Finding gay suburbia heaven in Golden Valley

Galen Fletcher

Galen Fletcher

This love story begins in the basement of a St. Paul church.

Larry Fonnest, a Thief River Falls native, was single and lived with his dog in a house in Como Park. Jim Nepp, who hailed from Austin, Minnesota, and lived in a northeast Minneapolis townhouse, was also a bachelor. Each considered himself somewhat bashful. Neither was the type to go out of his way to make conversation or seek connection with a stranger.

On a Tuesday night, the two volunteers were seated across from one another, stuffing envelopes for the “It’s Time Minnesota” campaign. Over the course of the evening, preparing literature that implored Minnesotans to vote down a measure repealing rights for LGBTQ public employees, Fonnest and Nepp struck up a conversation.

That night began a courtship that lasted for five years before the two decided to move in together. But where? Fonnest worked in St. Paul. Nepp worked in Minneapolis. They would try to split the difference, looking in St. Anthony, Roseville, and Highland Park. About 100 houses and no sale later, Golden Valley appeared on the radar.

Fonnest had read an article trumpeting the western suburb’s proximity to downtown Minneapolis and its low taxes. The couple’s curiosity was further stoked when they went to dinner at a gay couple’s home there. The fairway-like lawns and open floor plans felt like freedom.

Fonnest and Nepp soon found a place of their own in Golden Valley’s Dawnview Acres neighborhood. Twenty-one years later, Nepp hasn’t forgotten one particular moment at the closing table in 1996.

“We’ve helped people get connected,” says resident Larry Fonnest, right, alongside husband Jim Nepp on left.

“We’ve helped people get connected,” says resident Larry Fonnest, right, alongside husband Jim Nepp on left. Galen Fletcher

“They must have known by this point we were a gay couple, and [the seller] turned to me and said, ‘You’re going to be welcomed here,’” Nepp says. “There was some trepidation about moving out to the suburbs. He was sending a message.”

Shortly after moving in, Fonnest and Nepp learned that another gay couple lived a couple houses away across the street. At another house just down from that one lived a single gay man. Nepp fast made acquaintances on the bus commute into Minneapolis with another gay Golden Valley resident. These were in addition to the handful of gay friends they knew in the suburb prior to moving. It wasn’t long before the couple realized how the numbers were adding up.

“So we come to find out they’re all around us everywhere,” says Fonnest, with a laugh. “What can we say? Golden Valley is where gay couples go to settle down.”

According to census data from UCLA’s Williams Institute, Fonnest is right. There are more gay couples, married or unmarried, living in Golden Valley per capita than any other city in Minnesota.

Best of both worlds

The second annual Golden Valley Pride Festival on Sunday, June 11, commenced with thunder that roared like battleship guns and hail pelting the lawns of Brookview Park. Teams of volunteers, who arrived at the location as early as 7:30 a.m., made sure the event would go off as planned. As the winds ripped, they tightened their hold on the village of exhibitor tents and community group tables.

One of the volunteers was Christopher Robinson. The 45-year-old Robinson and his partner, Jonathan Yeomans, bailed on south Minneapolis three years ago, trading city life for more square footage. They looked at homes in Edina, Richfield, and Golden Valley, where they met would-be neighbors.

“It was fantastic,” Robinson says. “A diverse group of people, a younger group of people, a couple of gay couples, some just-married couples. It was great to see that and feel how all these people were really excited to be where they were, and be a part of this community.”

Last year’s inaugural local Pride Festival attracted some 3,000 attendees. Despite mercurial skies, this year’s festival quickly drew 1,000. They sifted through the menagerie of food trucks and booths set up by the Girl Scouts, Valley Community Presbyterian Church, and Clare Housing, which provides services and affordable housing to those living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.

The biggest crowds would materialize in a few hours, ushered in by beams of sunshine breaking through cracks in the overcast sky.

Among those soaking it all in was Lisa Nordeen, a resident of Golden Valley for the last four and a half years. Nordeen’s move from north Minneapolis to the suburb accomplished two things: cohabitation with her girlfriend and bidding adieu to what she describes as the big city’s indifferent hubris.

“I call it an urban arrogance,” says Nordeen. “Whereas Golden Valley has that friendly, neighborly kind of vibe. You eliminate formality and you create living space so that’s really desirable for social settings. I think the queer community is really social, and the architecture with the yards and the opportunity for a patio or a deck plays into that.”

Robinson says his heart will always be in Minneapolis, “but you get to a certain point in life when you’re ready to take yourself out of the hustle and bustle.”

He admits that he’s torn. On one hand, he doesn’t want Golden Valley overrun by carpetbaggers like himself. On the other, he feels the desire to let others know about this place with an energy all its own.

“I feel like Golden Valley is this undiscovered gem,” he says. “I kind of want to keep it to ourselves.”

Fortune’s favor landed Jacqueline Day, left, in Golden Valley in 1981. She’s pictured here with wife Carol Bemis.

Fortune’s favor landed Jacqueline Day, left, in Golden Valley in 1981. She’s pictured here with wife Carol Bemis.

Down in Lavender Valley

For a long time, suburban life has been synonymous with stifling conventionality; a bastion of blandness on its good days, an all-out assault on nonconformity at its worst.

“The suburbs were scary,” says Golden Valley resident and attorney Jonathan Burris. “As a gay man, I can tell you, you were worried about going out there and being scalped by some guy on a motorcycle.”

Golden Valley was different.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, says Burris, the suburb was known as “Lavender Valley” by members of the local LGBTQ community. “There seemed to be an exodus of community folks, couples mostly, from the urban core/‘Gay Ghetto’ west to the near-downtown suburb,” he says. “It laid the foundation for Golden Valley as a place where you could live your life privately and people didn’t really much care who you were sleeping with.

“You didn’t have somebody standing there rolling out the welcome mat or anything for you. It was an energy thing, back then, all the way until now. You could start a family, however you defined it, and people minded their own business. You didn’t have people yelling out the window about some ‘dyke haircut.’”

Burris reckons he knew about 10 gay people who lived in the suburb when he first arrived. Today, he estimates the number is closer to 300.

Jacqueline and Carol. Photo by Galen Fletcher.

Jacqueline and Carol. Photo by Galen Fletcher.

That tradition of inclusivity carried through the next few decades. In 2010, Golden Valley became the seventh municipality in the state to pass a domestic partner registry. While largely a symbolic measure, the unanimous City Council vote effectively opened filing cabinets for couples to document their relationships, which could help in securing benefits from employers and businesses.

Not everyone came to Golden Valley seeking refuge from an unfriendly world.

“I landed in Golden Valley totally by chance,” says Jacqueline Day, who moved to the suburb in 1981. “Finding my first house here was just about getting my feet on the ground more than anything else. It had nothing to do with any reason other than it was close to downtown, and it was green, and I was attracted to Wirth Park.”

Day still lives in Golden Valley, in a house she bought with wife Carol Bemis in 2007, and says the neighborhoods, the architecture of the housing, the parks—those are the reasons most people move there. “It’s not necessarily because they want to be in this [gay] community.”

Yet word-of-mouth has helped shape the community all the same. One friendly chat at a time, residents advertise that Golden Valley is a welcoming locale. Nepp and husband Fonnest, who was elected to the Golden Valley City Council in 2013, pride themselves on being proactive ambassadors for the suburb. They were the seventh couple to register under the city’s domestic partner registry.

“Just recently,” Nepp says, “we had a house go up for sale in the neighborhood. We immediately made a phone call to a [gay] couple that had brunch with us in Golden Valley. They looked at it and they bought it.”

The couple had dinner at another couple’s home in Fridley. They, too, were looking for a new place to call home.

“We told them about this open house in Golden Valley. They went there that same day and bought it,” says Fonnest. “We’ve helped people get connected.”

Out together

Toward the end of the row of the Golden Valley Pride Festival exhibitors, Harry Hartigan pitches Prime Timers, a nonprofit that promotes social activities for older gay and bisexual men.

When Minneapolis hosts its two-day Pride bash, Hartigan will be in attendance doing the same. But the 69-year-old Minneapolis resident much prefers Golden Valley’s event to that of its larger neighbor to the east.

“It’s my understanding now Golden Valley has a rather large gay and lesbian community, which I didn’t know much about,” says Hartigan. “Coming to this event, now for the second time, there are a lot of people out. That’s what’s impressed me the most, and they’ve done it without a whole lot of advertising.”

Something else has impressed Hartigan too. It’s the vibe on the grounds today, an energy that resonates much differently than that inside the City of Lakes.

“The people seem to be much more open here,” he says. “When you work Pride in the city [of Minneapolis] like I’ve done for 18 years, they’ll walk by and don’t want to talk to you. They’ll take your candy. But they don’t want to have a dialogue.”

He says the Golden Valley Pride Festival feels more welcoming, friendlier.

“Here it feels like community. Here you feel like you can connect with people.”