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Gay Male Couples Partial to City Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gay male couples are overwhelmingly city folk, while lesbian partners are more apt to settle in suburbs or foothill towns, census 2000 information for Southern California shows.

To some extent, the pattern confirms long-held stereotypes about disparate gay and lesbian subcultures. But the map is also shot through with more universal truths about how the financial gender gap and parenthood affect everyone’s choice of neighborhood.

The census counted about 39,000 gay cohabiting couples in Southern California, a small fraction of the region’s gay population. The census provides a category for those in same-sex partner households, but fails to capture gay people not in live-in relationships because it does not ask about sexual orientation.

The map of Southern California’s same-sex couples largely mirrors those of metropolitan areas nationwide: Except for a handful of cities such as Santa Fe, N.M., and Portland, Maine, where lesbian pairs hold the edge, male couples are consistently more urban and more concentrated.

“The places that register as highly male are really highly male,” said Gary Gates, a research associate at the Urban Institute who specializes in the demography of the gay and lesbian population. “The women are more diffuse and more rural.”

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The same-sex couples who cohabit in the Southland are 56% male and 44% female, but in parts of Hollywood, Laguna Beach, Long Beach and Palm Springs, male partners outnumber lesbian pairs by as much as 10 to one.

Lesbian partners, by contrast, are spread far more thinly in those hot spots, as well as in their sole urban enclave, Long Beach’s Belmont Heights.

No Los Angeles County census tract has more than 37 female couples--compared with six with more than 100 male couples apiece--and the only places where lesbian partners routinely outnumber their male counterparts are in more remote spots such as Claremont, Redlands and Chino Hills.

The geographical divide may start with income, couples say.

Male partner households far outpace female couples in affluent Rancho Mirage, for example, but the numbers are more even nearby in affordable Desert Hot Springs. Almost 10% of Orange County’s male couples live in the pricey coastal area in and around Laguna Beach, compared with about 3% of lesbian couples.

Patti Westerling and her partner of more than four years settled in Riverside largely because it is affordable, Westerling said. A disability keeps the former electrician from working and limits their options, she said.

“A lot of the time it’s about money,” Westerling said. “Men still make more.”

Female partners also are far more likely to be raising children, compounding the financial issues and making schools, parks and safety a higher priority for them, Gates said.

In 1990, one in five lesbian couples had children in their households, and one in 20 male couples did. Though comparable census 2000 data are not yet available, the split may have deepened during the 1990s--the so-called gay-by (rhymes with “baby”) boom decade--in which having children became far more common for gay couples, especially women.

That may explain why pockets of lesbian partners turn up in areas of Mission Viejo and the San Fernando Valley that have little corresponding population of male couples.

“Most of the gay males I know with children have them from heterosexual marriage, and mostly on the weekends,” said Steven McGrew, co-chairman of the Rainbow Council, an Inland Empire gay advocacy group. “Lesbians have younger children, and they’re searching for good schools.”

To some, the census numbers validate conventional wisdom about the female drive to nest and the male drive to rove.

“In some ways, the cultural differences between men and women are intensified when the relationships are male-male, female-female,” McGrew said. “Gay male social life revolves around bars and discos. Lesbians don’t need to be centralized around those venues.”

More than 10% of Los Angeles County’s male couples reside in census tracts set around Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards, stretching from Silver Lake Boulevard to the edge of Beverly Hills. Abuzz with clubs, bars and restaurants, the area offers comfort and the energy of numbers.

“It’s almost too much of a party scene,” said Morgan Reide, who lives in Studio City with his partner of seven years.

For business reasons, the pair may relocate to Palm Springs, but the move would be unthinkable without that city’s large contingent of gay men, Reide said.

Lesbians say individual taste figures more heavily in their choices than seeking out places identified with the gay community.

The number of same-sex partners leaped 314%, from fewer than 150,000 in 1990 to more than 600,000 in 2000. The higher totals may reflect a concerted effort by gay community groups to persuade members to be counted.

“I don’t like the category,” Westerling said. “I consider her my wife. But I checked off ‘unmarried partner.’ ”


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