Out here

Even lesbians can learn to love Long Island.

It's the official start of summer for hundreds of Long Island lesbians: trekking out east to Wainscott for the Memorial Day Weekend Tea Dance for Women at the Swamp—a gay club that is usually dominated by men. But on these special nights there is nary a boy in sight, and this year is no exception.

Around 7 p.m., a steady stream of women begins to file in, and by 9 the place is packed with more than 600 revelers. Some look barely out of college while others could be grandmothers; they have big hair and buzzed hair and long hair and no hair; they are tattooed and bejeweled and coifed and frumpy; students, engineers, writers, executives, police officers, carpenters, teachers, saleswomen, chefs and designers. They've come from New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut and all around the Island, as close as East Hampton and Sag Harbor and as far as Deer Park, Babylon, Sayville, Stony Brook and Huntington. Many are sporting their first tans of the year and clutching at cocktails or bottles of Evian as they flirt while chatting in the warm air on the patio or dance inside the smoky packed-to-the-gills club.

Michele Florea and Leslie Cohen, who have been holding dances in the Hamptons for 13 years, are clearly pleased with tonight's turnout. After moving from the city to the East End and being pressed by lesbian friends to host the annual summer tea dances, Florea and Cohen's parties quickly became Island-wide gatherings.

"The first time you went to a tea dance and saw all those women," says Florea, an East Meadow native, "you knew you would never be alone."

For lesbians on Long Island—whose visibility in the suburbs is obscured by traditional images of straight families living in tract houses and teen-agers trying to pick up one another at the mall—it's crucial to not feel alone. And, according to a dozen gay women on the Island—from 17 to 51, from Glen Cove to East Hampton—choosing to live out-gay lives here means choosing a thriving and proudly visible lesbian community which, with few exceptions, is received with cautious warmth by the hetero majority.

While gay life here is perhaps not as exciting as it is in the city—"It's hard living on Long Island as a lesbian," says Joey Puleo, 37, an information technician from Babylon Village who finds herself going into Manhattan "even to eat dinner" so she can feel comfortable—the urban life is simply not what every lesbian wants.

Think about it: With the advent of gay-rights laws, national discussions about gay marriage and TV sitcoms bringing real-life lesbos into America's living rooms, acceptance doesn't demand the same urgent struggle as it did even five years ago. Lesbians, who as a group have long been waiting to exhale, have had a chance to realize that they have either outgrown—or never been cut out for—the frenetic energy of gay urban living. Gay-friendly realty companies say lesbians are flocking to Long Island, especially Sayville, Bay Shore, Patchogue, Sag Harbor, West Hempstead and Huntington, both as homeowners and renters.

They join millions of other Americans who have chosen suburbs like Long Island as a place to raise their children, be near beaches, get a shot at running a successful business and be a part of a lesbian community that many say is more tightknit and manageable than that of Manhattan or Park Slope. It's easier to penetrate the suburban scene, one that's not so big that it is broken into many card-carrying subcultures. To put it simply, no one cares when you got your nose ring—or if you have plans to get another.

Back at the Swamp, it's 10:30 p.m. and just about all the women on the dance floor have been replaced by gay men, who traditionally start and end their evenings much later. As the club quickly changes form, it's kind of like the perfect metaphor for lesbian life: out-and-proud gay men in tiny tank tops commanding attention while gay women live in the background, struggling just a little bit harder for visibility, rights and recognition.

The women disappear into the night, piling into cars with girlfriends or groups of friends or alone to head back west, back to lives as real as anyone else's.

Business as usual—why not?

Opening a business is one of the surest and safest ways to carve out a niche in the suburbs. Like immigrants jump-starting a new life in America by running a diner, convenience store or restaurant, lesbians who run small businesses are trying to grab a toehold by making themselves known and appreciated—and then understood.

Lynda Nenninger and Pat Robinson sit at a table in the Chowder Bar, the Bay Shore restaurant they have owned since 1988. Their homey place sits on Maple Avenue amid ferry ports to the Saltaire, Kismet, Ocean Bay Park and Seaview communities of Fire Island. It's a rainy evening and customers are just starting to trickle in for early dinners of creamy seafood bisque and fried clams.

The two women grew up together in Bellmore, where they both came out in high school to typically horrible reactions of family rejection. But that eventually tempered for both women—to the point where Nenninger's father even walked her down the aisle in a commitment ceremony (that relationship didn't last). The evolution was similar to the way they went from being in the closet at work to being out and at ease now.

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