Jim’s impressed too: “It’s not like Broad Street.”
Still, that’s not why Jim and Glenn are spending the day house-shopping in this rustic Maryland town. The couple from Richmond’s Lakeside Avenue likes Hagerstown because of where it isn’t — Virginia.
Weeks before a new law banning gay marriage in Virginia goes into effect — it becomes official July 1 — the men worry about the legal status of their retirement savings, health insurance and the rental properties they own together.
Jim and Glenn — Style agreed to not publish their last names — have no interest in tying the knot. They gave up on that long ago. But Jim is 56 and Glenn 59; they want to retire. So they’re taking drastic measures to protect the financial assets they’ve built during the last 26 years.
The new law, known by most as H.B.751, prohibits any “civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage” and further legislates that Virginia will not recognize same-sex marriages or similar arrangements made in other states. The law is an amendment to Virginia’s 1997 Affirmation of Marriage Act, and it takes the existing state law far beyond banning gay marriage, as many states have done in the past year.
Like many gay couples, Jim and Glenn worry that the act could be used to void all kinds of financial and legal contracts between them.
“Suppose we’ve gotten the house paid off, and I pass away?” asks Glenn, who bears a slight resemblance to Bob Denver: tall and thin, with full, shoulder-length brown hair. “Well then, does Jim have to go out and borrow money to pay for half of the house again just to give it to the relatives?”
The couple also hears another message in the legislation: Get out.
So they’re uprooting Jim’s 86-year-old father to live near Jim’s sister in Tidewater. (Jim’s father had just moved down the street in April to be closer to Jim and Glenn.) Eventually, they say, they’ll sell the four rental houses around the city that they own together. And then there’s the issue of moving. Hagerstown looked good, but the search is far from over.
Proponents say the marriage act simply protects Virginia from having to honor civil unions and same-sex marriages that take place in other states. The bill’s chief sponsor, Delegate Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, says those who try to vilify the act as an intrusion on existing rights are purposefully misleading the public.
“This is the homosexual leadership manipulating folks around Virginia,” Marshall says. “This doesn’t do anything to alter any legal rights. No homosexual is going to lose their health insurance because of this statute.”
The Virginia Bankers Association concurs. “We do not see this affecting anyone’s financial accounts at all,” says Ray LaMura, director of legislative affairs for the association. In other words, a gay couple such as Jim and Glenn aren’t purporting to bestow the privileges of marriage by owning a mortgage or joint checking account together, explains LaMura, because owning a joint checking account isn’t a privilege of marriage. “It’s a contractual relationship between two individuals,” he says.
Still, these are just interpretations of the law. Judges asked to decide who owns what during an estate dispute may not consult LaMura and Marshall. And that’s what concerns gays such as Jim and Glenn, who are reluctant to sit back and wait for a historically anti-gay legal and political system to start standing up for their rights.
“We’re at the stage in life where we can’t take a chance like that,” Jim says.
Consider: This is the same state where Jim was refused a teaching license, he says, because a few months before graduation his professor found out he was gay. This is the state that until 1991 had a law on the books (albeit, unenforced) prohibiting bars from serving homosexuals alcohol. And this is the state where Virginia lawmakers, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional last year, refused to strike the Virginia law from the code in an act of defiance. Just whisper the name Sharon Bottoms and witness many a gay living room drop silent.
The impact of the pending law is real. Jim and Glenn have inquired of local banks about how the legislation might affect their joint checking account, their mortgages, their wills — but to no avail. A representative at Wachovia recommended hiring an attorney, Jim says. Spokespeople for both Wachovia and SunTrust, two of the banks they questioned, say they are still in the process of studying the law to see how it may or may not affect bank policies.
Jim and Glenn also visited a local funeral home and asked the director if he would honor their right of survivorship contract — Jim and Glenn designate to each other administrator duties over bodily remains, like a husband and wife. The answer wasn’t encouraging.
Jim, a short, stocky man with thin, spiky hair, recalls asking the director, “Would you still honor it if a sister, a brother comes in and says, ‘No, I want to claim administrative powers over the body and everything?’ He said, ‘We’d give it to the blood relative.’ He would void what we wrote up.”
Regardless of assurances from Delegate Marshall and other politicians, the couple can’t see waiting around to find out how the law is interpreted.
“When that happened, it clicked: We can’t stay here,” Jim says, recalling the funeral home incident. “We’re not protected.”
As the debate over homosexual marriage takes center stage during the summer convention season and into the fall elections, some gay Richmonders are quietly packing up and moving elsewhere. Others who can’t leave yet are readying to jump at the first good job opportunity. And some who aren’t leaving are organizing.
During a mid-June meeting held at the Fan’s predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church, Richmond lawyer Diane Horvath, a member of the activist group Make Love Legal, leads a discussion about boycotting Jamestown’s 400-year anniversary party in 2007.
She spends much of the Thursday night meeting trying to convince the group of potential boycott organizers — about six or seven people — that an outright boycott isn’t the way to go. This is Richmond, she reasons, and that means fighting a different kind of fight. “Logistically, I think a boycott of that is really hard,” she says. “I know there is a lot of pain and hurt in the community. … But we need every friend we can get.”
It’s a clear departure from an earlier meeting at the church, when more than 300 angry same-sex couples and single gays showed up to vent their frustration. Horvath sees that anger as a detriment to the cause. She offers a few boycott alternatives. Perhaps the group can help organize a different kind of Jamestown celebration — one that celebrates diversity, offers a historical perspective on the roles of gays in history.
“We all know people who can do a better Queen Elizabeth than Queen Elizabeth,” she says, eliciting a few nervous chuckles. “There is humor in it, too.”
The few pounding the boycott circuit will get all the attention in the press; the silent majority will largely go unheard. The conservative, closet-bound nature of Richmond’s gay community makes fighting political battles difficult.
Ladelle McWhorter, a philosophy professor at the University of Richmond who is lesbian, moved here 12 years ago and still marvels at how closeted Richmond’s gay community is.
“It took me years to find four lesbian lawyers,” says McWhorter, an Alabama native. “It’s either that these people are very closeted — people with old Virginia money are very closeted — or it’s just that people don’t come here. It’s hard to know how many there are. I hear there’s a psychologist that I haven’t met.”
It’s next to impossible to accurately count the number of gays and lesbians living in Richmond — or the entire region, for that matter. The 2000 Census, which marked the first time same-sex households officially were included, reported just 647 same-sex households in Richmond.
The city’s gay population is certainly bigger than the census indicates. Wes Combs, president of Washington, D.C.-based demographer and marketing outfit Witeck-Combs Communications, says a conservative estimate of the gay population of the United States puts it at 6 or 7 percent of the nation’s total population — about 15 million people. Thus, it’s likely that 6 or 7 percent, or about 60,000 to 70,000, is an undercount of the gay population in metro Richmond.
Jean Segner, president of the gay-oriented Central Virginia Business & Professional Guild and a member of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, says her mailing list includes more than 1,000 gay and lesbian houses — some couples, some not. And the majority of the zip codes are in city neighborhoods such as the Fan and Church Hill, with a few sprinkled throughout the counties. Lakeside Avenue, it turns out, has become a magnet for same-sex couples in the last 10 to 15 years.
Edward Weston, 52, and his partner have lived on Lakeside for more than a decade. They held a commitment ceremony at a local Episcopal church in 1994. Yet their interest in H.B. 751 isn’t about legalizing their marrriage. They’re mostly concerned that the law threatens basic pursuits of happiness — a house, a retirement fund, health insurance, even a business.
“We have a joint bank account,” says Weston, whose partner isn’t out. “The bank might not honor rights of survivorship.”
While admittedly the law could shake out as a non-issue, they say they’re tired of being pushed into the closet. The couple carries the extra burden of being interracial — no easy task in Richmond, even for straights. Weston’s white partner has perfected the art of acting straight to keep his job as a substance-abuse counselor. A half-century of acting hetero — he’s 63 — causes him undue stress, he says. So much so that he admits being “homophobic about myself.” His glassy eyes carry a dead stare as he speaks in a soft monotone.
“I’m constantly looking at myself,” he says. “I’m not being true to myself.”
A few weeks back a job suddenly opened for Weston, who works as a travel services trainer for American Automobile Association. The job, which is in Delaware, is basically his for the asking. The timing couldn’t be better.
“Were it not for the legislation, we would not be considering moving,” Weston says matter-of-factly. While his partner is a long-time Richmonder — he remembers when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and “this town exploded” — Weston is a transplant from Washington, D.C. He moved here in 1994 and has been openly gay with his family and employers since graduating from college. “There’s no guarantee that we’ll find utopia if we go somewhere else,” Weston says. “But maybe they won’t legislate against us.”
There are more like Weston and his partner, and Jim and Glenn. It seems every day more gay couples inform Horvath that they want to leave Richmond fearing the effects of H.B. 751. There are those with children — How will it affect custody? — those with medical issues, those with retirement issues. It could potentially affect every homosexual in the state. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who are considering [moving],” Horvath says. “I’ve been considering it since before the bill came out.”
pponents point to two unknowns surrounding Marshall’s amendment. There is the uncertainty about the immediate effects — Will it void the mortgage? — and there is the longer-term unknown, which some worry will have a slow, deterious economic impact.
Virginia has passed perhaps the toughest anti-gay-marriage legislation in the country. Henry F. Fradella, a law professor who follows gay-rights issues at the College of New Jersey, told the Los Angeles Times, “Nothing so homophobic has ever been enacted into law in this nation’s history.”
Meanwhile, many cities are now actively recruiting gays in the name of economic development and urban renewal. Witeck-Combs Communications has done marketing research for IBM, Ford Motor Co., MTV and American Airlines, and estimates the 15 million gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the United States had a total buying power of $485 billion in 2003.
To appeal to this market, which demographers are just beginning to grasp, some cities are trying to get gay-friendly. Philadelphia launched a gay recruiting campaign two years ago, and recently wove the theme into its tourism advertising. Baltimore recently started placing ads in gay magazines hoping to entice same-sex couples to purchase historic homes in the city’s depressed areas.
Florida cities such as Palm Springs and Fort Lauderdale have for years targeted gay and lesbian tourists. Seven years ago, Chicago went so far as to designate a predominantly gay neighborhood in that city, Boystown, as a gay business district, pumping in $3.2 million in public improvements, including rainbow-decorated pylons along the sidewalks.
There is new research in the past few years that links gay communities with positive economic development. Perhaps the most influential is Carnegie Mellon Professor Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which purports to find a link between cities that have been successful as high-tech centers and high concentrations of gay men and lesbians.
Working with Gary Gates from the Urban Institute, Florida argues that cities that are historically tolerant of gays tend to fare better in attracting the young, creative knowledge workers that cutting-edge companies covet. Since the release of Florida’s book in 2002, urban planners across the country have made recruiting gays a part of their strategy to become havens for the creative class.
Many have criticized Florida’s work for being statistically unsound — the main criticism being Florida’s research took place during the Internet boom of the late 1990s, which subsequently crashed — but Florida’s work brought attention to gay economics.
“I think the idea that creativity and tolerance and diversity go together is a very intuitively appealing one,” says M.V. Lee Badgett, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and research director for the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies. “I’m not convinced what that link is yet, but it’s interesting.”
The lesson, says Badgett, is that Virginia may have picked a bad time to lash out against its gay community. Unlike years past when most states were equally homophobic, there are plenty of options today for gays and their families. That puts Richmond — which has the third-highest concentration of gays and lesbians in the state behind only Northern Virginia and Charlottesville, according to the “Gay & Lesbian Atlas,” a recently released book outlining the nation’s gay population — at a particular disadvantage, Badgett says.
“Since I’ve been studying these issues for almost 15 years now, I think it probably is the biggest anti-gay statement that I’ve seen,” Badgett says. “This is one that can have very far-reaching effects. There are lots more options now, and some of them aren’t that far from Richmond.”
In Hagerstown, Jim and Glenn see several homes they like. There’s an old Federal house with Victorian additions, a sprawling cedar oak looming over the sidewalk and 200-year-old boxwoods. It’s a little out of their price range, more than $200,000, but it’s a start. They tend to look at new homes as projects, fixer-uppers.
Each has made a living restoring and rebuilding homes in Richmond. They’re most proud of leading the effort to clean up the Boulevard in the early 1990s; Glenn still has the videotape of Jim speaking before City Council in 1992, fighting to get the city to designate the Boulevard area as a historic district, paving the way for developers to receive historic tax abatements. Jim is a past president of the Boulevard Civic Association.
In their living room on Lakeside, Jim cranks up a 1917 Victrola while Glenn peruses through before-and-after pictures of homes they’ve rebuilt.
“I’ve got to put all these houses up [for sale] and I’ve got to rebuild,” Glenn says. “We were close to adding on to this house. It kind of breaks our heart.”
That gays have revitalized urban neighborhoods is well documented. Gary J. Gates and Jason Ost of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., found that same-sex couples, on average, have more education than heterosexuals, more disposable income (only one in four has children) and own houses with higher property values (gay couples’ median house value is $160,000, 44 percent above a national median of $110,000). Gay and lesbian couples also are far more likely than married couples to live in neighborhoods where houses were constructed before 1939, Gates and Ost report in “The Gay & Lesbian Atlas,” released this spring.
Why are gays and lesbians attracted to the inner city? They’ve always enjoyed the relative anonymity and tolerance of the urban landscape. And because many don’t have children, says Ost, co-author of the Atlas, “they aren’t as worried with crime and schools.” Gay couples tend to fare better financially than married couples and single gays. “It appears to be a pretty good proxy,” he says, referring to the higher disposable incomes of gay couples, who tend to pump more of their money into houses. “Certainly couples have an advantage that single [gays] don’t.”
One needn’t look any further than Richmond for evidence of urban renewal and “gayborhoods,” as planners dubbed the phenomenon years ago. It is well known in real estate circles that gentrification of the Fan, Westhampton and Church Hill started in earnest with the gay community in the 1980s.
Gays often move in first, reinvest in the area, and eventually younger families with children start to move back. It’s gay gentrification, and it’s an evolutionary process that takes place in small and large cities across the country.
“Every city has a story like that — that the gay community came into a neighborhood and turned it into a more upscale place,” Badgett says.
Jim and Glenn stop off at the only gay bar just outside of Hagerstown — the Deer Park Lodge in Boonsboro — to find out how well gays get along in the Appalachian Valley. They like what they hear.
They hit the bar early on a Friday night, karaoke night, and the patrons tell them that the community is strong.
“It was a nice, friendly crowd,” Jim says. “The gays we talked to were very positive. Talking to people at the bar, these people were saying, ‘Naw man, it’s cool.’”
A stop at the local chamber of commerce nets a similar response.
Donna Long, director of operations for the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, hands them reams of information, including a business directory and a local government sheet with real-estate tax rates. She tells Jim and Glenn that in Hagerstown there are no issues. Maryland’s state legislature rejected a measure that would ban gay marriage in the state. In essence, she tells them to come on up.
“In Hagerstown, what you do is your own business,” she tells them. “You’re more than welcome to come here. We’d love to have you.”
On the way out, Jim and Glenn are aglow at the possibilities. The rain has stopped outside, and they’re ready to travel down to Boonsboro to look at houses.
“As it stands now, Glenn and I will be visiting this place again,” he says. S
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