Out in the Valley
Ah, the difference TV makes.
When the title character on “Ellen” proclaims that she is a lesbian on the ABC sitcom Wednesday night, millions will be watching. And lesbians around the country, gathered in bars, churches and living rooms, will celebrate the debut of the first gay lead character on network TV.
But when 48-year-old Jody Young came out eight years ago, there was no TV show, no parties. As dramatically as her life changed, she said, much of it stayed the same: the job, the errands, the neighbors, the house in Northridge where she’s lived for 22 years.
It never occurred to her to move to a so-called gay area like West Hollywood. The San Fernando Valley is home. “Being gay doesn’t change that,” she said. “I’m not going to run away from this place because I’m out and other people might not approve.”
What Young didn’t know was that despite its Brady Bunch image, the Valley has long been home to what some say may be the largest--albeit diffuse--lesbian population in Los Angeles. There are as many lesbian bars here as in Long Beach, which also has a sizable lesbian community. At the same time, the Valley is regarded as a place to live comfortably, anonymously and safely. Indeed, a county hate crimes report released last week showed only 17 such incidents against homosexuals in North Hollywood, compared to 61 in Hollywood and 45 in West Hollywood.
Jeff Miller, a gay real estate agent who has sold houses to and for lesbians all over the Valley, said those clients have been just like everyone else buying houses here: primarily professional, upwardly mobile, baby-boomer couples.
“They’re moving out to the Valley to do what everyone else does: have a quieter, less hectic life, and do the suburban thing.”
Lesbians have been seeking that out since the postwar years, led by two pioneering nightclub owners, Beverly Shaw and Joanie Hannan.
The Rev. Flo Fleischman, 67, of North Hollywood still remembers the clubs--Hannan’s Joanie Presents and Shaw’s Club Laurel--as classy spots where she and her friends could gather. They may have been living under the pressure of a secret life, or gotten teased at work during the week, Fleischman said, “but on Saturday night--that was date night--all that was forgotten.”
The big concern at gay bars was police raids, recalled Edie Brown, 61, who started frequenting that scene while still a student at San Fernando High School. Cross-dressed men or women were targeted. The police, in fact, had a rule that everyone had to wear at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing.
“There were some women who passed as men,” Brown said. “But if they got caught and they didn’t have those three pieces of clothing, they were in jail.”
Maybe because the Valley was still the sticks, the police didn’t seem to bother the bars in North Hollywood as frequently as those in Hollywood, Silver Lake and the beach cities. So more cropped up. By the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, there were about a dozen softball teams sponsored by bars, plus bowling leagues, private “key clubs” and restaurants.
It wasn’t just the social life that drew women over the hill, though. There were jobs--in the studios, at General Motors and Lockheed--that could support a woman living on her own. Equally important were inexpensive houses--costing about $15,000--and the sense of safety.
“It was suburbia,” said Fleischman, who is on the board of directors for the International Gay and Lesbian Archives. “And here they could have something that they never had before.”
The same things are drawing--or keeping--lesbians in the Valley today.
Young--who had been married to a man with whom she had five children--found that she felt uncomfortable in the Westside scene once she started dating two years ago.
“Most of them have more money than the people in the Valley, but they’re transient and their relationships seemed transient,” she said. “I found I had more in common with women in the Valley. A lot of them have homes, jobs they’ve worked at for many years. . . . These were all things I was looking for.”
Judy Chiasson, too, decided to remain in the Valley after coming out at age 35.
“I was too afraid to leave,” said Chiasson, 43, who lives in Sherman Oaks. “I wondered if I would be accepted here. I liked it here, but I wondered what it was going to be like to be gay here. Did I have to move to West Hollywood?”
The needs of her children, ages 10 and 13, were most important. Chiasson, herself a teacher, wanted to be in a place where the schools were good and the neighborhood safe.
“I have one of those households where the door is always open,” she said. “That’s how I grew up and that’s how I wanted it to be for my kids.”
Chiasson, who just got engaged to her girlfriend, Carolyn Berry, initially didn’t think it would be easy for her neighbors to understand the changes in her family. But she discovered “that the other mothers were just far more understanding than I expected. It’s been a very positive experience.”
The Valley’s lesbian bars--all of which are planning “coming out” parties for the “Ellen” episode Wednesday--remain centered in the North Hollywood-Van Nuys area, but the women themselves have spread west and north with the rest of the population. Still, there are scattered neighborhoods to which, for whatever reason, lesbians gravitate.
Real estate agent Kathy Barbier, for example, sold three homes to lesbians in one Van Nuys neighborhood where several other gay women already lived.
“There isn’t necessarily a community there,” she said. “The prices fit their budgets.”
Women are still, on average, paid less than men, Barbier pointed out. Less than a mile away, Sheila O’Kane manages an apartment building where lesbians live in 15 of the 20 units. One of the reasons, O’Kane said, is cheap rent: a one-bedroom apartment is $495 a month.
The other thing lesbians repeatedly said they were seeking in the Valley was safe neighborhoods, which they seem to have found. The 1996 hate crimes report by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Rights did show an increase in the number of hate crimes against lesbians, but officials attributed that to more victims reporting incidents.
Still, the commission found only 40 sexual-orientation hate crimes in the entire San Fernando Valley in 1996, compared to 146 in the rest of Los Angeles. Long Beach, a city with one-third the population of the Valley, had 33.
Gay men were the targets of the vast majority--around 75%--of all anti-gay hate crimes. That’s because the men tend to be more noticeable, said Lisa Phillips, the LAPD’s field liaison to the gay and lesbian community.
There is a chance that the publicity generated by the “Ellen” show could spark hostilities toward lesbians, said Sharen Shaw Johnson, chief advocate for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center’s anti-violence project. Hate crimes against gays last year peaked at times of greater media coverage: in May, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Colorado’s Amendment 2, which would have barred the inclusion of gays in anti-discrimination laws; and in June, when most gay pride parades and celebrations were held.
“Nationally and in Los Angeles for years, we’ve seen a very direct correlation between gay and lesbian visibility and attacks,” Johnson said. “However, when we say that, it’s incumbent upon us . . . to understand that that in no way means we should go back into the closet.
“It’s a clear, clear call for the need for more visibility, not less.”
But it seems unlikely that the Valley will ever have a conspicuous lesbian community, as much because of the nature of the Valley as the nature of the women who live here. The Valley is the place to settle down and live a more tranquil life.
Carol Newman, 47, an attorney who is local president of the Log Cabin Club, a gay Republican group, said she’ll go out to West Hollywood, but prefers coming home to Encino.
She hates to generalize, Newman said, “but women who are paired off want a quieter lifestyle. Guys want to be in the middle of things and go out.”
“The people who end up in the Valley are a little more laid-back,” said O’Kane, the Van Nuys apartment manager. “They’ve gone through the cruising thing. They’ve outgrown it. And now they’re settled into their job and their lifestyles. And the Valley lends itself more to that kind of thing.”
In a sense, lesbians here do feel like victims of their own successful integration. They no longer have to go to a select number of bars or restaurants--and thus don’t have the same sense of community that their predecessors did 30 to 40 years ago.
At the suggestion of a friend, Dennis Mancini started an all-women’s night on Sundays at the Canoga Park club that bears his name. He had no idea so many lesbians live in the area.
“When I called the LN--the Lesbian News--and told them what I was planning, they said they get so many calls saying, please tell us when there’s something opening up in the west end of the Valley because there’s so many people in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley who don’t want to drive all the way into the city,” Mancini said.
Many mourn the closure last year of one of the larger bars, North Hollywood’s Club 22, even if they hardly ever went there. Younger women, in particular, say they have to drive to West Hollywood to socialize.
“It’s hard being a single lesbian,” said Monica Watford, 32, who lives in Northridge. “I’ve been in the gay community since I was a kid. It’s so small that you’re obviously going to meet somebody who’s been with somebody you know. . . . There’s really no place to go to meet new people.”
Watford remembers that six or seven years ago, there seemed to be other social outlets--football in Balboa Park or Frisbee in Griffith Park on the weekends. Not any more. All around her, it seems, the women are paired up.
“It’s like the thing to do,” she said, “get a little house in the Valley.”