Welcome to the gayborhood: once-sleepy blue-collar suburbs are attracting large numbers of gay people with cheaper homes and the promise of safe streets and better schools. And the gays are bringing a strong sense of community.
But the market where they shop isn't in your typical gay ghetto in San Francisco or New York City--far from it. Navetta, 32, and Medeiros, 43, are out and proud at Giant Food in Sterling, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb.
The residents of Loudoun County, where Sterling is, are not known to be gay-friendly. They have repeatedly elected a district supervisor whom a local gay rights group calls "a professional gay-basher." Still, more gay people like Navetta and Medeiros find that in everyday life, suburbanites are dusting off the welcome mat. "Yes, I've been harassed living in the suburbs," Navetta says. "But it's been by my coworkers at [Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in D.C.]. They tease me because I chose to live in Virginia, of all places, which is also off the metro line. But our straight neighbors really do like us. Besides, living out here, we can afford four floors for our cats to run around."
Other gays and lesbians are moving in around Navetta and Medeiros, and they're turning what once was a straight, conservative suburban neighborhood into what some affectionately call a "gayborhood." As growing numbers of gay and lesbian Americans seek affordable roomy houses with a yard, along with safe streets and a good school for their children, they are changing the American suburbs. They're shopping together at big-box stores and dining at local chain restaurants. They're sitting on the boards of the neighborhood associations and public schools, and they're going to parties at their straight neighbors' homes.
It's a widespread movement, but it remains a quiet one, says sociologist Wayne Brekhus. "Mainstream America doesn't see this population on shows like Will & Grace," he says. "Suburban gay people aren't reflected in popular culture yet." Brekhus is the author of Peacocks, Chameleons, Centaurs: Gay Suburbia and the Grammar of Social Identity. When he was researching his book many of the people he interviewed asked, "Why study us? We're dull. You'll have just a page and a half for your book."
Fortunately for Brekhus, he encountered a phenomenon that might seem radical to some conservatives. These gay men didn't feel ostracized by society; they felt perfectly comfortable in the burbs. "They called themselves 'regular Joes' and 'suburban.' They really saw this as a positive, like a sign that they were true mainstream Americans," Brekhus says.
Skyrocketing property prices in traditional urban gay ghettos have been driving many gays and lesbians into the suburbs, says Andy Weiser, one of Coldwell Banker's top sellers in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., market. "We're seeing a lot of the guys who are now a little bit older, who made money selling property they bought cheap in 'Boystown' for a mint," he says. 'hey can buy down here and get change back from their million."
And they're not just buying in Fort Lauderdale's traditional in-town neighborhoods; they house-hunt in Oakland Park and Wilton Manors, one of the nation's most famous suburbs-turned-gayborhoods. There's a large, visible community there with all the trappings--gay bars, gay politicians, and gay businesses.
It may seem hard to believe that gays and lesbians have become so entrenched in a conservative suburb, but it doesn't surprise Weiser. "This area is the most boringly accepting place," he says. "No one gives a good goddamn if you are gay or straight."
And it's not just couples settling down in the suburbs. "When I started selling real estate 20 years ago, gay people chose Chicago's Boystown, but now there are a lot more options, even for younger single people," says Donna Karpavicius, a suburban Chicago agent for Prudential Premier Realty. "My partner and I went to a [gay] potluck in Oak Park the other night. We met all sorts of new young single people making lots of new friends."
Indeed, Oak Park, Ill., has been a perfect example of the evolution of a modern-day "gayborhood," a onetime bedroom community that attracted urban gays with affordable houses and eventually became a suburban gay ghetto. In 1989 a small but active group of gay people started the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association, which successfully worked to add sexual orientation to the village's human rights policy and win village employees domestic-partner benefits. There's even a domestic-partnership registry that village residents voted to approve.
With hundreds of active members, cochairman Brad Bartels says Oak Park's lesbian and gay group is one of the largest organizations in the village. It employs a full-time youth outreach coordinator. It organizes support groups for older women who are just coming out and groups for gay Spanish-speakers. And it hosts art festivals and picnics.
Now that the homes in Oak Park are expensive, and gays and lesbians are moving into surrounding suburbs like Forest Park, Berwyn, or Brookfield--once sleepy blue-collar neighborhoods. In recent years a gay-owned martini bar opened in Brookfield, and nearby Franklin Park is home to one of the largest lesbian bars in the area.
Karpavicius says she moved to Brookfield after learning about it from lesbian residents. The city doesn't yet have Oak Park's organized gay visibility, but it's nearby enough that Karpavicius can drive to Oak Park activities. Lately, though, she says there has been more to do closer to home. Broekfield lesbians have each other over for barbecues, movie nights, and other informal events.
Many gayborhoods begin to form after one gay couple moves into a suburb and others hear about it. That's how contemporary abstract artist MJ Villanueva and his partner, Dennis Lovello, found East Point, Ga. The two had been renting in Atlanta's gay center, the Midtown area, but couldn't afford to buy a house there. A gay realtor introduced Villanueva to gay couples living in East Point. When he saw their charming 1920s bungalows, Villanueva says, he knew they had found a home.
Villanueva, 39, and Lovello, 37, have been surprised at just how gay-friendly East Point is. Gay people serve on the town council and a number of others live on their street. Neighbors, gay and straight, have become more like family--walking one another's dogs, sharing wine from one another's cellars. "Even if our straight neighbors see me walking Kona, our basset hound, alone, they always ask, 'Where's your husband?' No joke," Villanueva says. "Yes, we miss Midtown, but now we have neighbors we love. Living here has really helped me to be out, not just with gay people but with straight people too."
When Richard Quirk, 42, moved into his suburban neighborhood in Southern California 12 years ago, he was the only openly gay resident on his street. "Now there are five gay households in [a three-block] section," he says.
Quirk, an architect whose partner of three years, Paul Ramirez, owns a home nearby, lives in historic Bungalow Heaven, a collection of approximately 1,100 early-20th-century bungalows in the city of Pasadena, about 10 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Pasadena had a reputation for being conservative and "family oriented," Quirk says. But after he landed a great deal on an old Craftsman bungalow, he discovered the neighbors were very friendly to gays.
Now Quirk estimates there are 30 to 40 homes occupied by gays and lesbians in the neighborhood. Several of them, including Quirk, sit on the board of the neighborhood association. They throw parties and invite their straight neighbors, and everyone--gay and straight--congregates at a local Mexican restaurant every Friday night.
The place has become so gay that Quirk is talking about organizing a "gayborhood home tour," a tour geared toward gays that will take them to homes owned by gays. Every year the neighborhood association puts on a tour of historic homes and a number of parties in the neighborhood park. "But a lot of our events are geared to families with kids," Quirk says. "Everything always happens during the day. We need something for us. We may get certain people to come if it's an evening event with a wine reception."
But Bungalow Heaven's gay residents aren't looking to separate themselves from their straight neighbors, Quirk says, just bring something to the suburban mix that only gays might bring. That includes a strong sense of community. "In a lot of ways gay people are a little more outgoing," he says. "I've always been friends with the straight neighbors. And they've got kids who are being raised with us and hopefully growing up to be a little more tolerant."
Jude Medeiros, who lives in what one gay newspaper called the "hate state of Virginia," hopes the kind of informal everyday connections happening between gays and straights in the suburbs will help gay people find acceptance more than any political effort. "I know it may sound lame, but we can make a real difference by being visible in the suburbs," Medeiros says. "Some people who meet me have never met a gay person. But because I'm nice, normal, and funny, maybe they'll think twice about being antigay because they really know me. I'm their neighbor."
Christensen is an investigative producer for CNN. Additional reporting by John Caldwell.
Photo by Elea Dumas