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Silver Lake removes last traffic signs of its anti-gay past

Los Angeles city councilmember Nithya Raman, left, talks with AT Center Board President Korey Wyatt (he/they).
Los Angeles City Councilmember Nithya Raman, left, talks with AT Center Board President Korey Wyatt after the removal of anti-gay signs first put up in the 1990s to discourage men from cruising in the Silver Lake neighborhood.
(Liz Hartwell)
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At first glance, the signs are innocuous, simply directing traffic on the road. But longtime queer residents of Silver Lake knew they were a symbol of the neighborhood’s darker past.

Messages like “No cruising. No U-turns. Midnight to 6 am” were posted around the neighborhood in 1997, with the intent to curb gay men from roaming the streets to hook up.

For years the signs remained, even as the city’s leadership changed and the community grew — until this week. In a celebration with LGBTQ+ community members, District 4 Councilmember Nithya Raman and District 13 Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez retired the signs on Monday.

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“Los Angeles has a rich history of welcoming the LGBTQIA+ community, but there has also been real and present homophobia— which at times has been inscribed into the city’s physical spaces, as with these no-U-turn signs,” Raman said in a statement.

In the late 90s, when the internet was new and gay dating apps such as Grindr did not exist, queer men sometimes relied on printed guidebooks that listed public areas where they could find love, sex and community without outing themselves.

Among those areas was West Hollywood, where anti-gay traffic signs similar to the ones removed Monday were installed in 1991 and later removed — and Griffith Park Boulevard in Silver Lake, where Soto-Martinez and Raman’s districts now meet. The area is also where more than half a dozen bars, all within a 2-mile radius, serve a thriving queer clientele between East Hollywood and Silver Lake.

For some who attended Monday’s event, held at the AT Center that provides alcoholism recovery resources, Silver Lake’s homophobic past came as a surprise, particularly because the neighborhood was simultaneously a stronghold of queer resistance and resilience.

The Black Cat, less than half a mile from where the signs were posted, was the site of one of the largest public LGBTQ+ rights protests in 1967 — two years before the famed Stonewall riots.

“I was unaware of those signs and never would have found [them],” said Pickle, West Hollywood’s inaugural drag queen laureate, who performed at the removal ceremony. The signs were an “insidious” form of discrimination that he and others simply “didn’t have any context for,” Pickle said.

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The first “No Cruising” signs were taken down in 2011 after a vote by the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. But the remaining “No U-turn” and time restriction ones were left standing and nearly forgotten in their historical context until resident Donovan Daughtry raised the issue after hearing a podcast episode on the neighborhood’s queer history, according to the council members.

Looking back, past complaints about the area should be viewed with nuance, said Albert LeBarron, co-owner of another local gay bar, Akbar.

“People driving around at night with the radios playing Madonna was probably not conducive to a quiet neighborhood like Silver Lake,” and the rowdiness inside the bars sometimes spilled outside, he said. “But in all honesty, a lot of us are people walking or driving or kind of hanging out because they had nowhere else to go.”

Back then, areas like Silver Lake weren’t just for partying and finding partners, said Maebe A. Girl, a Silver Lake Neighborhood Council representative and the first drag queen elected to public office in the United States. They said the neighborhoods were a “safe haven” for people to freely express themselves. But stereotypes about roving, hypersexual gay men fed into the criminalization of queer spaces, and the city ordinance that restricted drivers from passing through the same area twice within six hours between midnight and 6 a.m. gave law enforcement an excuse to profile and harass people they suspected were looking for sexual partners.

The police “raided every weekend,” LeBarron said. The 55-year-old has lived in East Hollywood for the last 20 years and remembers when a person’s life could be ruined by simply showing their face in a gay establishment.

“They would take a picture of you and they would send it, and you would be fired,” LaBarron said. “So a lot of people couldn’t even have the option of going into a bar for fear of losing their livelihood.”

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For community members such as Girl and Pickle, the removal of the signs this week was a small but nonetheless important win for the LGBTQ+ community. But with that said, they were concerned with issues including gentrification and the pandemic that continue to put pressure on the community and its businesses.

“I would completely agree that we need to do more to protect these spaces,” Soto-Martinez said. “It’s not just unique to Los Angeles. ... We’re all sort of facing the same very serious challenges.”

“We are living in an era where there are, annually, hundreds of bills being introduced discriminating against transgender people,” said Girl, who is nonbinary. The Trans Legislation Tracker has recorded 597 bills that are under consideration at the state level across the country, which is part of the reason Girl aims to be a fixture in local politics. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. And queer people are very much on the menu right now,” they said.

Pickle, who is part of the newly established LGBTQ+ commission in Los Angeles County, is hopeful that these public displays of support can invite further discussion on how to protect LQBTQ+ spaces.

“If we can get that sign taken down, maybe we can implement more change. ... It’s both completely symbolic and an entry point for real material action.”

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