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.

"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.

"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.

Static, then familiar voices

At 5:55 p.m. on a Thursday—five minutes before they have their weekly hour on the air at SUNY Stony Brook's WUSB-90.1FM for Lavender Wimmin—Gail Polivy and Den Amato, both of Sayville, dart into the cramped and tiny studio, their faces just beginning to flush with panic. But within minutes, the pile of fan mail and promo announcements is flipped through, the Ani DiFranco and Crystal Waters CDs are out and ready, their headphones are on and, once again, lesbians on the Island are treated to an hour of self-reflection over the airwaves.

Just like ethnic radio shows that treat listeners to talk and music and humor from their native community, Lavender Wimmin gives lesbians the all-too-rare chance to hear about themselves on the radio. And today, the day after the final broadcast of Ellen, Polivy and Amato sit face-to-face in the studio to talk about the show and why it ended, throwing back and forth the question of whether the show failed because it had gotten "too gay."

Polivy, 37, a sales account executive of office supplies from Queens, says she joined the station because she "found nothing positive about gays and lesbians anywhere" after returning home from college at SUNY Buffalo. She and Amato have heard from listeners who are as young as 13 and those who are "considerably older," and have attracted an eager volunteer—Heather Caminitti, 22, a Suffolk Community College student from Central Islip, who answers phones and calls Polivy and Amato "strong role models." They've gotten countless letters from fans all over the Island, spoken at public events, marched in Huntington's pride march and even collected a solid heterosexual fan base.

"I want to make the show appealing enough to educate rather than alienate the straight community," says Polivy, a 37-year-old account executive in Bohemia. "I would rather chip away at the homophobia."

Amato, who is from Lake Grove and met Polivy by volunteering at the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard of LI, joined the show four years ago. She says that her experience of being gay in the suburbs has brought her a definite "sense of community" and that she finds that the straight population's tolerance levels have risen. "I've turned a lot of heads, that's for sure. But I haven't gotten any insults."

Just last week, in fact, she and her girlfriend were holding hands while waiting for a table at a restaurant in Massapequa.

"People were cool with it," she says. "I think people are coming around."

Caminitti came home from college in Ohio after grappling with her emerging identity. She says she was losing so much sleep that she failed out. Now that she's back home, she's found support at Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth and says the only time she's ever been harassed was in Greenwich Village, where she and her girlfriend got gawked at by a leering man when they were holding hands. For now, the Island is a more attractive home than the city.

"I feel like Long Island offers similar things on a smaller scale," she says. Even the LI Pride Parade in Huntington—scheduled this year for Sunday, June 14—is "a little more personable," she says.

Excitement builds in her voice as she talks about going back this year—"You don't ever see so many gay people in one place!"—for the event that draws hundreds of gay women from across the Island, one that's become an annual pilgrimage similar to the one that leads to East End tea dances, luring women into a rare turn in the suburban spotlight.

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