Finding Support: Living in Areas Without a Strong Gay and Lesbian Presence

Gay and lesbian residents offer advice on how to live in areas without a strong LGBTQ community.

Coming out of the closet is a rite of passage that can be difficult, emotional and even scary. Coming out of your own house shouldn't be.

It seems so 20th century, but while much of the country has accepted and even embraced the idea that gays and lesbians are just as normal (or crazy) as their straight counterparts, plenty of prejudice remains.

Ronica Black, 34 and an author of lesbian fiction, recently rediscovered that, not that she needed reminding. As she says of her middle class neighborhood in Glendale, Ariz., "Our cul-de-sac isn't necessarily unfriendly, but it is clear that we are the 'outsiders' and the 'queers,'" says Black, who lives with her partner and her partner's three children. "The families surrounding us are very religious and very boisterous right wing Republicans ... They are all friends and their children — two families have five to six kids each — rule the cul-de-sac. We aren't waved at. We aren't spoken to."

But a few weeks ago, says Black, "I had just returned from the doctor's office with walking pneumonia, and my partner greeted me in the driveway with a long hug, along with my mother, who had swung by to see me. The woman across the street stood up from her lawn chair, called in her five kids, and they went inside as if we were having some sort of weird threesome on our driveway."

Fortunately, Black can laugh about it, but what if you can't? What if you feel those prying eyes and cold stares and take it personally? What if you don't feel welcome in your own neighborhood and moving isn't much of an option? What do you do?

These are all good questions without easy answers. In fact, the only answer may be that there is no one answer. As with a lot of situations in life, you simply have to roll out some ideas and strategies, hoping that something will work.

Not every pleasant-looking neighborhood is welcoming of the LGBTQ community. 

#1: Network, network, network

For those following the news in 2000, you may well remember that in California, Proposition 22 was about as divisive a law as they come. The public was asked to vote for Proposition 22, which stated that marriages in California could only occur between opposite-sex couples.

Up until that moment, Dawn Rickabaugh, now 46 and a real estate consultant in Temple City, Calif., had felt pretty accepted among her neighbors until Proposition 22. She and her life partner, Terese Nielsen, 44, a freelance illustrator, with four kids between them, had both left their husbands several years earlier, and the exit had not been pretty. They were ex-communicated from the Mormon church, and understandably, neither husband was initially happy to learn their spouse was a lesbian. But time didn't heal their wounds, and their spouses didn't come around. If anything, their "pain and rage," as Rickabaugh describes it, deepened.

But at least Rickabaugh and Nielsen felt safe and some sense of normalcy in their home. That is, until suddenly all of these Proposition 22 signs began popping up on every other lawn. Whether it was intended or not, the signs, says Rickabaugh, "seemed to say, 'you're not a part of us, you're not safe here, we don't want you.'"

And, indeed, during that period, someone in an enormous truck came to Rickabaugh's house and "mowed over our garbage cans one night, making a horrible noise and mess, including broken glass everywhere. It was disorienting."

Proposition 22 was eventually overturned by the state courts, and in its place came Proposition 8, stating that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California," but by the time that rolled around in 2008, Rickabaugh and Nielsen didn't feel as uncomfortable in their neighborhood. Some of that may have been "because we're more confident and secure in our life space," acknowledges Rickabaugh, but it was also because by then, the women had firmly established themselves in their community. They knew they weren't accepted everywhere, but there was no doubt that they had allies.

For instance, they've always volunteered in their children's classrooms. In the 16 years they've been together and raising their four kids, who are 17, 18 and 20, only one homophobic teacher asked them not to, but otherwise, the teachers have always appreciated the help.

Simply getting out there and getting to know people has helped them when they've needed it. For instance, several years after the split, the couple said their husbands stormed their children's elementary school and began making a scene. The principal was extremely supportive, and it had to have helped that the administrator had gotten to know Rickabaugh and Nielsen over the years. The principal looked disapprovingly at the dads and said: "Guys, how long has this been?" They mumbled something about it being six or eight years after the split, and the principal, before sending them on their way, made it clear her allegiance was with the moms, telling the dads: "C'mon, guys, you need to get over this."

Dawn Rickabaugh and Terese Nielsen volunteered in their four children's classrooms to get to know other parents. 

#2: Embrace the role of ambassador

Networking is also a suggestion of Steven Petrow's. The North Carolina-based journalist writes extensively about etiquette and manners, particularly for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) market. He is the manners columnist for The Huffington Post, a syndicated newspaper columnist and author of Steven Petrow's Gay & Lesbian Manners: LGBT advice for dating, sex, coming out, marriage and all the rest (Workman).

Petrow says that he and his partner often throw housewarmings for neighbors, whether they're gay or straight, and he points out that interacting with straight people is often the only way barriers can be broken.

"A lot of times, straight people haven't met gay people who are out," says Petrow. "It's a new situation for them, and what may seem to some gay people as a lack of a warm embrace may just be some hesitancy. What many studies have shown is that once a straight person meets a gay person, then they're no longer dealing in stereotypes that they have. They're now dealing with a real person who may be a parent, a child, a co-worker..."

Like it or not, according to Petrow, all gay people "become ambassadors for our community just in the normal interactions that you have." Because of that, Petrow recommends that "you don't be overly sensitive," and offers the reminder that "all slights are not necessarily homophobic."

Steven Petrow says LGBTQ people need to interact with straight people to break barriers and misconceptions.

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