A New Night Life Dawns in the Suburbs
Sunday, September 18, 2005
A couple in Manassas came to John O'Brien with an idea: How about a special gay night at his bar, Jake's Restaurant and Pub.
Worried about how social conservatives in Prince William County would react to a gay bar, O'Brien called it a "private party," though most anyone was welcome. Operating under the radar with no advertising or publicity, the gay night draws more than 60 people on typically slow Mondays.
"I knew it would work. I've been talking to people about this for a couple of years," said Ken Elswick-Angus, 44, a hair-salon owner who has lived in Northern Virginia half his life and who persuaded O'Brien to undertake the weekly event about two years ago.
From Alexandria to Fredericksburg, and from Clarksburg to Frederick, many gay people have striven to forge a lively community and social life where virtually none existed. With rare exceptions, gays have had to go into the District to find parties and bars where they would feel accepted, some say. But over the past five years, at least six countywide groups have formed to offer social and political activities for gays in Virginia and Maryland, including organizations in Montgomery, Fairfax, Prince William, Fauquier, Culpeper and Washington counties. And as more gays have moved to the outer suburbs, they have found more ways to make friends and find lovers, congregating at non-gay restaurants and bars, organizing potlucks and brunches for themselves and persuading others that it makes good business sense to host the gay community.
O'Brien, who is straight, said it has worked out fine. "We weren't sure how the rest of the community would feel about it," he said. "We wanted a place that was safe. We didn't want to broadcast it and have outside influences threaten that safety."
Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights advocacy group, said the experience of Washington's outer suburbs underscores changes in attitudes. "We're talking about our community's willingness and comfort level living anywhere," Solmonese said. "And not just our own community, but society's view has changed so much in the last few years."
Such close-in suburbs as Montgomery, Arlington and Alexandria have had informal gay social groups for years, and a Northern Virginia group called Dulles Triangles was among the first established in the outer suburbs, in 1992. In the past few years, social organizations have sprung up, with memberships ranging from the dozens to the hundreds, including Equality Montgomery, Equality Fairfax, Equality Loudoun, Equality Prince William, Equality Fauquier and Culpeper and Community Triangle, based in Hagerstown, Md.
Movie nights, bowling, picnics, pool parties, holiday events and kid-friendly ice cream socials are among the numerous events for gays that suburban organizers have sponsored. "They're strikingly similar to other mainstream types of groups, aren't they? . . . It's amazing the void it filled," said Kelly Schlageter, co-president of Equality Fairfax, which she said has an e-mail list of more than 1,000 members and has started getting businesses -- including a bank, a car dealer, lawyers and insurance agents -- to sponsor events.
"We know that our goals and needs and lifestyles are very similar" to straight people's, Schlageter said. "Most people move into the suburbs for the same reasons. We have families. We want similar things."
"There are big gay communities out there," said Sean Bugg, editor of Metro Weekly, a publication that focuses on covering gay issues and night life, whose circulation in the suburbs he said is growing. "D.C. is still the center of night life, but I would expect to see that expand over the years."
Three years ago, the free weekly newspaper was available at only a dozen distribution points in Northern Virginia, Bugg said; it is now distributed at more than 50 retail outlets. Overall circulation figures were not available, Bugg said.
For many years, the social options for gays outside the District have remained few. In suburban Northern Virginia and Maryland, as few as three full-fledged gay bars and clubs might exist, according to people who frequent the gay scene, compared with about three dozen in the District.