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Out in the Valley

Lesbians Have Been Drawn to Area's Suburban Lifestyle Since Long Before 'Ellen'

April 27, 1997|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ah, the difference TV makes.

When the title character on "Ellen" proclaims that she is a lesbian on the ABC sitcom Wednesday night, millions will be watching. And lesbians around the country, gathered in bars, churches and living rooms, will celebrate the debut of the first gay lead character on network TV.

But when 48-year-old Jody Young came out eight years ago, there was no TV show, no parties. As dramatically as her life changed, she said, much of it stayed the same: the job, the errands, the neighbors, the house in Northridge where she's lived for 22 years.

It never occurred to her to move to a so-called gay area like West Hollywood. The San Fernando Valley is home. "Being gay doesn't change that," she said. "I'm not going to run away from this place because I'm out and other people might not approve."

What Young didn't know was that despite its Brady Bunch image, the Valley has long been home to what some say may be the largest--albeit diffuse--lesbian population in Los Angeles. There are as many lesbian bars here as in Long Beach, which also has a sizable lesbian community. At the same time, the Valley is regarded as a place to live comfortably, anonymously and safely. Indeed, a county hate crimes report released last week showed only 17 such incidents against homosexuals in North Hollywood, compared to 61 in Hollywood and 45 in West Hollywood.

Jeff Miller, a gay real estate agent who has sold houses to and for lesbians all over the Valley, said those clients have been just like everyone else buying houses here: primarily professional, upwardly mobile, baby-boomer couples.

"They're moving out to the Valley to do what everyone else does: have a quieter, less hectic life, and do the suburban thing."

Lesbians have been seeking that out since the postwar years, led by two pioneering nightclub owners, Beverly Shaw and Joanie Hannan.

The Rev. Flo Fleischman, 67, of North Hollywood still remembers the clubs--Hannan's Joanie Presents and Shaw's Club Laurel--as classy spots where she and her friends could gather. They may have been living under the pressure of a secret life, or gotten teased at work during the week, Fleischman said, "but on Saturday night--that was date night--all that was forgotten."

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The big concern at gay bars was police raids, recalled Edie Brown, 61, who started frequenting that scene while still a student at San Fernando High School. Cross-dressed men or women were targeted. The police, in fact, had a rule that everyone had to wear at least three articles of gender-appropriate clothing.

"There were some women who passed as men," Brown said. "But if they got caught and they didn't have those three pieces of clothing, they were in jail."

Maybe because the Valley was still the sticks, the police didn't seem to bother the bars in North Hollywood as frequently as those in Hollywood, Silver Lake and the beach cities. So more cropped up. By the late '50s and early '60s, there were about a dozen softball teams sponsored by bars, plus bowling leagues, private "key clubs" and restaurants.

It wasn't just the social life that drew women over the hill, though. There were jobs--in the studios, at General Motors and Lockheed--that could support a woman living on her own. Equally important were inexpensive houses--costing about $15,000--and the sense of safety.

"It was suburbia," said Fleischman, who is on the board of directors for the International Gay and Lesbian Archives. "And here they could have something that they never had before."

The same things are drawing--or keeping--lesbians in the Valley today.

Young--who had been married to a man with whom she had five children--found that she felt uncomfortable in the Westside scene once she started dating two years ago.

"Most of them have more money than the people in the Valley, but they're transient and their relationships seemed transient," she said. "I found I had more in common with women in the Valley. A lot of them have homes, jobs they've worked at for many years. . . . These were all things I was looking for."

Judy Chiasson, too, decided to remain in the Valley after coming out at age 35.

"I was too afraid to leave," said Chiasson, 43, who lives in Sherman Oaks. "I wondered if I would be accepted here. I liked it here, but I wondered what it was going to be like to be gay here. Did I have to move to West Hollywood?"

The needs of her children, ages 10 and 13, were most important. Chiasson, herself a teacher, wanted to be in a place where the schools were good and the neighborhood safe.

"I have one of those households where the door is always open," she said. "That's how I grew up and that's how I wanted it to be for my kids."

Chiasson, who just got engaged to her girlfriend, Carolyn Berry, initially didn't think it would be easy for her neighbors to understand the changes in her family. But she discovered "that the other mothers were just far more understanding than I expected. It's been a very positive experience."

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