Moving to the Triangle can be a difficult transition when you're out of the closet and used to living in a major urban center. It certainly was for Gabe Lamazares, who moved to the area in 1999.
"After more than five years in Seattle--and two years in New York before that--the first few years of living here were a wrenching adjustment, especially in terms of my gay identity and community involvement," says Lamazares, 33.
Still, he admits, there are compensations.
"Where else can I live practically out in the country--on a wooded acre of land where I can almost see the Milky Way on clear dark nights, where it's quiet and the crime rate is very low--and still be a five-minute drive from a bohemian meet-n-greet like Weaver Street Market in Carrboro? This place has grown on me. It has its charms."
Beckie Moriello, 26, of Raleigh, thought she would hate it here. "I moved to Raleigh from L.A. for grad school, despite the numerous warnings from friends about the Bible Belt. My plan was to come for two years and run away as soon as it was over."
But she didn't, and nobody is more surprised than she is.
"Not only did I stay and get a job afterwards, but I could see myself living here permanently. You run into people you know more often. Likely someone you meet knows someone you already know."
Despite the considerable conservative population around us, the Triangle has become a surprisingly attractive place for gay men and lesbians. In part, it's the tolerance created by three major universities with active student groups. Research Triangle Park attracting large corporations with liberal employment policies certainly helped. The large influx of people from urban areas helped, too.
Add in the political climate as another factor. "Of the places to live in North Carolina, I think this is one of the hubs of liberal thought and politics," Lamazares says.
And gays and lesbians like it here for all the same reasons straight people do. Some move here for jobs, some for a less hectic way of life, some for a lower cost of living. Some grew up here and never left, of course. Some are moving back, years after running to a big city to come out, to be close to aging family members.
Some just find the Triangle congenial.
"I was in the military when I came out and glad to be so close to Raleigh," says Anissa Litwin, 35, of Chapel Hill. "It was 1996, and I put an ad in the Independent under 'Women seeking women.' The second woman I met was the one who introduced me to the lesbian club scene. At the time there was a club in Raleigh on Glenwood down by the Rialto that was just for women. That was the first lesbian club I ever went to and even though it was small and kind of a dive, I loved it and I loved being there and included in the community. I liked it so much that I decided to stay here after I left the military."
In Raleigh, the discerning eye will see gay people at the Third Place coffeehouse and neighboring Lily's Pizza, or the Irregardless Cage. In Chapel Hill, Caffé Driade is very popular. In Durham, Mad Hatter's Café and Bakery is one of many places where gay folk hang out.
"Great local places to hang out with other gay people, in my opinion?" Denise Dunn, 36, easily lists a couple dozen one right after the other, and those are just in Durham. They are pretty much the same places that straight people like to hang out.
"Although I frequented those places a lot more when I was single," she says, "my partner and I will still visit those places alone from time to time and with our other lesbian friends. And when we have children (which will be within the year), we will definitely feel comfortable going to those same places."
There's a feeling of relative safety; there's no need to keep looking over your shoulder for potential danger. When there is an attack--as there was earlier this year in Chapel Hill--we are surprised and shocked. And swift to take action. That's quite a change from 30 years ago, when I first moved to the area.
Years and years of local community organizing have helped bring these changes about. Back then, there was a lot less going on. UNC's student group published Lambda, a newsletter distributed throughout the area. Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists had numerous projects going. St. John's Metropolitan Community Church was already here.
And as for nightlife, well ... Pegasus in Chapel Hill had closed, but Blueberry Hill had opened. Raleigh had the Mousetrap, and the Queen Bee had been bought and converted into the Capital Corral (now CC). There were piss-elegant dinner parties (mostly gay) and potlucks (mostly lesbian). But you had to know somebody to get an invite.
Durham had a reputation in some quarters for being a haven for lesbians. "When I came out as a young dyke in Durham," says Cris Rivera, 32, "I scoffed whenever I heard people say this was the place to be as a lesbian. My small circle of bar friends would scratch our heads about the accolades in the national gay press, and laugh at how the media attention was drawing unsuspecting queers here to meet the same dead social scene and embarrassingly tiny social web."
There are certainly more things to do than there used to be, more ways to meet people--from gay-owned and gay-friendly businesses to welcoming churches, family picnics and nightlife. You might conclude from the listings that accompany this story that the gay community in the Triangle has a passion for the mundane. Board games. Bingo. Bowling, for crying out loud. But the truth is, these are popular with our community in the big cities, too.
Still, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill--to say nothing of Cary, Apex, Carrboro and Holly Springs--seem an odd choice for a gay man or lesbian. What's the attraction?
Rivera offers one answer: "I truly did grow up here. I learned who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life. The family I made here in the Triangle gave me the courage and strength to continue to reconcile with and love the family into which I was originally born. Now, the idea of moving anywhere else seems foreign, even crazy."
Lamazares offers another: "Within a couple of weeks of moving here, I met my partner through mutual friends, and we've been together for five and a half years--as long as I lived in Seattle. I don't think that's a coincidence. In all those years in Seattle and New York, I never had a relationship that lasted more than about four months."
But what worked for Lamazares doesn't work for everyone. "Being single, I wish there were more out professional, liberal gay men in Durham. The dating scene here is not that great," says Roger Kaplan. "As a Jewish gay man, I find it difficult to meet someone here who shares my interests and perspective on the world and life.
"I have lived in L.A., San Francisco, New York City, Atlanta and Israel--major metropolitan areas. I moved back to North Carolina in 1998 not because of its gay community per se, but because of its community," he adds. "The area is the right size for me, affordable, and has good weather. My own community is a mix of gay men, lesbians and straight friends. I have wonderful neighbors, our kids play together, and it just feels like home. It's a choice: I can move to New York with a larger gay male community and pay $1,500 for a studio apartment, or live here and own a nice house in a quiet neighborhood where I can raise my son in a loving and safe environment."
Rivera agrees. "While my partner and I have a wonderful core network of 'queer friends,' the greater circle of our lives reflects the fact that Durham allows us to simply be human," she says. "While N.C. Pride and the N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival are flagship events we never miss, we can hang out with fellow gay people at work, at school, at church, at Swing and Vintage dances, on Ninth Street, at the Festival for the Eno, at Centerfest, at Bulls games, at the Durham Farmers' Market, and down the street while walking our very large dog."
While enjoying the lower cost of living and the feeling of being home, some transplants still find the Triangle too closeted.
"I was born and spent my early years in North Carolina. Life on a North Carolina foothills farm is very isolating and provincial, and while growing up I realized that there was a big world out there that I wanted to explore, to see other places and meet other people," says David Kerl, 55, of Raleigh. "And I did just that--from living in Europe to New York City to Los Angeles to various places in between. But after 30-plus years away, I decided to move back to be closer to my family.
"I think the biggest disappointment for me has been to find out that after all that time away, attitudes about gays had not changed that much--particularly within the gay community itself. Far too many are still in the closet, especially among the older gays. I think younger gays have a better attitude about being out, yet unfortunately I still see a lot more internalized homophobia than I would have imagined."
Building a thriving community here hasn't been easy, and not just because some people are still in the closet, and not just because of the conservatives all around us. North Carolina is unusual in that is doesn't have a single urban center that predominates, the way Chicago does in Illinois or Atlanta does in Georgia. There's safety in numbers, and an out, viable gay and lesbian community needs a certain critical mass.
The problem is compounded in the Triangle since, despite astounding growth, we're still living in three different cities (with satellite suburbs). That's made it impossible, for example, to establish a physical community center. Wherever you put it, it will only be a center for that city, and not the Triangle. So, even as the community grows, it's still hard to make connections.
I spent the better part of the 1990s as manager of White Rabbit Books in Raleigh, a store focused on the gay community. I would tell newcomers suffering from culture shock that the hardest part was getting plugged in. The community was there, you just had to find it.
Litwin makes one additional point--that you get out of your community what you put into it.
"I think North Carolina has a great community for being a Southern state," she says. "I believe that with all the groups that we have, as long as we support them, it will always be a great place."
Kelli DePuy, 26, of Chapel Hill, sums it up: "I grew up in the Bay Area, had never been further east than Utah. Despite my initial reservations, I found that once I sought out queer spaces and frequented them, the folks I met were extremely friendly, outgoing and kind.
"Furthermore, the relatively small size of the queer community made it easy for me to become involved in activism and community organizing. The sense that I can participate in, challenge, create and affect my community is strong, and I am so grateful to be a part of the queer community in the Triangle."
Jim Baxter is editor of The Front Page, a newspaper serving the gay and lesbian community. The paper's Web site is www.frontpagenews.com.