By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009
They call their home "Serendipity." In 2002, when Alicia Wilson and Susan Guardado were looking for a house, they almost lost out on the Cape Cod on a leafy cul-de-sac in Hyattsville. Another couple had more money, but Wilson and Guardado had a better feel for the things that mean the world to people.
They put a contingency in their bid: They would buy only if the owner, an elderly widow who had spent a half-hour showing them the house and 40 minutes showing off her garden, listed every plant and flower.
Guardado and Wilson won the house and, leaving the District behind, folded into a roughly five-mile corridor of Prince George's County that in the past decade has become home to a growing population of gay and lesbian families.
Guardado and Wilson are part of a pattern emerging across the United States, according to Gary J. Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law and author of the Gay and Lesbian Atlas. Gay and lesbian families are showing up in greater numbers in the nation's suburbs and rural areas. The trend is a product both of migration from the cities and of cultural changes that have encouraged same-sex couples to become more visible.
Hyattsville and some of the surrounding communities appear to be well ahead of the curve. In 2000, same-sex couples made up about 0.6 percent of households in Prince George's and nationally, according to the U.S. Census. In Hyattsville, they already accounted for 1.3 percent of households, more than double the national average, and in nearby Mount Rainier, the figure was nearly 1 percent.
Residents said those percentages have almost certainly increased in the past nine years. And in 2004, Mount Rainier became one of a handful of cities with a gay majority in leadership positions.
From 2000 to 2007, there was a 25 percent increase in the number of same-sex couples in urban areas, including inner suburbs, and a 51 percent increase in rural areas, said Gates, citing Census Bureau data.
The increases, he said, represent the arrival of gay men and lesbians at a less marginalized point, where being gay is just one identity among many. It's gay as pedestrian bicycle safety committee member or PTA president. It's gay as, yawn, suburban, which isn't news to the gay people quietly going about their lives but is, in many ways, evolutionary.
Wilson, 35, executive director of a community health center in Washington, and Guardado, 42, a physical therapist in Chevy Chase, were living on Capitol Hill when they decided it was time to start a family. They wanted a yard and an easy commute.
They initially searched for houses in the District and Takoma Park but were priced out of the market. They were urged to check out Hyattsville by friends, Candace Gingrich, sister of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and her partner at the time.
"It's the new, affordable Takoma Park. That's how I pitched it," said Gingrich, who lived in Hyattsville for seven years. The city of nearly 15,000 is more than 40 percent African American and 18 percent Hispanic, and Gingrich cited that diversity as an added bonus.
Gingrich said she has helped bring 10 or 11 lesbian couples to the city since 2000. She is considering a move back with her new partner.
"I work with immigrant communities, and I see it all the time," Wilson said. "You have one or two people who establish a place that's a good place to live, and an enclave is created."
Wilson and Guardado found "quadruple the house" they would get in Washington, on a half-acre, for under $400,000. And they found community.
Theirs is one of a growing number of same-sex households with children. Guardado gave birth to their son, Noah, about four years ago. Another lesbian couple, good friends of theirs, moved to Hyattsville with a daughter a year older than Noah.
"The local elementary school is going to have so many kids of gay families that our child doesn't have to be a trailblazer," Wilson said. "We live in a cul-de-sac with lots of different types of families, and we get together for Fourth of July barbecues."
In the Washington area, which ranks 11th nationally among metropolitan areas with populations larger than 1 million for percentage of same-sex couples, gay people are often stereotyped as white, wealthy, childless men living in Dupont Circle.
The reality, experts say, is that gay men and lesbians have always been in suburban and rural neighborhoods. According to Gates, two factors are driving changes in the data. "There is both increased visibility of gay and lesbian families in areas outside the cities," Gates said, and there is "a migration as gay families become more likely to have children or as couples get married and have families."
David Maplesden, a real estate agent in Takoma Park, puts Mount Rainier, population about 8,500, near the top of the list for home buyers looking for gay-friendly areas. With average home prices in the low $200,000s, "certainly it's tops for being one of the more affordable places."
Maplesden said a bimonthly gay and lesbian potluck group in the Route 1 corridor, which has added 100 names to its e-mail list since the late 1990s, helps spread the word. He said the designation of the area as an arts and entertainment district also helps.
Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), who lives in Hyattsville, said, "It's a migration that happened without fanfare.
"They didn't come here to prove a point. They are just looking for a safe place to live and be comfortable and raise their families, and we provide that."
Brian Nedler was renting in Takoma Park when he heard about the Glut Food Co-Op in Mount Rainier. He took it as an indication of a progressive community and moved there in 1992. In 2002, Nedler was elected mayor of the city, which is 62 percent African American and 18 percent Hispanic.
Residents say neighborhood changes have occurred with little conflict. "People who are less tolerant move out," said Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George's), who represents Mount Rainier. "The people who stay don't mind or welcome them."
Third-generation Mount Rainier resident Joan Flanagan, 73, remembers when the city had restrictive covenants that barred blacks. But change has come gradually, she said. "I don't ask people if they're gay," she said. "But I do think they keep their houses lovely."
On a humid evening in Mount Rainier recently, Moises Cisneros-Knight, 9, and a couple of buddies ducked in and out of the house while his Papi and his Daddy sat around the dining room table talking.
Mario Cisneros, 48, who drafts architectural plans, and Mark Knight, 50, who runs an affordable housing nonprofit group in the District, have been together 11 years. They adopted Moises from Ecuador as an infant. Knight calls the city "not so much a gay enclave as an enclave of tolerance."
"We went to the school and spoke to the principal and [said] we were a gay couple, and, basically, they opened their arms," Cisneros said. He has been president of the Mount Rainier Elementary School PTO for five years.
Most of the kids in Moises's class have been together since kindergarten, so the novelty of his family has worn off. Once a child at school "made him feel sad about not having a mom," Knight said, but the principal put a stop to it.
Janet Reed, the school principal, said: "Our children understand what ridicule is, and we don't laugh at anyone else's expense."
Reed said that the school has other same-sex couples and that they have never had any sort of incident. "Every parent in here knows that Mark and Mario are a couple," she said. "And, 100 percent, not one parent has ever come into my office with a concern that the PTO president is gay."
Knight said he and Cisneros worry about middle and high school but will take time to find a place where they fit in.
On a late afternoon in Hyattsville, Noah returned from picking strawberries with his Mama, Guardado, and greeted his Mommy, Wilson. Wilson had told him that "as long as there's lots of love, that makes a good family."
Still, she knows the questions are coming. "I know he'll have an issue when he's older," she said. But "right now, he thinks he's the luckiest boy in the world."
She looked around at the place she calls Serendipity. "And you know what," she said, "he is."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.