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Where we live

Where we live


As the country opens its arms to openly gay and lesbian people, the places we call home have grown beyond urban gay ghettos. The Advocate welcomes you to this new American landscape.

As they walk arm in arm across a downtown street toward the entrance of a popular bar, Maggie Ryan and Melanie Moore could be an advertisement for cosmopolitan gay life. They're decked out in tight jeans, designer boots, and fitted black overcoats, their entire look and attitude screaming urban lesbian chic. But this is far from an urban setting.

"You have to see Cowgirl Bar & Grill," Ryan says as we approach a house-like structure with a small courtyard that looks more like a Mexican restaurant than a nightclub. "This place is great."

Inside, a dense mix of people--gay, straight, urban hipster, and rancher boy--listen to a local pop musician pour his soul into a microphone at one end of the room. Just beyond, a lively crowd shoots pool in a small lounge. A group of women--some wearing cowboy hats that barely hide their buzz cuts--emerges from a dining room on the other side of the bar. "This is the heart of Santa Fe right here," Moore says proudly.

Like so many of the city's residents, Moore, 34, and Ryan, 27, came from more urban places to this high-elevation town of incredible natural beauty nestled against New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Santa Fe, they say, "is the best place" they've lived. It's a place for mavericks and misfits. "And as far as being gay, it's completely integrated," Moore says. "We hold hands everywhere."

Integrated. That's how out gays and lesbians across the country portray their city or town when asked why it's a great place to live. During a time when gay people are coming out at younger ages, many cities outside of the traditional urban gay centers have become important examples of this subtle ingredient of positive change. "As society becomes more accepting, the need for intense gay enclaves begins to dissipate," says Gary Gates, 45, a demographer who studies LGBT populations at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. "It's not that they won't need a gay community, they just won't have to move to find it."

Most of the gay people I spoke with for this story said they still value a strong gay culture, but ethnic diversity, good jobs, low crime rates, abundant natural beauty, and a never-ending stream of things to do are equally if not more important. Many also want good public schools where they will be accepted as parents. "We're raising two African-American kids and no one even bats an eye," says San Diego resident Tim Mulligan, 39, an attorney who is raising a

7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter with his partner, Sean Murphy, 43. "We live in a white neighborhood and we're sending our kids to a public school. A lot of times we are the only same-sex parents [at school events]. The school thinks it's great. The sports teams think it's great. It's been awesome. San Diego is a beautiful place to raise kids."

From Ithaca, N.Y., to Missoula, Mont., gay residents praise a small-town feel even before mentioning how gay-friendly their cities might be. A great place to live is self-contained, with little congestion, they say, but has enough big-city amenities to prevent the need for routine travel. "There are things going on all over town," says Brett Gambill, 27, a gay fourth-grade teacher who lives in Columbus, Ohio. "It's a great city. It's not too big. Everything is 20 minutes away. But it's big enough that you don't feel like you're stuck in Middle America."

I discovered the same urban-bucolic balance in Santa Fe. It has big retail stores on the edge of town, while small pueblo-style adobe homes and businesses--the city's official architectural style--line most of the streets and blanket the rocky hills and ravines around the city. Their rounded edges and soft colors provide a seamless transition between humanity and nature and a charming backdrop to the city's very walkable downtown.

A world-class outdoor opera house sits amid the cliffs just outside of town. Ski slopes are a short drive up the mountain. And at the Japanese-inspired Ten Thousand Waves along the way, there are outdoor tubs and spa services. Like many of the city's attractions, these are enjoyed by more locals than tourists.

Then there are the galleries, hundreds of them displaying the works of international artists. "I love having a community where art is really important," says local activist Donald Stout as he drives me along Canyon Road, a small street shaded by pine trees and populated almost exclusively with art galleries housed in small adobe bungalows. "It just brings such an interesting mix of people."

Indeed, Santa Fe is known as "The City Different," says Stout, 56, a CPA who co-owns a candy business in town with his partner of six years, Chuck Higgins, 58, and Bill Lynn, 56. In the 2000 census Santa Fe had one of the highest percentages of same-sex couples.

But you might not know it just to have visited. The city has no gay bars and no gay community center. "People tell me, 'You should open a gay bar,' " says Cliff Skoglund, 45, a dapper ex-New Yorker who treats me to duck salad and crab cakes at his world-famous Geronimo restaurant, one of several he co-owns in town. "I think if I did that, nobody would come."

That's because Santa Fe's LGBT residents have long preferred to be an ingredient in the cocktail rather than their own special drink. But that may be changing now that RainbowVision Santa Fe has opened on the edge of town. Although the development is targeted at LGBT retirees, residents are a mix of gay and straight who own or lease a variety of adobe condos or, if they have special health needs, reside in assisted-living apartments.

As I enter RainbowVision's community center, it's clear the place has a distinctly gay flair, with contemporary design, a stylish nightclub, a full-service salon, a five-star restaurant, and meeting spaces for community groups. "We've become a stop for gay people," says founder and CEO Joy Silver, 52. "That even furthers the feeling of community in this town."

Barbara Cohn, 62, and Jan Gaynor, 64, came to RainbowVision from the Bay Area because they wanted to retire in Santa Fe. "There's a wonderful sense of being," says Cohn, an orchestral musician. "We were struck by the spirituality. We were leaving a way of life that we knew was available here."

It's what they call "woo woo," says Francis Phillips, 42, a local mortgage broker who has worked with RainbowVision, and who describes the loan business he manages with his partner of 11 years, Michael Piotti, 46, as "explosive." A lot of people, including many gays and lesbians, are attracted to Santa Fe because of its vegetarian, anticorporate, New Age spiritual bent, he says. "The mind-set is very 'manana,' very slow-paced," he adds. "It makes you appreciate your environment."

Santa Fe is one of the oldest U.S. cities; it dates to 1607. Residents proudly speak of an enduring diversity that reaches back to that time when the Spanish conquistadors first settled in this Native American village. "We were on the edge of the Spanish empire, then we were on the edge of the American expansion," says Santa Fe mayor David Coss, who served as grand marshal in the city's 2006 gay pride parade. "So we just became a place that was different and glad to see people come here."

In Lexington, Ky.--another stop on my quest to find great places to live--the city's gay residents also tout a strong history of diversity and a resounding quality of life. The city made its fortune on bourbon, tobacco, and most of all, horse racing. It's played host to many celebrities and jet-setters, including Rock Hudson and Queen Elizabeth II, who boards horses at an area farm. Parts of several classic films, including Raintree County, starring Elizabeth Taylor, were filmed in the area.

Lexington has always considered itself a bastion of liberal culture, says Bob Morgan, 58, a longtime resident and local gay historian. "Young gay people now feel a sense of entitlement to prance the streets of Lexington," he says. "Or to be just as boring as heterosexuals. They are going to church, holding hands in public, or pushing a baby stroller."

Morgan invites me up to his second-floor artist loft in an old building on Lexington's historic Victorian Square. On the walls of a small gallery hang black-and-white photographs of Lexington's notables, including gay artist Henry Faulkner, who dated Tennessee Williams, and Sweet Evening Breeze (a.k.a. James Herndon), a female-identified African-American man whose downtown evening strolls in costume were so much a part of the city's social fabric that local policemen gladly chauffeured her to and fro.

Drag queens, the civil rights movement, and an enduring arts and music scene all have contributed to Lexington's gay-friendly nature. "If you want to live in a place that has the hospitality and quirkiness of the South but is tolerant and uncongested, Lexington is all that," says Jeff Jones, 41, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Kentucky and one of Lexington's cognoscenti.

Jones shows me the cozy three-bedroom bungalow he owns with his partner, Chris, in a gayborhood known by the locals as "Dyke Heights." After snacking on beer cheese and pickled watermelon rind he drives me up to the beautiful Keeneland racetrack, where during the horse racing season fabulous gay boys mingle with "old money, truck drivers, and straight families."

You can't discount the role horses have played in the progressive social climate in Lexington, he says. Churchill Downs in Louisville is where the Kentucky Derby is held, but Lexington is where the history of horse breeding and racing resides. In recent years out lesbian couples have begun to emerge as prominent players in the horse farm business.

While there are a number of gayborhoods, gay bars, and a gay community center in Lexington, the people who go to them speak of the kind of gay-straight integration I found in Santa Fe. "Kentucky is a family-orientated state," says Paul Brown, 30, chair of the Bluegrass chapter of Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a statewide LGBT advocacy group. "I like the small-town feel. I feel a definite unity here. In Lexington I'm surrounded by great people."

Brown is sitting with a large group of gay and lesbian friends at a bohemian restaurant called Alfalfa in the heart of downtown. As in Santa Fe, I discover that most of the people have come from somewhere else--or in some cases "fled to Lexington." Both Brown and Jeffrey Moore, 38, grew up in Henderson, a small town in southwest Kentucky where many people are religious fundamentalists and antigay. Moore didn't want to leave the state, so he came to Lexington, where "you can be yourself," he says.

Shannon Stuart-Smith, 51, has lived all over the country and chose to come to Lexington, where she met her partner of seven years, Julia Fain, 39, who also came from out of state. Fain works at Lexmark, an office supply company employing thousands of people. They like the high salaries and low cost of living. "It's a quality of life I want in a city," says Stuart-Smith. "The crime rate is low. I have culture. I have progressive theater. And the people are just friendly."

The following day I walk with Burley Thomas around Gratz Park in downtown Lexington. Historic homes shaded by tall trees surround a grassy square where the Confederate and Union armies camped at different times during the Civil War. Thomas, a 27-year-old gay communications staffer at the University of Kentucky, lives in a nearby apartment on what local gays affectionately refer to as "fag hill." "It's Greenwich Village in Lexington," he says.

While Thomas is happy to be living in a less-than-urban environment, he goes out of his way to show me something decidedly urban. At a nearby shuttered parking garage he rolls up a rusted steel door. A colorful collage of graffiti by various artists covers the interior. "This is my favorite spot," he says. "It's real art. It's hip-hop. It's beautiful deviancy."

At the Cowgirl, Moore and Ryan also seem to long for urban qualities not easily found in the city they call home. "We need more young gay boys," Moore says as she orders a margarita. I give her a surprised look, thinking this might be the reason I've been hauled off to Cowgirl. "We need big hunky Chelsea boys." (OK, maybe I'm not the reason.) "We need that energy. There are a lot of powerful lesbians here; now we need big fun gays."

Moore knows about big fun gays from Chelsea. She was a popular DJ back in New York City and still DJ's in Santa Fe. But in many big cities lesbians and gay men don't really hang out together. In Santa Fe's integrated culture, such segregation doesn't exist, and that's the way Moore and Ryan like it.

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