Out here

Even lesbians can learn to love Long Island.

"We had heard from different people how progressive Huntington was," Shlakman says. So, after Hoole gave birth to their first child, Chelsey, now 5, they bought a home and started their new life together. Shlakman had Sydney three years ago and returned to work as an ad salesperson at Manhattan-based radio station WAXQ-104FM; Hoole is a stay-at-home mom.

The changes in their lives since moving to the Island and having children are just like most any other parents, but with gay women and men—who often are accustomed to living on the edge of society—the changes can be more profound. "Before we had many more gay friends," Shlakman says. "Now we have many more straight friends with children...We have so much in common with the straight parents."

Getting to the point of being accepted by other parents and neighbors was a "long, long, long process" that hasn't always been easy—especially since, with kids, "every new experience is a new coming-out experience," Shlakman says. When they went looking for a pediatrician, the first one they met with was homophobic. And when they tried to purchase a family membership at the YMCA, they were advised to join as individuals to avoid "embarrassment." They explained that there was no embarrassment and joined as a family.

"When you're a gay parent, I believe you should not be in the closet—or you shouldn't have children," Shlakman explains. "It connotes a sense of shame."

She stresses that, for the most part, reactions of neighbors, teachers and other parents at school have been accepting. The Catholic family next door are their "closest friends," Shlakman says, adding that they've gotten very close to the teen-age daughter who baby-sits for them. And the girl's mother "accepts us for who we are. She got to know us first, and our sexuality came later."

An Oakdale couple who recently adopted their first baby say they have been just as content here. (They did not want their names published because the joint adoption is not yet final.) One of the women, a 30-year-old teacher, said that, as a lesbian mom in suburbia, she's surprised that her neighbors "don't even blink an eye...People seem to be fine about it."

But even before becoming moms, the couple, both from Long Island, felt comfortable here. "I never thought about leaving," said the same woman, who tried a brief stint of living in San Diego. "I never felt the need to move to San Francisco or the Village. I definitely found a community of women out here."

Dykes are people, too

Here's how people have traditionally structured a sense of community to battle the isolation the suburbs can breed: Moms meet for mah-jongg or power-walks around the cul-de-sacs, kids join Little League, dads join bowling leagues, families go to houses of worship. Lots of choices that mean many points of entry, based on things like shared interests, religion or common domestic circumstances.

The formula for lesbians living in cities or suburbs has historically been based on sexually-charged bar scenes. "It was almost like the multipurpose room in school," says Christine Kistler of West Hempstead's Bedrock, which she opened in 1976, and saw used for everything from meeting lovers to holding memorial services and christenings. While bars are still an integral part of gay life, the mainstreaming of gay culture has afforded lesbians visibility and more social options. And so it goes for gay women on Long Island.

Sharon Gillen, 38, is a board member on the three-year-old LI Pride Sports Association for gay men and women. "It's a place outside of a bar to be a culture, to be a community," she says of the group, which has a winter bowling league that draws people from all over the Island to games at Babylon Bowling. This spring, the Lavender Softball League has sprouted again, with seven teams of nearly 25 players each. And in Nassau County, women gather from September to December for games of flag football in a league sponsored by Talespins, the West Hempstead bar formerly known as The Bedrock.

"In Long Island, in my opinion, if you're into doing things, our community is growing—whereas before, it was only a bar scene," says Gillen, who lives in Lindenhurst. "It's really a pretty nice community out here. We, as a culture, are really trying to have outreach with each other and work together." It's just in the past couple of years, she adds, that she has noticed among Long Island lesbians "more of a desire and a need for pride...and an effort to gain ground and rights"—an attitude that's probably due to a mix of being sick of hiding and the belief that it will be safe to come out due to the mass media's assistance.

This desire is the engine for lesbians seeking community. the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard of Long Island, the Long Island Association for AIDS Care, LI Gay and Lesbian Youth and CERF-PAC (Citizens for Equal Rights) give lesbians opportunities to volunteer and make friends. And in Ronkonkoma, lesbians have had a forum for discussion since 1991 at SILK (Sharing In Lesbian Kinship)—weekly rap groups, which are also held in Bellmore. The group provides a "safe space," says facilitator Carol VanDyk, 39, and gives women between the ages 20 and 50 the chance to talk about coming out, safe sex, the perils of monogamy, ex-lovers, breast cancer or anything else.

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