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Michael Barnes

Orlando shooting report prompts return to 2001 Austin LGBT survey

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Last night, we attended the Orlando vigil on West Fourth Street. Despite some antagonists posted on the fringes of the crowd of perhaps 1,500, the event couldn’t help but be moving. The LGBT community and its allies stood tall in all their gorgeous diversity. 

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Yesterday, before the vigil, I wrote about how the Orlando shooting related to a sense of LBGT safety in Austin as it has evolved over the past five decades or so. Lots of cool links there to previous stories, too.

One we couldn’t find online was the following article, “Voices of Gay Austin,” written in 2001 by social scientist Sean Massey and myself. We dug it out of the digital archives, without the attendant photos, graphics and individual personality profiles.

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But this should  do:

“An overwhelming majority of lesbians and gay men feel safe, comfortable and satisfied with the quality of life in Central Texas. Yet they miss certain aspects of traditional gay culture and community, such as social spaces, businesses and other resources dedicated to gay men and, especially, lesbians.

A first-of-its-kind newspaper study found that gay men and lesbians came to Central Texas for the same reasons that brought other newcomers — high levels of education, jobs, natural beauty and tolerance of difference. Yet they are less content with the lack of social opportunities in a city with no lesbian and gay community center or cohesive gay district.

The American-Statesman study, which did not employ random sampling, grew out of a Carnegie Mellon University finding that Austin ranked third in the nation — after San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — for concentration of gay couples among major cities. That same Carnegie Mellon research indicated a high rate of correlation between a city’s attractiveness to gay couples and to the high-tech industry.

More than 1,200 lesbian and gay Central Texans responded to the American-Statesman’s initial questionnaire, which ran in the Life & Arts section Aug. 26, 2000. Open-ended interviews with more than 40 of the survey participants revealed nuanced views of issues concerning the gay community, including:

* Gay men and lesbians who moved to Central Texas from elsewhere were more attracted to the general quality of life and economic prosperity than to its dispersed gay community. They love the natural beauty and laid-back attitudes, but hate the traffic, rising cost of living and sense of increasing political conservatism.

* Most reported being “out, ” or open, about their sexuality. Experiences of discrimination were rare when seeking jobs, housing or medical attention. Reports of discrimination were higher, however, while working on a job, shopping at an area business and in public places.

* Lesbian and gay Central Texans populate every walk of life. Not surprisingly, more than a quarter of the participants work in the high-tech industry. What may raise eyebrows is the indication of greater discrimination in government and education than in other occupations.

* Lesbians are less satisfied with the local culture and community than gay men, while Latinos expressed more satisfaction than non-Latinos. People in relationships — 69 percent of the participants — are more satisfied with the area’s culture than singles.

* Thirty percent of our Central Texas survey respondents are parents of children.

* Eighty percent identified themselves as having some religious persuasion.

Long ago, Austin earned a national reputation for tolerance of difference. Yet it never developed a visible gay district on the scale of Houston’s Montrose or Dallas’ Oak Lawn.

Many gay Central Texans seem to like it that way.

“There is no ‘gay ghetto’ here, ” said Richard Lee Williams, an advertising firm employee who grew up in San Antonio. “On the other hand, gay people are everywhere.”

Lesbians and gay men may live all over Central Texas, but without a street life, some, especially newcomers, encounter difficulty obtaining information about gay-specific and gay-friendly businesses and organizations.

Gay Austinites turn most often to the Texas Triangle, a statewide gay publication, for information, but they find its news and listings far from complete.

The lack of information leads to a feeling of disconnectedness.

“I think of community as a sense of belonging to something larger, in which people share similar outlooks and experiences, ” said Dan Quinn, who moved to Central Texas to attend Southwest Texas State University. “In a place like Austin — with no gay neighborhood or real center and where sharp cultural differences might be hard to see sometimes — it’s difficult to find community beyond your immediate circle of friends.”

Another problem for newcomers: If they are not inclined to Austin’s primarily gay male club scene — only one coffeehouse, Gabby and Mo’s, targets lesbian clientele — they encounter obstacles connecting face-to-face.

“It’s definitely more difficult in Austin than in larger cities, due to the fact that we don’t have many gay meeting places, ” says Tom Formann, who works for the software company Broadjump. “In my experience, the best way to meet is through private parties.”

“Women usually meet through friends or through social or athletic activities — softball, Lady Longhorns basketball or volleyball, ” says Sherry Scott, Web site manager at St. Edward’s University.

Certain Austin neighborhoods bear a reputation for relatively high gay and lesbian density — Wilshire Woods, Clarksville, French Place, Travis Heights, Allendale — a perception supported by a high concentration of survey responses from those ZIP codes.

So why didn’t Austin develop a coherent gay district like many other American cities in the 1960s and ’70s? Some survey participants point to Austin’s overall security and tolerance, thus the lack of need for safety in numbers.

“Gay Austinites don’t need the protection of a ghetto, ” finance and marketing consultant Eugene Sepulveda says. Comparing Austin to other cities, he says, “Where there is less comfort with being ‘out’ in public, people tend to be even more outrageous behind the closed doors and windows of gay bars.”

Among the other reasons offered by participants for local tolerance include higher levels of education and lower average age. Another reason may be changes in social values, partially attributed to the media and the gay political movement.

After all, gay men and lesbians — including Texas Rep. Glen Maxey and Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier — hold high elective office in Central Texas.

“Nowadays, the stigma is gone, ” hardware store department manager Robert Salazar says. “Kids don’t seem to think anything of it.”

Something missing

Why, then, do many Austin gay men and lesbians report longing for the kind of traditional gay society that has developed in larger cities from San Francisco to New York?

Sepulveda suggests that it may come from a mutual sense of not fitting in while growing up: “There is a shared experience that, at some point in our lives, we worried that if people found out that we are different, they might not love us, ” he says.

A transcendent experience for today’s gay men and lesbians is coming out — meaning, being open about their sexuality — to friends, family and co-workers.

Indeed, according to the responses to the survey, gay men and lesbians feel comfortable being out in Central Texas: Ninety percent of those who responded reported that they are out with some, most or all of the people with whom they share their public and private lives.

Living in a city with welcoming churches helps. Eighty percent of those surveyed reported a religious allegiance. Metropolitan Community Church and the First Unitarian Universalist Church are known for their large gay and lesbian adherents, but Austin is home to chapters of Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Methodist gay and lesbian support groups, along with welcoming Baptist, Buddhist and Presbyterian congregations.

One disconcerting statistic: Forty-five percent were not out to all their heath-care providers, something that could prevent complete medical attention.

“It is a shame that we are not better at soliciting that information, ” said Dr. Hillary Miller, a general practitioner in a committed relationship with a woman. “(The patient) needs to say: ‘You know, there is this thing about me that may or may not impact on my health, but I just wanted to let you know.’ I don’t think it’s a good idea to be in a relationship that should be about two-way communication and you’re hiding a basic truth about yourself.”

While gay and lesbian Austinites are generally out, they sometimes encounter hostile environments working, shopping and, especially, in public — 35 percent reported discrimination in public places. Some described it as overt antagonistic behavior, some as the hurling of anti-gay slurs, and some simply as a perceived hostile atmosphere.

Anecdotally, these incidents consisted mostly of ill-placed jokes, the adolescent catcalls shouted from passing cars or minor vandalism, but some gay men and lesbians encountered inequities in how they were treated by employers and businesses.

“I have no domestic partner insurance at work, ” says a high-tech worker who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution on the job. “This means my 59-year-old life partner, who is self-employed, has to pay exorbitant fees for his insurance, while other employees’ opposite-sex mates are covered by the company.”

The State of Texas does not specfically protect gay men and lesbians against employment discrimination, but the City of Austin does. That contributes to Austin’s reputation as a gay magnet, centrally located in a conservative region.

“Austin could not happen any place else but Texas, ” architectural historian Peter Flagg Maxson says. “But it is in no way representative of Texas. When I hear of anti-gay stances of the Legislature, read reactionary newspapers in other Texas cities or hear horror stories from friends elsewhere in the state, it makes me very, very glad to live in Austin.”

Lesbian differences

More confounding is the question of scarce lesbian social spaces, especially in a city that once fostered an active lesbian culture centered around feminist politics in the 1970s and ’80s.

Austin does support versions of Guerrilla Queer Bar (roaming parties that colonize otherwise mixed clubs and restaurants). In addition, a monthly social dance and fund-raiser, Club Skirt, is held at Fiesta Gardens. Still, there’s no exclusively lesbian bar.

Although lesbians complain about the lack of bars, clubs and other venues, business owners have found it difficult catering to them. Gabby and Mo’s, an eclectic coffeehouse on Manor Road, attracts crowds of lesbians for certain music acts or fund-raisers. Nevertheless, its owners are experiencing financial difficulties and are considering closing down.

“We tried to create a space for women in a social setting, ” co-owner Patty Carvajal said. “It’s hard. Some customers want something exclusively for women. We are not. Others are alienated by our straight customers or say we have too young a crowd. I say to them: ‘Make it your own.’ ”

Carvajal also humorously repeated the truism that: “Once women find girlfriends, they don’t go out.” Instead, they connect as couples through extensive networks of friends and colleagues — which leaves singles out in the cold.

Black lesbians face special obstacles related to traditional cultures.

“Being lesbian is un-African, ” says poet and independent filmmaker Chinwe Odeluga. “In the ’60s and ’70s, the whole idea was to be progressive. Being gay or lesbian was considered by many within the movement to be nonprogressive — it was European American — it’s a white thing.”

Odeluga, who praises the inclusiveness of the Latino organization, ALLGO, is trying to get lesbians of color to be more visible.

“You think you’re the only one, ” she says. “And, when you go to lesbian events, it looks like you are the only one — so many lesbians of color will not go to public gay events, but will instead go to someone’s house — watch sports or party, but won’t be out.”

Susan Post, longtime owner of the feminist shop Book Woman, urges newcomers to volunteer for charities or attend lectures or bookstore events to meet other women. She also thinks the charitable aspect of Club Skirt and its once-a-month schedule guarantee its success with women who prefer not to attend bars or clubs.

What’s missing in Austin, according to many survey participants, is a sense of larger gay identity. The loss of the Cornerstone community center several years ago — reputedly because of lack of interest among gay and lesbian Austinites — still saddens and confounds those who want a shared social space.

Meanwhile, other gay men and lesbians are more concerned with their level of comfort in a thoroughly integrated Austin. Dr. Miller foresees a time of greater acceptance for gay men and lesbians when they no longer worry about the subtle perception of judgment from other people, even at highly public events.

“When we’ve arrived, we won’t sit down during a slow song, ” Miller says. “If I had to say the one reason that I’d put a rainbow sticker on my car is so that my child or somebody else’s child in the next generation can go to an Austin club or a gala and feel free to dance to a slow song.”

Although increased social spaces and other resources would please Austin’s lesbian and gay community, many feel there is no need for a traditional gay ghetto.

“When people moving here ask me the location of the gay district, ” says real estate agent Todd Adkins, “I say, ‘We don’t have a gay neighborhood. We have a gay city.’ ”

Others feel that a special sense of gay and lesbian community is inevitable.

“We are as diverse as the entire world, ” Sepulveda says. “We are white, black, brown, yellow, male, female, Democrat, Republican, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and every other population niche.

“Some folks warn that when we are fully assimilated and no longer discriminated against, there will no longer be any sense of community. But I don’t really see that happening. We’ll all probably still share that experience of once having a deepest, darkest secret, the one we couldn’t even let our mom and dad know because they might not love us anymore.

“So, yes, there is definitely a lesbian and gay community in Austin, ” Sepulveda says. “I feel part of it. I’m proud of it. But not all gays and lesbians feel the same way.”