Hillcrest is San Diego’s gay neighborhood, right? Think again: For women, not so much.

Census data suggests that if you live in the little East County town of Alpine, you’re just as likely to have an unmarried lesbian couple living next door as in Hillcrest. And Alpine has plenty of company on the list of unexpected local communities where lesbians seem to be more common than in the county as a whole.

When the census data is mapped, you can see a divide that may surprise those who assume Hillcrest is the local gay mecca: Lesbian couples are much more widely distributed around the county than their gay male counterparts, who tend to cluster in and around the progressive haven of Hillcrest.

This gap is familiar to researchers, though. Gay men tend to prefer living in hip urban centers, while lesbians — who are more likely to have kids and therefore less money — are less concentrated in “gayborhoods.”

As San Diego’s Pride Weekend begins, here is more on what the census numbers reveal and why anyone other than real-estate agents should care where gay couples and families like to live.

Why does it matter where gay people live?

For one thing, it affects politics — the heavy LGBT presence in San Diego’s Council District 3 gives the gay community a larger voice in city politics. The district has been represented by gay politicians on the Council since 1993 — two women and two men. If a “gayborhood” like Hillcrest becomes more straight, as seems to be happening to gay neighborhoods in some major cities, it can affect the local political power structure.

Gay geography also reflects the progress — or lack of it — that the LGBT community is making in American society. “You have to consider the extent to which where gay men and lesbians live is a free choice,” said Amy Spring, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. “Some may want to live out of the gayborhood, but housing discrimination or fear of not being socially accepted may restrict their other options. Similarly, some may want to live in the gayborhood but have been pushed out through gentrification. I have heard examples of both in my research and writing.”

Where do lesbian couples live in San Diego?

To figure out the answer, I used a service called Census Reporter to create a map based on census data. It shows the ZIP codes in San Diego County and highlights the ones with the highest percentages of unmarried same-sex female couples based on census estimates from 2010-2015.

The highlighted ZIP codes are the ones with the highest percentages of these couples. The hottest spots — the darkest ZIP codes — are the gay-friendly Mid-City San Diego ZIP codes of 92116 (Normal Heights), 92103 (Hillcrest) and 92104 (North Park) and 91901 (the East County town of Alpine). The census estimates that a bit more than 1 percent of households in all these zip codes are unmarried same-sex female couples.

That doesn’t seem like a lot, just 1 in 100. But it’s much higher than the percentage of these couples in the county as a whole (0.1 percent).

Alpine, by the way, is no progressive utopia. It went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the last presidential election, while some Mid-City neighborhoods gave more than 80 percent of their vote to Hillary Clinton. Still, the census thinks Alpine is home to dozens of lesbian couples.

Another way to look at census data is to analyze how many of these couples live in individual census tracts, which are much smaller than ZIP codes and provide a very local view of who lives where. Countywide, the top two census tracts with the highest percentages of unmarried lesbian couples are in an area of northern North Park (3 percent of households or about 86 couples) and an area of southern North Park (also 3 percent of households, about 78 couples). You can find other clusters of lesbian couples in chunks of communities like Vista, Escondido, Imperial Beach, Rancho Peñasquitos, El Cajon, Julian and more.

Click here to find an interactive version of the map that allows you to zoom in and click on individual ZIP codes to see the data that the census has collected about unmarried female same-sex couples. If you’d like to poke around by census tract, click here.

So do Alpine and Hillcrest have the same number of lesbian couples?

No. We’re talking percentages, not actual numbers. The census estimates the Hillcrest ZIP code, 92103, is home to 195 unmarried female same-sex couples, while the less-populous Alpine ZIP code, 91901, has about 73.

But the entire county is estimated to have 1,425 of these couples, so 73 is a lot for one little community out on the I-8 that lots of people couldn’t find on a map.

Where do gay couples live in San Diego?

Gay men appear to be much more concentrated than lesbians. The hot spots are in and around Hillcrest, the longtime (and male-oriented) center of San Diego gay life: 4 percent of households in 92103 (Hillcrest) are estimated to be unmarried gay male couples and 2 percent of households in 92104 (North Park) are.

As for census tracts, a whopping 10 percent of all households in census tract 60 — in Bankers Hill, west of the northwest corner of Balboa Park — are same-sex male couples, about 202 of them. There are few census tracts outside Mid-City that have high percentages of these couples. (In the county as a whole, just 0.3 percent of households, roughly 3,270, are unmarried gay male couples.)

Click here for an interactive map that you can explore yourself. Click on your ZIP code and you’ll see how many of these couples the census thinks live around you. Wanna get more granular? Try this map that explores these numbers by census tract.

Why are the patterns so different for gay men and women?

It’s not unusual in the United States for gay men to cluster in urban areas — in “gayborhoods” like Hillcrest — and lesbians to be less concentrated. “Coupled women tend to live in less urban areas, while men opt for bigger cities,” said Amin Ghaziani, author of the 2014 book “There Goes the Gayborhood?” “Traditional gayborhoods consist of more single-occupancy apartments at relatively high rents, but lesbian households seek the reverse: lower-rent, more family-oriented units.”

Researchers point out that lesbians are more likely to have families than gay men and tend to be poorer. Also, “some lesbians reject gayborhoods because they find them unwelcoming,” said Ghaziani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. “Gay men are still men, after all, and they are not exempt from the sexism that characterizes all men, gay and straight alike.”

How accurate is all this?

These maps are only rough estimates of where gay people live.

Keep in mind that we’re only looking at census data about people who were willing to describe themselves as unmarried same-sex couples from 2010-2015. (While the census is now tracking married same-sex couples, that information isn’t available to be mapped yet.)

Even so, “this is still the best national data we have on same-sex partners,” said Spring, the Georgia State University professor. “For researchers like me who study the geography of same-sex partners, it really is the only data we have, and we have to work with its weaknesses.”

What’s the deal with Hillcrest?

Hillcrest is a kind of homeland for San Diego gays. But while Hillcrest’s been the center of gay San Diego for about half a century, the local gay community dates even further back.

World War II brought both gay men and lesbians to cities like San Diego, New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They often stayed after the war.

By the mid-1960s, Hillcrest was full of elderly people and had plenty of dilapidated homes, making it a perfect neighborhood for gentrification to take root. As the seniors moved out or died off, gays moved in and fix up the older homes. Gay bars began to pop up, led by the landmark Brass Rail, which relocated from downtown. By the late 1970s, The San Diego Union recognized Hillcrest as a gay-friendly neighborhood.

Neighborhood like Hillcrest still have value even as LGBT people are more accepted, said Ghaziani, the professor and author.

“Gayborhoods allow gays and lesbians to find one another for friendship and fellowship, sex, dating, and love, despite the ascendance of dating apps,” he said. “They can create unique cultures, political perspectives, organizations and businesses, families and rituals. These urban areas thus stand on guard against a problem of preserving our history. They help us answer the question, ‘Who are my people?’ and they offer a renewed sense of our roots.”

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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