SPOKANE, Wash. – Gay activists in this staid Washington city are planning to create a neighborhood of gay-oriented homes, businesses and nightlife — a development religious conservatives contend would clash with Spokane's family-centered culture.
"A gay mecca is not what we'd like to see Spokane marketed as," said Penny Lancaster, director of Community Impact Spokane (search), a network of evangelical Christians. "I'd rather see us promoted as a conservative, family-oriented community without any reference to sexual orientation."
But proponents of the plan say a gay district would signal that Spokane is tolerant and progressive.
"There is a very large gay population here," said Bonnie Aspen, a business owner who arrived with her partner two years ago to escape the congestion of the San Francisco Bay (search) area.
Spokane — which in trendy Seattle is shorthand for tragically unhip — has long been dominated by conservative politics that stem from its history as a mining and farming center. But it also has a large core of Democrats and libertarians who share the West's live-and-let-live philosophy.
Most of all, the city identifies itself as a good place to raise a family — and opponents contend that's at odds with the image of a gay district.
The idea for the district has roots in the theories of Richard Florida, an economist whose 2002 book "The Rise of the Creative Class" contends the economy of the future will be created by the 38 million workers who toil in creative industries.
Florida, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, said members of the creative class consider recreation, culture and ethnic diversity, including a large population of gays, as central to where they live. Places like New York, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle have those qualities. Places like Spokane generally do not.
Even though they face little discrimination, gays stay under the radar in Spokane, said Aspen, a member of the Inland Northwest Business Alliance, an association of gay and gay-friendly businesses that is pushing the idea.
"Visibility equals freedom," Aspen said. "Invisibility we have dealt with all our life."
She predicted a gay district will exist within the next year or two.
With about 200,000 residents, Spokane has little history of gay activism, other than an effort a few years ago that added homosexuals as a protected class to its human rights ordinance.
Tom Reese, an economic development officer for Spokane, said city government is not exactly pushing the notion of a gay district, but they don't oppose it either.
"It is our desire to create an environment where diversity and different interests and lifestyles of all types can flourish," Reese said.
No public funds will be used to create the district, which is dependent on developers, Aspen said. No location has been announced.
Spokane already has a gay newspaper, Stonewall News Northwest, and some businesses that cater to gay residents. It has had an openly gay member of the City Council.
But creating a district is still important, said Marvin Reguindin, owner of a Spokane graphic design firm.
"It would help youth struggling with their sexuality to realize they don't have to go away to a big city to be gay. You can be gay right here in Spokane," he said.