large, is free to eschew stereotypes. Like never before, he can be nerdy, hairy, messy, a Dodgers fan, a businessman, a lumberjack. Old stereotypes remain, but realities are blurring faster than ever before.
And while West Hollywood will likely remain L.A.'s gay epicenter, the values it idealizes–youth, a certain body type, glamour–are no longer definitive of the gay experience outside its city limits.
The new gay paradigm, in fact, makes the culture of West Hollywood look obsolete. It wasn't long ago that gay men had to embrace certain cultural hallmarks and modes of socialization to find a place in their community. Now, if you want to be gay, watch football and belch with your friends, look no further than Reddit.com's Gaybros community (or LA's very own Rebellion Rugby Team) to find a place to belong.
Throughout history and beyond all things homosexual, Silver Lake has always been a reaction to the ideals of the Westside. Its culture, style and politics provide a necessary counterweight. And so while toned bodies reign supreme on the pristine streets of WeHo, untamed bars and the East's fringe culture offer a place where pretensions are easily shed.
“Typical” gay bar patrons in Silver Lake are anything but typical. “You could be 50 and get worshipped at the Eagle with no issues,” Rodriguez remarks. As for Akbar, it eschews stereotypes; it's possibly one of the most difficult gay bars to peg in the city. Underground events like The Spotlight make the dance floor of the Abbey look uninspired by comparison: a dance party that takes place in a secret, smoky warehouse, its designer sound system is manned by some of the best house and dance DJs in the city; a neon heart-shaped light over the dance floor provides all the atmosphere the boys need. Indeed, those boys represent a diversity more akin to a United Colors of Benetton ad than Calvin Klein.
The Cha Cha Lounge's Cockfight night provides a loud, dimly lit space to mingle and booze without ostentation, while backyard “leather bar” parties (complete with campfires and kegs) and poolside hirsute-friendly beer busts are common Silver Lake events. Bootie LA at the Echo trumps Tigerheat as a prime place to get your kicks in a more mature setting. A relaxed atmosphere prevails, no matter where you are.
Gay culture on the East Side simply fits more squarely with the changing ideals of gay life today. If you're gay in 2013, you probably surround yourself with more straight people than not, with friends of ethnic, religious and social backgrounds as colorful as WeHo crosswalks.
As for West Hollywood, “The Boulevard has that reputation of being loud,” Carter Bravman, a founder of the community hub Six Gallery, was quoted as saying more than a decade ago. “Women don't want to go down there. It is not women's town, girl's town, or men's town, it is known as 'Boystown' and that is exactly what it is… The average age is probably 23.”
What was true then is stil true now. Looking for a change of pace? Head East, young man. The things you'll find may surprise you.
Tyler Trykowski is an editorial assistant at Playboy Magazine. Follow him on Instagram: @tylertry