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.
Some gays in the suburbs said that without many welcoming places to patronize and without the kind of support system that exists in the District, the political and social climate makes it difficult for some to come out about their sexual orientation. Joey, 49, of Centreville said he came out eight years ago and feels comfortable being a regular at gay bowling groups, at happy hours sponsored by Dulles Triangles, and at Jake's, where he said he goes "for friendship first and foremost, and with the possibility of a long-term relationship."
"The biggest thing is, you can let your hair down a little bit. So many of us work in environments where you can't be out," said Joey, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used because he works at Fairfax County public schools.
The largely hidden nature of gay life outside the District did not stop two Britons from creating an outlet for social activities outside Frederick. Chris Baker and his partner, Michael Hydes, moved to Hagerstown by way of New York and found the gay community there to be relatively invisible. One nearby gay bar, Deer Park, drew patrons from miles away, but that was it. Six months ago, Baker and some friends started Community Triangle of Washington County, a gay social and advocacy organization that hosts monthly dinners at restaurants -- but only if those establishments show support by carrying the group's rainbow-colored fliers.
"There was a need for something," said Baker, 37. "The aim is to be visible and to demonstrate our purchasing power as a community within a community."
Far outside the District, Fredericksburg hosted its third annual gay pride festival in late August, an event that has grown from a small boat cruise into a three-day affair with rock-and-roll performances and late-night happenings at bars.
"What was missing was just awareness in the community that Fredericksburg does have a large gay population. Not all are out, but quite a lot are," said DeWayne Lawrence, 43, president of Fredericksburg Pride, a nonprofit community service organization.
What draws people to Jake's Restaurant, patrons have said, is its hometown feel and safe environment. They said it offers a place for gays to meet without the hassle of a long drive. Some prefer Jake's because they find hyper-trendy D.C. clubs off-putting. "Here, people come up to you and talk, and they become friends," said Tom Donovian, 60, of Culpeper. "You don't find that in D.C. They're mostly S&M bars -- stand and model. They just want to stand around and look pretty."
A few patrons, though grateful for the gay night, would like the restaurant to be more open and get rid of the "private party" sign. If Jake's advertised, they have said, more people would come.
"It'd be nice if they would be more supportive. They're making enough money, I think, on a Monday night that they should be fine with advertising in the gay established press," said Marcus Kurghan, 25, of Centreville. "What other bar has this much business on a Monday night in Manassas?"