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There Goes the Gayborhood: Seattle’s Shifting Queer Geographies

As development and gentrification sweep in, is Seattle’s gayborhood — Capitol Hill — dying, or just changing?

March 8, 2018

Capitol Hill, widely known since the 1970s as Seattle’s gay neighborhood, is changing. As development and gentrification sweep in, many longtime residents have moved out. But is the gayborhood dying, or just changing?

To newcomers, it may be difficult to imagine that it was ever any different. But Capitol Hill didn’t always have the city’s densest concentration of gay bars.

“In the ‘60s, ‘70s, the bars were down in Pioneer Square,” says Jeff Henness, owner of the Capitol Hill store Doghouse Leathers and former security manager at The Cuff, a popular gay bar. “Then they started moving up the Hill. Real estate on the Hill was cheap — the Boeing Bust.”

Opening of the Capitol Hill Gay Community Center, 1974. Photo courtesy of David Neth.

Plummeting employment at one of the region’s biggest employers meant that housing prices crashed on Capitol Hill. Around 70,000 lost their jobs, and working-class families moved off of Capitol Hill in droves through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Gay bars moved in, and in those spaces LGBTQ people found they could comfortably congregate in a way that was previously impossible.

“There were a lot of gay businesses,” says Shelley Brothers, co-owner of The Wildrose, a lesbian bar.  

“It was very queer then,” agrees her business parter, Martha Manning. “People that worked here lived here, so it was neighborhoody.”

Between 2000 and 2012, Seattle experienced an increase of 52 percent in same-sex couples — but on Capitol Hill, the LGBT population declined by 23 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We have a lot of what everybody would refer to as ‘bros’ out on the Hill,” says Brothers. “A lot of people don’t even know it’s a gay neighborhood.”

Brothers is referring to thousands of young male tech workers, sometimes called “brogrammers,” who have moved into the city core to work for Amazon and other tech companies.

Capitol Hill, looking east from Broadway and Pine.

Manning and Brothers list the less-expensive neighborhoods to which they’ve seen their longtime neighbors move: Columbia City, Beacon Hill, South Park, West Seattle, Burien, Federal Way, Kent.

“You know, quite a few people have moved to Tacoma,” Manning says.

Nathan Adams has been part of that exodus. He and his husband, longtime Capitol Hill residents, have moved to the gritty neighborhood of White Center, and are about to open an LGBTQ-focused bar called The Lumberyard.

People need to have a place that’s safe and comfortable to be queer, or people are hidden, closeted.

“So much of the community has moved south,” he says. “It’s a truly diverse population. That’s what makes White Center truly the next — I don’t want to say gayborhood — but, it's developing its own identity.”

The Capitol Hill gay enclave remained strong through the ‘80s and ‘90s, but in the last decade, the local bars have undergone a process of constant change. So, too, has the clientele that gathers in those spaces.

One of the most recent shifts on the Hill has been the departure of the bar Purr. In its former space, a new establishment called Queer/Bar has opened. Its name — once widely used as a slur — has raised eyebrows. But these days, it’s out with “gay” and in with “queer.”

Queer/Bar on 11th Ave. in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

“The Q in the LGBTQ umbrella is the only one that’s all-encompassing,” says Robbie Turner, entertainment director at Queer/Bar. “We’ve found that the younger generations have zero problem with the name ‘Queer Bar’ because they’ve grown up with the LGBTQIA umbrella. So they’re like, ‘that’s who we are — no biggie.’”

It’s important to maintain an LGBTQ presence under whatever name locals find the most comfortable, Turner says, in part because Capitol Hill’s shifting demographic needs to be reminded who came before. “The tech industry has exploded, which is wonderful,” he says, “but it means we get a flood of people who don’t know and don’t remember what Capitol Hill used to be like.”

And wherever LGBTQ gathering places spring up, the clientele follows, Turner says.

“I think the younger crowd wants entertainment, and fast a pace, and quick drink… And I think the older crowd still sees it as social responsibility, like, ‘Yes, we want to have brunch...but we also … remember what it was like when, if you were too flamboyant, that would turn on you.”

Drag performers sing onstage at Queer/Bar.

Whether they’re newcomers on Capitol Hill or the more dispersed clientele all around the region, ultimately queer customers are looking for the same thing: community.

“People need to have a place that’s safe and comfortable to be queer,” says Manning. “Or people are hidden, closeted.”

“That’s really hard to explain to someone who’s not gay,” says Adams at The Lumberyard. “You take it for granted when you see your neighbors going jogging or walking their dogs. You think that’s just the way life is. But when you’re gay that’s not the way life is. So the gayborhood becomes that.”


David Albright

David is a documentary and video producer based in Seattle. He studied documentary filmmaking at Fairhaven College at Western Washington University and has had his work featured in The National Journal, The Stranger, We and the Color and the National Science Foundation. Through his freelance business, he produces for the Seattle Storm,,, Glassybaby, the W Hotel Seattle, Simon & Schuster and others.

More stories by David Albright

Matt Baume

Matt Baume is a writer, storyteller, and video maker based in Seattle whose work focuses on LGBT issues, nerds, and anything that is strange and wonderful. He is the author of the book Defining Marriage; created the popular podcast The Sewers of Paris; and posts weekly videos about LGBT issues on YouTube. He is currently working on a video project about queer gamers at

More stories by Matt Baume

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The Lumberyard has been open for a few months now - great place!

I live in Texas and sure miss Capital Hill

towtruckhenderson17's picture

Thanks for the post