This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Durham Magazine.
Though we've just met, it's clear to me that Alexis Pauline Gumbs is what New Yorker scribe Malcolm Gladwell calls a “connector” – someone who knows everyone.
In 10 minutes of sitting at the bar at downtown’s Beyú Caffé on a Monday night, Gumbs has been greeted by at least five different people who know her, know of her, are her Facebook friends (she has more than 2,000) or who just want to compliment her hair (big, springy, very cool).
In a different place and time, Gumbs would have had a very different existence. As a black lesbian in the South, she might have spent much of her life in hiding, both figuratively and literally.
Instead, the multimedia activist is at the center of Durham’s thriving lesbian community, serving to raise the city’s profile as a lesbian hot spot.
For Gumbs, who recently received a Ph.D. in English, African-American Studies and Women’s Studies from Duke, an average month might involve a potluck/lesbian discussion group, a lesbian poetry workshop, a night out on the town to see a lesbian-led band and a dinner for a Durham-based national lesbian social organization. “Durham is the place I want to live the rest of my life,” the 28-year-old Gumbs says simply.
Durham has long attracted gay and lesbian residents for the same reason it attracts many others – progressive politics, college-town culture, cheap housing. Its reputation as a gay-friendly city is embodied in the gatherings and organizations that call Durham home. The N.C. Pride Parade and Festival, now entering its 27th year, draws some 10,000 visitors to downtown, with corporate sponsors like Time Warner Cable and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. The N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival came to town in 1995 and is still going strong at The Carolina Theatre, to much national acclaim. A number of LGBTQ (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer) organizations have headquarters in Durham: social justice group S.O.N.G. (Southerners On New Ground), activists Queer Collective and others. The tolerance extends to city government, which offers health benefits for partners of city employees and has passed an anti-workplace discrimination law.
But there’s one thing that’s especially notable about Durham’s gay community: it tilts heavily in the female direction. Durham is, by many people’s estimation, a “lesbian city” rather than a “gay city.” Or, as Gumbs puts it: “It’s more of a potluck city than a nightclub city.”
“It’s been true for a long time that there are more lesbians in Durham and more gay men in Raleigh,” says Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina. The 2000 census shows 442 lesbian households in Durham, versus only 316 gay male households, statistics which Palmquist says likely under-represent the true numbers.
Lesbians have long helped shape Durham both culturally and economically. “The lesbian community has been really involved in social justice issues in the community, and in the arts,” Palmquist says. “I think the lesbian community has made a big difference in making Durham what it is today.”
Durham’s lesbian credentials include, but are not limited to: A thriving lesbian music scene that’s spawned bands like the The Butchies, multicultural lesbian social organization Infinity Diamond Club, online lesbian meet-up group TriangleGrrrls, and untold lesbian house parties, reading groups, publishing workshops and potluck dinners.
“The queer scene in general is more dominated by women,” says Amy Glaser, a philosophy professor at Elon University and an LGBTQ activist who’s lived in Durham for nearly four years.
Glaser, originally from West Virginia, says Durham is noteworthy for its number of unabashedly lesbian-friendly bars and restaurants: Joe Van Gogh, The Pinhook, Mad Hatter, Blue Corn Café and Francesca’s, just to name a few. A number of Durham churches are also very gay- and lesbian-friendly, she says, noting that several churches have provided space for iNSIDEoUT, an LGBTQ youth organization she helps run.
Durham, and the Triangle at large, also serves as a sort of refuge in the center of a state not known for its progressive views on gay and lesbian rights – the proverbial speck of blue in a sea of red.
Diane Graves, the owner of lesbian nightclub Steel Blue in downtown’s Warehouse District, is a 54-year-old with short brown hair and a heart tattooed on her earlobe. Perched at the Steel Blue bar, she waves at her girlfriend, a younger woman in a Marine Corps sweatshirt who sits chatting with friends at a nearby table.
Graves gives a surprising theory about why Durham is so popular with lesbians: affordable real estate. “We’re nesters – you know the whole lesbian U-Haul thing,” she says, referring to the old joke about lesbians’ stereotypical eagerness for commitment. (What does a lesbian bring to a second date? A U-Haul.)
Graves echoes Gumbs’ sentiment about Durham being more about potlucks, less about nightclubs. “Lesbians don’t want to go to Raleigh and hang out in the meat markets,” she says, referring to Raleigh’s gay nightclub scene.
When Graves moved from California 16 years ago, walking down a Durham street holding her girlfriend’s hand was somewhat of a loaded proposition. “In the beginning it was like this,” she says, twisting her face into an expression of exaggerated shock and horror. “Now it’s like, ‘oh, cool.’”
But even several decades ago, Durham’s lesbian community was thriving, if not as open as it is today.
When Becky Burks and her partner, Genia Smith, were looking to relocate from Arkansas in 1990, they flipped through a Durham phone book looking for signs of lesbian life. They saw an ad for a gay and lesbian helpline and figured, well, that’s something. It couldn’t be worse than Arkansas. Burks says she had been harassed outside a nightclub, had a beer mug thrown at her head. It was time for a change. Upon their arrival, the couple was thrilled to find a vibrant lesbian community. Genia opened Accent Hardwood Flooring, and now she and Becky work together at the successful business. “I never felt threatened here in Durham,” says Burks, 56.
Still, the couple worried about possible discrimination when it came to raising their son, now 14. Before enrolling him at a Montessori school, Burks called and told the administrators that she and her partner were lesbians, and that they wanted to make sure there would be no bullying. No problem, the administration said. And there wasn’t.
Burks worried again when starting their son in Little League. “I thought wow, nobody’s going to like us, and it’s going to be an issue,” she recalls. “But it just never was. People seem to never give it a second thought.”
Kym Register, co-owner of The Pinhook and half of punk-folk duo Midtown Dickens, is a 28-year-old with blue eyes, dirty blonde hair and a raffish smile. She grew up in Durham in the 1990s and heard then that the city had more lesbians per capita than anywhere in America. Whether that’s an accurate statistic is anyone’s guess, but the idea of Durham being a lesbian refuge stuck in Register’s mind. After attending UNC-Chapel Hill, she moved back to Durham and helped open The Pinhook in 2008. For many queer twentysomethings, nightlife is less about “lesbian bars” or “gay clubs” than it is about friendly, all-inclusive spaces, Register says. “I don’t want to have to go to a gay club to feel like somebody’s going to accept me,” she says.
The Pinhook, which hosts everything from drag nights to heavy metal shows, has become the go-to place for hip Durhamites both gay and straight.
“This club is supposed to represent Durham,” Register says. “We need to all come together.” DM