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West Hollywood: An LGBT history

A man carries a rainbow flag and whistle at the LA Pride Parade on June 8, 2014 in West Hollywood, California.
A man carries a rainbow flag and whistle at the LA Pride Parade on June 8, 2014 in West Hollywood, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Nestled between Beverly Hills and Hollywood and covering an area of only about two square miles, West Hollywood is home to more than 34 thousand people.

More than a third of the population identifies as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender and coming up this weekend, as it has done for 47 years, WeHo will host the Pride Parade and Festival.

The little city has played an oversized role in history in the gay community. Karen Tongson knows a lot about that rich heritage. She teaches gender studies at USC, and when she stopped by Take Two, she told A Martinez all about the early history of West Hollywood, what sets it apart from other L.A. cities when it comes to LGBT history and more.


"In the beginning, this part of town was welcoming to people of all communities, LGBT communities in particular, because West Hollywood was unincorporated into the city of LA particularly in the '20s...

It mattered a lot because that meant that the LAPD was not policing that particular area of town and so gambling houses, entertainment zones, basically licentious entertainment zones began to grow in that area. As with most LGBT communities or hubs around the world, people felt very comfortable gathering in places that featured licentious entertainments. So, red light districts, etc. And so that helped cultivate a community in that region."

When it comes to the rest of the LGBT community, how diverse or inclusive West Hollywood has been? Outside of gay men?

"It's been a very a difficult challenge throughout the history of West Hollywood to acknowledge and incorporate diverse communities. People always talk about "Jewel's Catch One" that was a black gay disco, as existing in West Hollywood. If you look at the map, it exists way far south of the part of West Hollywood that is commonly known as the gay mecca or gay capital of L.A. And Jewel had to build this bar and club for particularly African-American lesbians because as a woman and as a black woman, she did not feel welcome in a lot of the entertainment spaces in the city."

People watch the 2016 Pride parade in West Hollywood, CA.
People watch the 2016 Pride parade in West Hollywood, CA.
Photograph by Erika Aguilar / KPCC

Why does WeHo set itself apart from other L.A. gay spots?

"I think that one of the ways WeHo accomplished that was that it was one of the earliest places that people cultivated and developed gay businesses and where there are businesses there are bureaucracies and there are city and state support and from the rise of certain gay businesses came then a need to have a city council that addressed the concerns, a chamber of commerce. So these bureaucracies built themselves up in West Hollywood in a way that they didn't necessarily in neighborhoods that were more mixed in general or featured businesses from other communities.

Is West Hollywood still the center for gay culture in Los Angeles?

"I think it has always represented itself as such and I think that gay culture in Los Angeles has always been more disparate than that. When I was in college in UCLA in the early to mid-'90s, I also thought the same thing about West Hollywood, and you know UCLA is pretty close by, so I would try to go out there and find my gay community. My lesbian community and while there were a couple places I could go to in West Hollywood, I found myself trekking out to Long Beach to hang out because that's where all the women were. These separations always sort of happen in different scenes, and I think the last lesbian bar in West Hollywood finally closed like five years ago, or maybe three or four years ago...

It's symbolic. I think that it is the symbolic, the representational center, that's where people gather to celebrate PRIDE, that's where all the big rainbow flags are, that's where some important archives and galleries are, that's where some flashy gay businesses are and if you don't know anything and you're just new, and you're just coming out in Southern California, you'll find yourself there. And from there you'll find yourself in other communities and other scenes that may be more amenable to who you are and how you identify as an LGBT person."

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