Out and about

A look at Reno’s GLBT community: what’s here and what’s not

Lauren Scott lobbies for GLBT rights as executive director of Equality Nevada.

Lauren Scott lobbies for GLBT rights as executive director of Equality Nevada.

Photo By Audrey Love

When Paco Poli was a student at the University of Nevada, Reno in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he and six other gay students were told they could not form a group on campus.

“We went to the dean of students,” says Poli, now 61 and founder/editor of The Reno Gay Page, an online monthly newspaper. “He said, ‘You can do whatever you want, but you can’t do it on campus.’ Gay just wasn’t accepted.”

Now the Queer Student Union at UNR is just one of over a dozen local groups where gay people and their allies can find support. While Reno has no “gayborhood” to speak of, the acronym-heavy GLBTQIA (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex and Allies) community is spread throughout Northern Nevada. They are farmers, magazine publishers, real estate developers, lawyers, hair dressers, artists, teachers, pastors and popular chefs, to name a few. And while they hold the occasional vigil or annual Pride parade and festival, they tend to go about their lives quietly, like anyone else in Reno. Some say that’s testament to the “gay friendliness” of Reno. Yet others say that contentment can lend itself to complacency. In 2010, gays still don’t have some basic civil rights, like the right to marry or serve openly in the military, and, in recent months, bullying led over a dozen gay teens nationwide to commit suicide.

“People of Reno, Nevada know about gay culture; we have Gay Pride every year,” says Randy Khong, who started the Gay Straight Alliance chapter at Damonte Ranch High School when he was a sophomore there and now helps support teens through the Pride Collaborative at UNR’s Center for Student Cultural Diversity. “I don’t think it’s as active because they haven’t seen the need to yet. Take for example Brianna Denison. Sexual assault to women—we were all aware of that, but we didn’t focus on it until the Brianna Denison case. Just like with gay culture, we don’t want a student to commit suicide for the GLBT community to become active.”

There is an active gay community here, though it’s not always obvious.

“Everyone thinks Reno is so backwater, but it’s very libertarian,” says Sam Olson, president of Build Our Center and cofounder of the sites YourGayReno.com and RenoGayBusiness.com. “‘Do what you want, but don’t do it in my face,’” is the local feeling.

“The community isn’t just the bar, it really isn’t,” says Poli. “We don’t really have any place to meet, so we just meet everywhere.”

So where do members of Reno’s gay community find solidarity, sociability and a safe place to meet? Where can someone turn when they are considering coming out, or just questioning whether they are gay? Where can the GLBTQIA community go to lobby for their political rights?

What follows is a rundown of GLBT resources in Northern Nevada: what’s here, what’s lacking, and what one group, Build Our Center, is trying to do about it.

Sam Olson is a paralegal and president of Build Our Center, a group working to build a gaycommunity center.

Photo By Audrey Love

Gay Reno

The sound of buzzing razors and smell of hair products fill the air at Salon 7. It’s a modern, industrial place, with colorful murals by local artists splashed across the walls and a colorful staff busy clipping, snipping, buffing and chatting. Jenny Oxier, better-known as Jenny O, opened Salon 7 nearly seven years ago. When she graduated from beauty school, she was told by several salons she worked for to keep her sexual preferences to herself.

“I opened this business because I was told not to tell anyone I was gay,” she says. Salon 7 has since become an information and social hub for Reno’s LGBT community. The salon moved to its Morrill Avenue location from Vassar Street just over a year ago when urban infill developers and life partners Kelly Rae and Pam Haberman asked Oxier, “If I build you a salon, will you come to it?” Oxier’s answer was an obvious yes.

“It was gay people helping gay people to succeed,” says Oxier.

Oxier says that until a more permanent gay community center is built—and we’ll get to that in a minute—she’d like to open Salon 7’s classroom area to the GLBT community for meetings and events.

Reno has quite a few GLBT groups that hold meetings and events, many of whom are active in charity fundraisers and food drives. (See sidebar.) But with all of these groups, there are also some recent losses.

As shown by Salon 7, gay-friendly businesses have a way of becoming defacto community centers. That was the case with La Bussola, the funky, arty Riverwalk boutique run by California transplant Meredith Tanzer, who continues to be a mover and shaker in the GLBT community. As one story goes, a young man from the far reaches of rural Nevada came in one day saying, “I heard this was the place to come if you’re gay.” But that shop closed recently.

Leaving a sizable hole in the community is A Rainbow Place, which was the GLBT community center for Reno. Originally on Saint Lawrence Avenue, it later moved from its central location to Vassar Street near the airport, a more isolated place to access, especially for young people without a car. It closed its doors in 2008, due primarily to financial difficulties.

When it did, it didn’t take long for people to start calling for a new brick and mortar GLBT community center.

Jeromy Manke is former president of the Queer Student Union and is now on the Build Our Center board.

Photo By Audrey Love

The center holds

Build Our Center is a new group that formed to create that community center. Its board members include Sam Olson as president, his partner Bill Nelson as treasurer, former QSU president Jeromy Manke as vice president, Tory Clark (the lone straight member) Paco Poli, Meredith Tanzer and Jenny O.

Nothing is definite about what the center will entail. The general idea is simply to provide a space to suit a variety of interests, with possibilities ranging from counseling services and blood testing to meeting rooms, a GLBT museum, and recreational spaces. The idea is to let the groups come and go and be responsible for what they do.

Build Our Center is in planning and fundraising mode now. It’s still in the process of getting its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and updating bylaws. The board wants to have a three-year operating budget in place before committing to a physical space.

“This community has been let down so many times by similar efforts,” says lawyer Nicole Harvey, founder of Harvey Law Firm, who’s helping Build Our Center dot and cross its legal i’s and t’s. “We want to prove our worth before they start shelling out the cash.”

Harvey is a lesbian with a life partner, a young daughter, and a baby on the way. She often helps gay parents set up their wills and estates. She recalls one day when a girl came in from the Queer Student Union and asked, “Is this the gay law firm?” Harvey replied, in bemused surprise, “Hell yeah, it is! It definitely is!” (“And getting gayer by the minute,” joked her colleague Todd Eikelberger, listening as she tells the story.)

Olson, who works at Harvey Law Firm, says their first goal is to turn BuildOurCenter.org into a virtual center of resources, and he’ll be funneling the traffic from his site YourGayReno.com to BOC.

“We want BuildOurCenter.org to be the gay website in Reno,” says Olson.

BOC’s second goal is to organize the Pride parade again next year. The group put it on at the last minute, in just 10 weeks, after the local Pride organization decided to hold a festival rather than a parade.

One of BOC’s biggest obstacles may come from within the gay community itself. Like any group that has a shared goal but differing views of how to carry it out, competitive interests and inside politics can sometimes stall forward movement.

“There are little factions,” says Poli. “The community is trying to come together. I don’t know if it ever will.”

However, Eikelberger said he’s been impressed by how smoothly and civil recent GLBT community meetings have gone. Also, nearly everyone interviewed in this story voiced their support for a brick and mortar community center.

“Everybody has their ideas of what support is,” says Lauren Scott, executive director of Equality Nevada, which lobbies for GLBT rights. “Some want a clubhouse. People like me like more of an academic support center for counseling, therapy—real help, not just mutual admiration.”

Paco Poli is founder and editor of The Reno Gay Page, an online newspaper.

Photo By Audrey Love

Down and out

In September and October, at least 14 gay teenagers committed suicide in the United States, and most of them were bullied for being gay. The most publicized story was that of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in September, days after his roommate allegedly posted a video on the internet of him having sex with a man.

“In light of all the mass suicides going on—in my small world, it’s a gay-friendly world,” says Oxier. “I forgot for a little while why we really needed a center. We still don’t have rights. There are still a lot of children, for not being what their parents want them to be—they’re still being kicked out of their homes for no reason other than being gay. That’s why it’s so important,” she says, adding that the transgender community is also underserved.

“If you know a transgender person and the hell they go through, you realize how sex and gender are not cut and dry,” says Scott. Of her sex she says, “I’m not a man, but I might not be a woman.” She was born a male but transitioned to become female in 1999 when she was 35. She believes she was exposed to dioxin, an endocrine (hormone) disruptor, in Michigan, where she was born. With the prevalence of endocrine disruptors turning up in everything from water to breast milk, Scott thinks the world is about to see a lot more transgender and intersex people.

“I have very strong tendencies,” she says. “I walk like a girl, I cry a lot. I just couldn’t be manly. I went through 35 years of [overcompensating] as a male. I still like women. Men are fine. I just don’t want to have sex with them.” Before going through transition (“sex change” is not the preferred term), she joined the Air Force as a firefighter, where she encountered first-hand the effects of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT).

“In the military, if you raised the issue to a military doctor, it could be a reason to discharge you,” she says. “You can’t talk about it.”

Manke also felt the sting of DADT. He was in the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) in high school, set on joining the military, but he came out as gay at age 15. He says he turned his back on his Mormon religion and on his military aspirations. “Going along with the option of that at the expense of turning my back on me was not an option,” he said.

So while many gay people lead their lives in relative normalcy, the prevalence of these complicated issues shows not all is rosy in gay America.

“The folks who need a center aren’t necessarily the folks connected into their mainstream lives,” says Harvey. “The folks who need the center are the people coming out or the parents of those kids. It’s not like we really get together once a month. It’s true that it’s about once a year that there is a parade. We do need a place to go when Prop 8 fails or gay marriage is passed in Iowa—a place to celebrate.”

“And if you’re not part of the bar scene, Reno needs more places to find [other gay people],” says Eikelberger. He first figured out he was gay in high school in the late 1980s, and he was “terrified.” He didn’t come out until law school, when he was 23.

“When I was in high school, I had no idea who to talk to. We had no internet, no Gay Pages. I was very traumatized by being a closeted gay in high school, and refused to deal with it in college based on what I went through in high school. … I can remember many times wanting to commit suicide in high school.”

Fear, anxiety, religious and family issues can become overwhelming for someone coming out, particularly for someone in high school.

That said, the age people come out appears to be getting younger and younger. If you’re gay and over the age of 30, you likely came out in college. But that’s changing.

“Kids are coming out at 13,” says Poli. “How do you know? I guess because of the openness there is now, you know what that feeling really is.”

Gay Straight Alliance groups have members in the dozens at local high schools. And Oxier, 32, says she spoke at Rainshadow High School recently and saw six or seven gay students holding hands. She says she didn’t know she was gay in high school, and if she had known, she doesn’t think she would have talked about it.

Jenny O is the owner of gay-friendly Salon 7.

Photo By Audrey Love

It gets better

Jenna Erickson, vice president of the Queer Student Union, has one theory for why teens are coming out at younger ages: “I think it’s the internet.” Now 22, Erickson came out at age 16 and started Wooster High School’s GSA. “I think before the internet, kids who felt different felt they were literally the only people in their community. Now, you can Google it, you can get online and talk with people all across the country.” And if you’re questioning, you can find everything from gay porn to gay support networks. Sometimes just knowing there are others can provide the support gay teens need to come out and accept themselves.

The “It Gets Better Project” is an example of that. Started by writer Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, in response to the string of recent gay teen suicides, it’s a simple eight-minute YouTube video where the couple describes how isolated they felt in high school, how they met, fell in love, and started a family. The basic message: High school sucks, but hang in there, it gets better. Hundreds of others have posted their stories on the site, creating an outpouring of support for gay teens.

Online social networking has added another element to a growing sense of community for GLBT members.

“Social networking has a way of skipping some of the awkwardness for seeking what you’re seeking,” says Scott, adding that, where once people often felt alone, now she can tap into 300 people through Facebook. “Online has become a virtual community center.”

Most groups and businesses mentioned in this article have a Facebook page to keep the GLBT community updated.

“QSU wouldn’t be where it is today without it,” says Manke of online social networking. “Before, social networking was based on who you knew. Now the internet is such a huge part of your lives, you can meet so many other people who are gay or might be gay. Having that allows people to flirt with or look into the idea of it instead of being submerged in a situation they’d be uncomfortable with.”

Providing some added support is the increase of gay characters on television and in the movies. Though gay jokes still abound in pop culture, people like Ellen DeGeneres, and characters and gay actors on Glee, are now beloved celebrities in the United States. And whereas American audiences a few years ago may have reacted negatively to two men kissing onscreen, Sean Penn and James Franco respectfully portrayed two men in love—and doing more than kissing—in Milk, and Penn won an Oscar for it.

Yet, some of those interviewed for this story said that while it’s nice to see gay characters on TV or in the movies, their stereotypical portrayal can also work against them. Some people questioning their sexuality have looked at the stereotypical flaming gay man or the butch lesbian for cues and thought, “Well, I’m not that, so maybe I’m not gay, but I don’t think I’m straight, either.” Clichéd depictions can add to their confusion. Nevertheless, many think the more people get used to seeing gay people on screen, the more accepting they become of gay people in real life.

“It creates normalcy when you see it on TV,” says Khong. “I can’t think of one person who has not watched Glee once. … I think through an indefinite amount of time, seeing it through media outlets, gay won’t seem so unique anymore.”

Oxier says she used to somewhat enjoy the shocked reaction of people when she first told them she was gay. Reenacting this, she says, “‘I’m gay!’” with hands splayed on both sides of her face, eyebrows arched, eyes popping, “’Are you scared?’ Now people don’t even flinch anymore.’”

“It’s no big deal to be gay anymore,” says Poli. “Even the gay bars aren’t really gay anymore. Everybody goes and has a good time.”

So if being gay is no longer a big deal, why the need for a community center? A follow-up question might be, does a group have to feel oppressed to want to gather together among like-minded people? Religious groups, most of whom aren’t ostracized, have places all their own to be together. So do youth groups and sports teams. Even if the local gay community had full equal rights, which it doesn’t, it still wants a place of its own to gather together.

“It’s not like we need a gay center because there’s adversity,” says Harvey. “It’s, we need a place.”