Out here

Even lesbians can learn to love Long Island.

"Bay Shore is a very close-knit community; conservative," Robinson, 36, explains, and being transplants from Nassau County, "we were outsiders enough."

"I was petrified at first," she says of coming out. The partners were strapped for cash and couldn't risk turning away any straight diners, who make up the majority of their customer base. But eventually Nenninger, who was anxious to be out from the get-go, convinced her that it was safe. So they started advertising in gay publications, sponsoring local gay events and not censoring their conversations with regular customers, who have remained loyal.

"They're OK about it," Robinson says, "because they know us and like us."

"We get a heavy gay clientele from advertising," Nenninger, 35, says, adding that they're both pleased they haven't chosen to run a strictly "gay restaurant" because "here, if you open a solely gay place, you're limiting yourself. It's stupid."

In 10 years, Nenninger says, their openness may have kept away only one customer—when a man called up and grilled her about the gay-straight customer ratio.

"I think he was scared to come here."

Through their visibility as restaurateurs, both women say they feel more a part of the gay community than anyone else they know. "We have our finger more on the pulse," Robinson says—whether it's putting their name and money behind a gay-pride event or heading over to Forevergreen's, a lesbian bar in Lindenhurst, for a couple of after-work beers. Their perspective has given them a bird's eye view of the Island's ever-improving attitude about homosexuality.

"We would've never agreed to do this interview ten years ago," Robinson says.

Marie Fischetti, 48, who moved from Manhattan to Long Island, where she opened Angelo's Barber Shop in East Setauket, looks at home in her smooth, stiff barber's jacket as she clips and buzzes hair with the ease of a pro.

She lives just down the road in Port Jefferson, with her lover of 15 years, a health-care worker. After growing up in Brooklyn, where her grandfather Angelo owned a barbershop, Fischetti says that working for years as a beautician "never felt right." Then, she recalls, "One day I passed by [a barbershop] and said, 'This is it'—the smells of the Clubman powder, the hair tonic..." So, after looking at a dozen shops around Suffolk County, she set up shop two years ago in East Setauket and has grown a successful business.

"I came here just like anybody else would," she says. "I love that I drive past the Port Jefferson ferry on my way to work instead of climbing down into a twenty-foot subway hole."

Out in East Hampton, 51-year-old Michele Florea, when not presiding over the women's tea dances, is running her booming catering business, Food & Co. On her first open-for-business weekend before the summer deluge, she sits with quiet anticipation behind a chilled case of freshly prepped Cajun meatloaf, fruit tortes and country potato salad.

She's a long way from her roots in East Meadow, from which she escaped to give city life a whirl nearly three decades ago. "For me, it was much more happening," she says, recounting her days as a leading lesbian party promoter in the 1970s, when she owned the legendary Sahara women's club in Manhattan with Leslie Cohen, who now works with her on the Hamptons tea dances. But after years of throwing parties around the city, she moved out east, started her business and settled in for a more quiet existence, recently buying a house with her lover and business partner, Cindy Goyette, a renowned chef.

Being an out-gay businessperson, she says, has never been awkward. "It's fabulous. There's a tremendous amount of tolerance here," she says, adding that she relies on the "huge" East End gay community for friendship and support. "It's like a built-in family," she says. "My family now are my friends. If I didn't have that, I'd be lonely. Even as a couple, we'd be lonely."

Chelsey & Sydney have 2 mommies

Dee Hoole and Robin Shlakman have a built-in family of a different kind—children, which perhaps is a leading reason why gay couples are drawn to the burbs—the safety, the schools, the backyards, the quiet neighborhoods. The Huntington couple has two girls—one born by each with the aid of a midwife—and adopted each other's two years ago in the first same-sex adoption case on Long Island. Since then, they've become poster girls for gay parents, receiving attention in local papers, national gay publications and TV shows. And what the stories have shown over and over again is that these lesbian moms are just a suburban family like any other. So for Hoole and Shlakman, who started talking about kids on the first date of their seven-year relationship, choosing to settle on the Island was not a difficult decision.

"I always wanted to live on Long Island," says Shlakman, a 34-year-old Queens native. After living in Fresh Meadows with Hoole, a Port Washington native who is also 34, the two got fed up with problems like parking and decided that they wanted to raise children together in a more suburban environment.

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