A hidden community
In between spoonfuls of homemade soup at a quiet Breckenridge café, Florida native Lindsey Arnold tells a typical Summit County story. She graduated from college, moved to the mountains, secured a seasonal job and adapted to a life that revolved around snowboarding, rock climbing and mountain biking. Arnold, 23, has cultivated many friendships and thinks Breckenridge is “the perfect place” to be during this stage in her life, but there’s one aspect of her life in which she feels a void.”I’m the only lesbian anyone knows here,” Arnold said. “I haven’t met a single (lesbian) my age.”Arnold grew up in Miami, went to college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, then lived in South Beach, a trendy hot spot with a huge gay presence located on the southern tip of Miami.She says moving to Summit County was a culture shock.”When I first moved here, I had the misconception that all women were going to be gay,” she said.Her assumption, she said, came from the fact that all the lesbians she knew in Florida dressed similarly to the mountain fashion that is popular among Summit County women.But, Arnold quickly realized that the lesbian community in Summit County is small and the number of younger, single lesbians is even more minuscule.”I really think it’s just me,” she said of the 20- to 32-year-old crowd. “I think the younger community has to be out there, I just don’t know where they are.”And, it’s not only the younger lesbians that are seemingly nonexistent in the county.Jane Oakley, 58, moved to Summit County from Denver five years ago to make a long-term commitment to her partner, who was already established in the High Country.”I miss (Denver) a lot,” Oakley said. “I still do things with friends from Denver, but not as often.”I don’t have near as much social life as I had there.”In Denver, Oakley said she belonged to many lesbian-oriented organizations, such as Rocky Mountain Career Woman, Women in Sports and book clubs, that don’t have a presence here because of a lack of interest.Furthermore, she thinks the local lesbians don’t participate in the few organized activites Summit County does have for lesbians, making it even tougher to meet people.”I came up here and I couldn’t believe it,” she said. ” I thought, where is everyone?”What is the scene?While the women who were interviewed for this story say the general feeling is that the lesbian community is not really a community at all, Summit County does have a handful of outlets in which lesbians can socialize, but none seems to act as a connecting force.
The Summit County chapter of Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was founded in 1994 and provided a vital source of support for Katie Brown when she was coming out about seven years ago.Brown, a 17-year resident of Summit County, reached out to the organization after a devastating break-up that left her emotionally wrecked and in need of a support circle because her family and friends didn’t know she was gay.Through her connections with PFLAG, Brown met people who understood what she was going through and could give her guidance.But organized groups don’t always solve the socializing problem.”PFLAG is more of a support resource – not a big let’s party and hang out sort of thing,” said 30-year-old Dillon Valley resident Kris Eickhoff, who has been out for several years in Summit County.Summit Sisters used to provide an informal monthly potluck gathering at a participant’s home, but hasn’t been active in about six months. Chicks in the Sticks is a Leadville-based group that plans various activities and potluck dinners for the regional lesbian community.Oakley has attended both those groups in search of the kind of community that she was used to in Denver and says about a dozen women typically show up to those events, but never anyone from the 20s and 30s age group.Another option is Summit Scene, which bills itself on its website as a “connection point for gays and lesbians living in and visiting Summit County.” Local hosts plan social events, such as ski days and camping trips for the homosexual community.At a recent social night organized by Summit Scene at Paisano’s Restaurant in Keystone, the bar was filled with about a dozen gay men, but not a single lesbian attended.Not unusual, Oakley says.”We go to a lot of things when it’s only men and us,” Oakley said.”The boys have a bigger scene”Most women agree that the gay male community is significantly more visible than that of the local lesbians.”The boys have a bigger scene, but there’s a bigger guy scene whether it’s New York, Summit County or L.A., they’re more social,” Eickhoff said. Brown attributes lesbians’ lack of visibility to the fact that there are more men than women living in the county and to the cultural differences between men and women.”Similar to the heterosexual community, men aren’t really looking at settling down,” Brown said. “They seem to not be committed to one person.”Women, on the other hand, are more apt to settle down, especially as they get older, she added.She also thinks that Summit County’s small year-round population can play a role in keeping the lesbian community under wraps.
“Summit County is so small compared to a big city, you know everyone and you don’t know who’s accepting,” Brown said. “I wish we were at a point where the fear level wasn’t there or we’d feel more comfortable feeling visible.”The dating gameBrown is now dating someone in Summit County, but previously was involved in a four-year relationship with a woman in Denver, which is not unusual for local gay women.Most women end up flocking to Denver or logging onto the Internet for social connections to make up for the lack of social opportunities in Summit.”When I (broke up with my girlfriend) and wanted to start being around girls, it was so much easier to go to Denver,” Eickhoff said. “It’s not a community here – it’s a spattering.”We should probably change that because a lot of the girls are looking for a community to hang out as friends.”Eickhoff met her current girlfriend at a lesbian bar in Denver. Occasionally, she connects with other women through a popular group called Babes Around Denver, which hosts social, recreational, political and charitable activities. It has a drawing from within a 100 mile radius around the city and attracts a wide variety of girls. Breckenridge’s Arnold, who was used to having a large dating pool from which to meet prospective partners in Florida, says she now meets people regularly on the Internet.”It’s kind of embarrassing to say I meet girls on the Internet, but on the other hand, there’s no other way,” Arnold said.”I feel like a second class citizen”In addition to the lack of a social scene, lesbians in Summit County are faced with a host of other challenges on a day-to-day basis.Brown works with kids and although she is out to co-workers, she isn’t as open with the kids’ parents, partly out of fear that she’ll lose students because parents will think she may try to recruit their kids into homosexuality.And Brown doesn’t only downplay her sexual orientation at work. “I’d love to be able to hold my partner’s hand in public,” Brown said. “Sometimes we do, but we’re always fearful we’re going to piss someone off.”She recalls going to dinner at a nice, Summit County restaurant with her partner this past Valentine’s Day. While all the servers were polite, she said she could tell they were looking at her and her partner, thinking “they must be a lesbian couple.”Brown said, while she feels secure in Summit County, she feels much safer in Denver because she blends in more.Her biggest frustration is not having the same rights as heterosexuals.She wants to be able to have a legal marriage someday. She’d like to file joint taxes and obtain Social Security benefits from her partner.
“I feel like a second-class citizen,” she said.Oakley, who has been with her partner for more than five years, shares Brown’s irritation.While many companies have progressed toward offering domestic partner or same-sex benefits, her partner’s Summit County workplace is not one of them.Oakley works part-time and says it would be helpful to be on her partner’s health insurance. “It’s not like I’m asking for anything extra, I just want the same thing,” Oakley said. “We’re making a commitment to each other, we’re not taking anything away from anyone else.”Social acceptance in SummitFor the younger generation, Arnold and Eickhoff, fear of acceptance hasn’t been as much of a concern.Eickoff sees Summit as gay-friendly and believes the public is more comfortable with lesbians than gay men. Still, says she’s more affectionate with her partner when she’s in Denver and feels completely anonymous.Arnold’s biggest challenge is the task of convincing people that she really is gay, particularly in social situations in Summit County.”Everyone assumes you’re straight before they assume anything else. It’s really annoying,” Arnold said.Men often don’t believe that she’s a lesbian and sometimes show anger toward her for taking away from the pool of available women, she said.Regardless of the frustrations, most women look at the county as a safe place to live.”I love my life here,” Brown said. “I’ve been able to intertwine my love for the outdoors and have been able to become who I am and live my life true to who I am.”Women admit the social scene could be better in Summit County – suggestions have been a book club, lesbian bar or the revival of Summit Sisters – but it’s not a high priority on anybody’s list and many women say, it’s not paramount to the already active lives they live here.”I didn’t move out here to be gay. I moved out here to go snowboarding,” Arnold said. Some sources in this story did not use their real names.Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 229, or at email@example.com
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