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Oakland – A City Many Women Call Home

on June 24, 2009

Unbeknownst to many, Oakland has a secret: it’s bursting at the seams with women who love women.

According to the Gay and Lesbian Atlas, which used information compiled from the 2000 U.S. census, Oakland contains the highest concentration of lesbian couples of any city in the nation and has the second highest number of same-sex couple households– right behind San Francisco. So even as the biggest Bay Area events of Gay Pride Day will take place in San Francisco this weekend, the lesbian community has year-by-year become more of a presence in Oakland.

“Affordability is important,” said Rachael Herron, a writer and 9-11 dispatcher who also runs a successful knitting blog.  She’s called Oakland home for the past 12 years.  Herron lives with her wife in East Oakland – “we can afford to own our own house there,” she said – but has also lived in every other district in the city.

The median price for a single family home in Oakland last year was about $400,000 cheaper than in San Francisco, according to Dataquick, an online real estate statistics site.

Herron also said Oakland’s vast diversity is one of its strong selling points and offered the mix at the Merritt Bakery and Restaurant on East 18th street as an example.

“If you go there on a Sunday, there’s the hip kids, lesbians, women getting out of church – you feel very welcome,” she said.

Unlike San Francisco’s Castro district, Oakland’s gay population has yet to concentrate in one specific neighborhood.  But some have tried.  In 2004, then-city council member Danny Wan presented a plan to create a gay neighborhood in downtown Oakland near the now defunct Parkway theater to draw more gay residents and to improve business.

This plan never really panned out, partially because there wasn’t an organic gay community there to begin with, some residents said.  In spite of this, lesbian couples have fanned out across Oakland, making the entire city their home. Many agreed with Herron’s reasons for choosing Oakland: the low-cost of living and diversity.

Herron met her wife of three years, who was also living in Oakland, through a website. “I saw that she lived in Oakland and played the banjo and knitted and I said, don’t I know you? Because if I don’t, I should,” Herron said, laughing.

Lala, Herron’s wife, is a web programmer and musician who played with the all-female blue-grass band the Whoreshoes.

“It’s my personal opinion that lesbians tend to work less traditional jobs,” Herron said.  “If you go to a café anywhere in Oakland at noon, there’s going to be lesbians.”

Peggy Moore, the organizer of Sistah’s Steppin in Pride, the annual East Bay Dyke March in Oakland, agreed with the affordability premise.  “I think that early on more women moved to Oakland to raise families, to buy property here.  People felt more comfortable about living, raising a community here – but going to San Francisco to play,” Moore said.

A community organizer who ran for city council in 2005, Moore is also gay.  She said that Oakland’s sense of community is strong and offered an African-American women’s group that has been meeting for 19 years as an example. Though Moore believes San Francisco is a great city, “it actually has a more male presence,” she said.

Moore is also adamant that there is no one ‘spot’ for lesbians in Oakland: while the community in the Laurel district has the most visible presence, she said, Maxwell Park and the Golf Links area as well as the Lake Merritt area are all popular locations.

But the Laurel District in particular is emerging as a favorite among lesbians looking for affordable housing and a sense of small-town community.

Laurel Book Store, a lesbian-owned bookstore that caters to the general public, is located on a street lined with small retail shops.  The neighborhood behind it consists of rows of compact, friendly-looking bungalows, complete with front – and in some cases, back -yards as well.

It’s like the suburbs, but not, said Luan Staus, the owner.  She came to Oakland 25 years ago, from Oregon. “I’ve lived by the lake, by Grand Lake theater. I came to this neighborhood because I could afford a house here,” she said.   Economics was really the driving factor behind her move, she continued, although “people are really nice here, gay or straight.”

When asked why she – and other lesbians – chose Oakland, Luan decided to poll the customers at the bookstore.  “Hey, Allison, why do you live here rather than San Francisco?” She called to another gay woman who walked into the store.  “Because I can park,” she said.

Staus elaborated: “You don’t walk outside of your apartment and, oh my god, the world is there  – you have some space.”

Staus mentioned community and neighborhood as anchoring factors for herself and her partner, and she was glad to have just returned from a trip to the East coast to attend a book exposition. Staus’ partner, Emily Doskow, just came out with a book called “The Sharing Solution” about sustainable living within communities.

“We are everywhere, but we don’t have to congregate in one place to feel safe,” Staus explained. “I think a lot of women are really truly making homes everywhere and assimilating, if you will.  We are just the fabric of neighborhoods.  I don’t know why Oakland is so wonderfully open, but it is.”

As the community expands, so do the woman-friendly businesses. Velvet, a lesbian bar and club, recently opened in the same neighborhood.

Christine De La Rosa, the General Manager, also cited diversity and affordability as major factors when lesbian couples choose to put down roots in Oakland, rather than San Francisco or another nearby city. She said that she’s seen as many as 400 people show up for events.

“It’s just easier to live here.  There’s a lot of lesbians that have families,” De La Rosa said.  Drawing on her experiences growing up in a heavily Catholic, Mexican environment, De La Rosa said that living as an openly gay woman can be alienating.

Oakland, on the other hand, offered a chance at a real community – one that embraces diversity.  “If you come to place where there’s a lot of women of color that are gay, you feel like you have an extended family – a family of choice,” she said.

De La Rosa met her partner, Olga Texidor, also known as DJ Olga T, in Oakland last year.  Olga also works at Velvet, where, De La Rosa said, the bartenders and DJ’s are all women.

Despite moving here almost a year ago, De La Rosa is surprised that there aren’t more establishments catering to the large population of gay women. “In Texas, in a five block radius we have four lesbian bars that are open 7 days a week and packed…so it was crazy when I got here.  There were really not any lesbian bars,” she said. “I was like, this is gay mecca. What are you talking about?”

The lack of bars has not served as much of a deterrent, however.  Moore, the community organizer, echoed other women’s comments when she said, “We are everywhere.”

The seventh annual Sistahs Steppin in Pride march will take place on Saturday, Aug. 29.  Click here for more details.


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