Power of Pride
In honor of Reno’s 9th annual Pride celebration, we’d like to introduce you to a few of our community’s gay members
It was only a few years ago that public disclosure of a person’s sexuality could ruin that individual’s reputation. These days, with a thriving gay community in Reno, gay is just another way of being normal. Sure, there have been some recent setbacks in the struggle for equal rights for gays, but like many obstacles created out of fear, ignorance and hatred in our nation’s history, these, too, shall be overcome.
In celebration of Reno’s Gay Pride event, Aug. 20-21, we went to the streets to find folks—some well-known, some more private—to talk about what it means to be gay in Reno. Turns out, there’s a lot to be proud of.
Paul Cain and Kurt Jacobowitz-Cain
The patio entryway to the two-story home off Robb Drive in the hills west of Reno is a stylish and welcoming flagstone. Despite the fact that the occupants of the building are home, there are no cars on the street or the driveway—a tidy look that’s rarely achieved in Reno’s suburban neighborhoods.
Hosts Paul Cain, 44, and Kurt Jacobowitz-Cain, 53, greet guests at the door as a couple. The home’s interior walls are either bright, solid colors or white with few wallhangings. It’s an airy and cheery home, obviously appointed for entertaining, with nice furnishings and a prominent selection of books. The backyard features a large deck, a bit of grass, an enclosed hot tub and a painter’s tools, as the house is being painted.
Paul is the more gregarious of the pair, who were married in a religious ceremony in 1991. Kurt is easygoing as well, just not quite as talkative, with concise points he inserts into the ranging conversation. They wear flamboyant matching Hawaiian-styled shirts, the shirts they were married in some 14 years ago.
The two have been “poster children"—they’re on this issue’s cover—for various community causes, including political, spiritual, gender issues, in the Truckee Meadows since they arrived here from Phoenix several years ago.
Since this couple is so adept and experienced at activism, it’s somewhat surprising that they’re a bit taken aback by the question: In the context of being a gay couple, what makes you proud?
The bearded Jacobowitz-Cain is the first to recover from his bemusement.
“The fact that we’ve lasted 16 years makes me proud of our relationship,” he says, beginning the to and fro incomplete sentence passing that characterizes a conversation with the matched set.
C: “People said this marriage …”
JC: “Would never last.”
C: “For one thing, we were going to different churches. Everybody at both churches kind of thought there wouldn’t be any way this would work out, especially Kurt’s church. He was marrying an infidel.”
Their church in Reno is Metropolitan Community Church, which meets at Temple Sinai. And, not to belabor the obvious, but 14 years is double the average length of a heterosexual marriage.
As the dialogue matures, the men’s sources of pride become many: They are proud that they discovered the lie of the “ex-gay” movement through experience. (The ex-gay movement is this recent idea that a church program can cure a homosexual of his or her “problem.") They are proud that they have the courage to help others see that “gay” is just another way to be normal. They are proud that they have the skills to be active in politics. They are proud to set a good example to co-workers. They are proud to be part of the vibrant and welcoming gay community in Reno, Nevada. They are proud of the fight they and their friends put up against the anti-gay-marriage initiative in Nevada, and, while they have set up their own legal protections such as powers of attorney and will, they are proud of the effort they and their friends have put toward getting equal marriage rights for all Americans.
“Something else that I’m proud of is that we’re normal,” says Jacobowitz-Cain. “Let me tell you what the gay agenda is: You go to work; you do an excellent job; you mow your lawn; you pay your property taxes, and you go to bed at 10 o’clock at night. That’s the gay agenda.”
C: “Well, that’s your agenda.”
JC: “We live boring lives.”
—D. Brian Burghart
If you had to categorize Miki Proud (that’s her real last name), she’d suggest the term “tomboy femme.” But, really, there’s no reason to. Proud, 23, sports a version of the toughed-up girly look you might spot on women of varying demographics between about 12 and 50. She wears short, blond hair, blue eyeshadow and several visible tattoos, including a little crescent moon on her ear. She defies most lesbian stereotypes (her jokes about mullets and Harleys are uttered with precise comic timing but without malice) and embraces some others (the beads on her necklace are rainbow-colored), but mostly she doesn’t worry about it. She’s comfortable with who she is, and she expects other people to be too.
Proud came out at 15. Dad took awhile to adjust; Mom’s still not used to the idea of a gay daughter; friends at school didn’t bat an eye.
“I’ve heard horror stories from people. But I’ve had a pretty easy time with [being gay],” she says. Aside from the occasional disapproving glance from a stranger, she says, “I haven’t had any acceptance issues or anything like that. I’ve talked to a lot of people growing up in the same town, the same environment, that have had an extremely hard time. And I don’t know what the difference is. I don’t know if it’s just in the general social circle I’m around it’s just not an issue. Nobody really thinks twice about it.”
Proud is a video store manager ("I watch more movies than anybody on the planet.") who’s in the process of deciding on an educational path. She’s might pursue chemistry, which she was good at in school. Or maybe she’ll study English, less likely to guarantee financial security but more likely to hold her interest longer. She knows a lot of waiters with English degrees, though. That makes her a little nervous.
She says the biggest problem with life as a young lesbian in Reno is that the dating pool is too small.
“It’s very hip right now,” to be a young lesbian, she says. It’s just that there aren’t that many around. Moving to San Francisco would be an obvious solution, and Proud may or may not do that some day. Reno is home, and she likes it here.
Meanwhile, she tends to attract “experimental straight girls.” That’s a pretty good deal, she says, though she wishes women her age were generally better in bed. And she’s doing what anyone trying to get more dates with women would do: learning how to play the guitar.
Rev. Denise Cordova
Rev. Denise Cordova, 48, pastor of the Light of the Soul Christian Ministries, arrived in Reno 20 years ago to take a job here. When she encounters opposition to gays and lesbians, she tries to use those occasions for dialogue.
Question: When you first arrived here, what was it like for you?
Answer: Actually, when I first arrived here, I was not out. I was very closeted for fear of losing my job and for fear of judgment from family and friends.
Q: How did Reno seem for a person who was gay?
A: When I first moved here it seemed very conservative, and I didn’t feel comfortable expressing who I truly was inside, just for fear of retribution. But, you know, if I look at it honestly, I believe part of that fear was also my own internal self-condemnation, for lack of a better word. So between the fact that I felt this was a very conservative community and the fact that I was struggling within my own self about who I am, then those two things made it difficult for me to live freely.
Q: How long after you came here did you come out?
A: I came out in 1991, so it would have been five years afterward.
Q: And then what was it like to live here?
A: I still experienced that it was a conservative community. I think the difference is that I finally accepted myself, and the majority of the reason for that is that I realized that God accepted me. Once I was able to reconcile my Christian life with my personal life, in terms of my sexual orientation, I honestly was freed. And although I still experienced some loss of friendship and change of employment, it didn’t matter as much to me because I really felt as though God is definitely with me, and that felt like I could overcome a lot of things with that.
Q: Was it difficult for you to reconcile your Christianity with being gay?
A: Having experience in living as a Christian, I heard a lot of condemnation and a lot of what I [now] believe is misinterpretation of what scripture says about gays and lesbians. And it wasn’t until I was able to do my own studying and looking into the Greek and Hebrew and understanding cultural issues at the time scripture was written, it wasn’t until I educated myself that I was able to reconcile that and realize that God loved me.
Q: Are there times that you have been threatened?
A: I’ve never been threatened face to face. I have had phone calls since I came out, I would say I’ve probably had … a handful, probably 10 phone calls threatening my life.
Q: Are there ways that you protect yourself, like avoiding certain situations or whatever?
A: I can honestly say that it’s made me a lot more aware of my surroundings. I don’t live in fear, but I have an unlisted phone number. I try not to make it readily available for someone to know where I live. But as far as stopping me from speaking out against injustice, especially against the gay and lesbian community, that doesn’t stop me.
Q: Do you ever encounter Christians who believe that being gay is immoral and are at a loss for how to deal with a gay Christian minister?
A: I often run into people like that, and it’s something that I actually embrace because I think that the only way to come to any mutual agreement about any, what I feel is, injustice, is to discuss it. I think most people are surprised that I’m so open about it and willing to discuss it with anyone and give my view and my experience, my education. And I’m also willing to listen to their side of the story as well.
Vanessa Moreno and Angela Denigro
Only a few years ago, neighbors who live on the nautically named street slightly out of downtown and a block off the main drag likely would been scandalized to have a same-sex couple living on the block.
Vanessa Moreno and Angela Denigro are both 22. Moreno is Latina-cute with fairly short black hair of the type you’d see on a military recruit. That would make sense as she is one, preparing for training back East. She looks like the kind of person you might see behind the counter managing employees at Wild Oats—an average young woman with normal hopes for the future.
“I want to be an accountant,” she says. “That’s part of the reason I joined the military; school is very expensive.”
If you saw Denigro on the street, you might even be able to guess that she’s a dental hygienist. She’s got the long, brunette hair, girl-next-door looks and perky personality of someone who works with the public in a professional capacity.
In fact, if the two weren’t a lesbian couple, many people would find them utterly unremarkable.
Actually, they are utterly unremarkable: a neat house with a few pets, including a dog named Chloe and a twittering bird, pictures on the walls, cereal boxes on top of the refrigerator, a 12-year-old niece, Nicole. Their sheer normality is something they take pride and comfort in.
“You just find somebody that you want to spend the rest of your life with, and it just happens to be somebody of the same sex,” says Moreno. “When it happens, you don’t really think about that aspect. This is what it is. We’re just a couple, just a regular couple. Some people find it odd, but we don’t.”
The pair moved here from Ontario, Calif., to help out with Denigro’s niece. She says that Renoites are much more accepting of them and their lifestyle than Californians were—even where her niece is concerned.
“We have sports that we go to, school, Girl Scouts. We go, not as her parents but as her aunt and Vanessa—but people still talk to us, they invite us places, they don’t push us out to the side of the group or anything.”
The pair finds Reno attractive for the reasons most young couples find Reno attractive: a nice outdoor environment (although last winter was a bit harsh for Denigro); late-night clubs, nearby theaters, show-filled casinos. Three weeks ago, they did the wine walk. Last week, they checked out Magic Underground.
The pair says the only question they ever had about their sexuality was whether their families would accept them. After that fell into place, they can only see life getting better with financial stability, and someday, children of their own.
The one thing they can’t understand is why any newspaper would ever want to interview them for a gay-pride issue.
“I don’t see us as any different,” Moreno says. “To me, if people think of it that way, then they’re kind of taking themselves outside the circle. It’s just normal. It’s not anything outside of the ordinary to us.”
And for those of us who remember the ‘70s and ‘80s, that naiveté, in and of itself, is kind of refreshing.
—D. Brian Burghart
Before Robert Washburn, 44, orders soup and salad, the waitress at the Gold N’ Silver comments on his new look: “What happened to your hair?” Usually, it’s dark brown with streaks, but the hairdresser went to town and bleached the entire top rock-star blond.
His look is all city, but Washburn is a fifth-generation Nevadan who grew up in Reno.
He knew he was gay long before he came out to the family. When Washburn was 16, a cousin, who was about the same age, announced his homosexuality. The cousin was asked not to attend any more family functions, and he hasn’t been heard from since.
Washburn found it wasn’t too hard being openly gay in college, but that was in Texas, with no parents around. A year after returning home from school, he broke the news. It wasn’t easy, but he figures a general shift of social tide helped cushion the blow.
“Things had changed. There was Phil Donahue and Oprah and Sally Jesse Raphael, and a lot of people had … opened doors,” he says.
The adjustment didn’t happen overnight, but now, he says, he has a good relationship with his family.
Washburn has a high profile. He’s the founder and publisher of Outlands Magazine, a gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender magazine that’s distributed in 11 states and, as of recently, Jerusalem. His long resume includes positions in marketing, sales and hospitality management. He’s been a business owner, activist and volunteer, and he’s a member of the Nevada AIDS Advisory Task Force.
Even though he’s well known as an openly gay man, he finds worrying about categories useless, “Being gay is only a part of who I am,” he says. “It’s not definitive of who I am.”
He says he finds Reno tolerant of gay people (though a little less so than in the 1980s), but he’d prefer to see a higher level of assimilation. He points out that walking down the street holding hands with a man would be no big deal in San Francisco, or even Sacramento, but he’d be far more cautious here.
He says he’s never felt directly threatened, but he’s careful.
“If you think that you’re going to be in a park laying down holding hands [with someone of the same sex] and be received, no, it’s not going to happen.” He doesn’t have a rainbow flag sticker on his car.
Washburn says he’s often presented with the argument that people are gay because they choose to be. He doesn’t believe it, but he asks people to pursue that line of logic to its conclusion and choose to accept gay people as ordinary people.
He asks, “If God gave me the right to choose, why can’t you?”
Many gay Nevadans have had difficulty accepting their sexuality. Even when they did, they often found themselves with self doubts and guilt. In addition, it’s not uncommon for them to live lives of caution, avoiding situations that might offer danger.
Ben Felix, 49, has been fortunate enough not to fit any of those molds. He came out at age 14 ("I decided that secrets are unhealthy.") and has enjoyed support from friends and family.
Felix moved to Nevada in 1999 to be close to his father who lived in Carson City and had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His father, in trying to convince him to move, joked that while there might not be many support services for gays in Reno, “the senior citizens center doubled as a gay and lesbian center on the weekends.”
Felix quickly learned that his father was right. He found the people congenial but services lacking.
“I found it fairly open. My only concern was the lack of resources because it came to my attention in the Christmas time of ‘99 that we had five teenage suicides locally that were attributed to sexual identity or gender identity [issues]. And that’s when I got a little concerned that there was nothing visible in the community that these kids could seek out for resource.”
During that first winter, Felix sought out assistance for a center where gays could find support and assistance. He drafted articles of incorporation and filed them on Feb. 8, 2000, for A Rainbow Place, now on St. Lawrence Street but soon to move. The center offers, among other things, youth outreach, hepatitis-vaccination clinics, an anti-violence project, HIV/AIDS/STD education and testing, a speakers bureau, and an oral history project.
Felix attributes his personal ease with his identity and lack of concern for his safety to his having defined himself at an early age. Society’s conditioning did not yet have a strong hold on him.
“I have always lived out openly so, you know, what you see is pretty much what you get. Those of us who, I think, steer through life pretty directly don’t have problems. I think those who are semi-closeted tend to not feel secure with themselves so that a different vibration then gets reflected back at them.”