Westchester County has a reputation for being a wealthy, fairly progressive New York City suburb, yet even here queer culture flies mostly under the radar.
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All things considered, Westchester is a good place to be gay. Overt discrimination is rare, laws are progressive, and acceptance is the norm. But the lack of a cohesive community and the dearth of gay meeting places can be difficult for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) residents.
“We’re a vibrant community, but oftentimes we’re an invisible community,” says David Juhren, executive director of The LOFT, a White Plains-based organization founded in 1983 to serve the LGBT community of the Lower Hudson Valley. “People might not know the cheerful pharmacist is gay or the mail carrier is a lesbian. We don’t walk around with inverted pink triangles.”
The 2000 census counted 2,000 couples—roughly split evenly between male and female—who identified themselves as same-sex partners in Westchester. There are, of course, more who don’t share this kind of info with the census, and many others who are single.
But LGBT residents are scattered all around Westchester. Young families in Mount Kisco, lesbians in Ossining, a grouping in White Plains. “There’s no ‘gayborhood’ in Westchester,” says Juhren. In a survey of LGBT Westchester residents conducted jointly by Westchester Magazine and The LOFT (see page 99), 69 percent described Westchester as LGBT-friendly, and most described the schools, religious institutions, and medical providers similarly. “Because of its proximity to New York, Westchester is relatively open-minded,” says Barbara Krajewski, a lesbian who lives in White Plains. “It’s still not as open as Manhattan, but that’s just because of sheer numbers.”
The biggest problems the survey participants noted? A dearth of social outlets.
The LOFT is the center of gay life in Westchester. It is open all week, with social activities (e.g., game nights, movie nights, a bowling league) and support groups. And, even within that group, there are lots of different programs for people based on age or interest. “We’re such a small community with a diverse population,” says Trudy Katz, who runs the LOFT’s Silver Connections program, which is geared towards LGBT residents 55 and older.
When it comes to politics, Westchester is ahead of the curve.
In December 1999, the Westchester County Board of Legislators passed a broad anti-discrimination bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. The bill was supported by all Democrats and three of the eight Republicans and was signed by the County Executive then, Andy Spano. The bill was praised at the time for giving real teeth to enforcement by establishing a Human Rights Commission with the power to investigate discrimination complaints in employment, housing, public accommodations, and credit.
Ten years later, in April 2009, the Westchester County Legislature voted unanimously to clarify that the law also protects transgender people. This puts Westchester ahead of New York State, where a similar law was introduced in 2003, but has stalled for years in the State Senate. In addition, since 2002, Westchester County has had a citizens’ advisory board to counsel the county executive on LGBT issues. The board used to have a full-time paid liaison, but budget cuts have made the position part-time. The board promotes activities such as sensitivity training for county workers and others. The board also played a role in establishing Westchester Pride Day two years ago, which is hosted at Rye Playland. The board was established by Spano and has been continued by new County Executive Rob Astorino.
“We were concerned Astorino might disband the board,” says Michael Sabatino, vice-chair of the advisory board. “The only thing he’s stopped is the funding for the annual town hall meeting. But there are budget cuts across the board, so I don’t think we’re specifically being targeted.”
Westchester’s gay marriage laws are also more progressive than those of New York State as a whole. In 1998, Westchester became one of the first counties in the country to issue domestic partnership benefits. In 2006, Spano officially recognized out-of-state same-sex marriages in Westchester, before then-Governor David Paterson did the same statewide in 2008.
For county workers, this means they can get health insurance and other benefits for their spouses. For others, it’s more symbolic. “For people who don’t work for the county, it means some benefits, like family discounts at Playland,” says Sabatino, a Yonkers resident who married his partner, Robert Voorheis, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in 2003.
In 2006, a conservative group called the Alliance Defense Fund sued, claiming Spano didn’t have the right to recognize gay marriages. Sabatino and Voorheis served as respondants in the case. In 2009, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that Westchester County could lawfully extend government benefits to same-sex couples in out-of-state marriages.
Still, while Sabatino and Voorheis’s marriage is recognized in New York, they still couldn’t legally marry in the state. “Of course, we would have rather spent our money in New York State, but we couldn’t, so we went to Canada and got married on our twenty-fifth anniversary,” Sabatino says.
There has actually been at least one gay Westchester wedding legally recognized by New York: the marriage of White Plains lesbian couple Joann Prinzivalli and Trudy Katz. Prinzivalli is a transgender woman, which means she was assigned a male gender at birth but felt that she had always been a woman. She also was always attracted to women. “I saw a psychiatrist in 1970 who said, ‘You can’t be transsexual because you like girls. We’re not going to cure you of one mental disorder to give you another by turning you into a lesbian.’” (Prinzivalli’s experience isn’t unusual. According to a recent survey of transgender life by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 21 percent of trangendered people reported an attraction to the same gender.)
Prinzivalli bottled up her feelings and later lived in a traditional straight marriage in Hawthorne. Twenty years and four kids later, in 1999, Paul Prinzivalli—as Joann was known then—and his wife divorced, in large part because she couldn’t accept Prinzivalli’s desire to become a woman. The decision to transition cost Prinzivalli not only her marriage but custody of her children and her job.
Prinzivalli moved to White Plains and began transitioning to female. “I was already here, and White Plains was a nice place to live,” she says. Prinzivalli joined The LOFT and, in 2006, met Trudy Katz at a women’s group. Although Prinzivalli has changed her appearance, driver’s license, and most documents, her birth certificate still lists her as male. Because of this, she and Trudy could legally wed in New York State. In 2009, they married at Community Unitarian Church of White Plains, with 100 people in attendance.
“State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer was there, and she noted the absurdity of marriage laws of New York,” Prinzivalli says. “Straight transpeople can’t get married, but gay transpeople can.”
“No gay ghetto”
Like Prinzivalli, some of Westchester’s LGBT residents lived here before coming out…and stayed. Others migrated to the county for the reasons many straight people do: good schools and more space than New York City. A gay community usually isn’t a top reason. “I get emails all the time asking me where in Westchester’s a good place to live if you’re gay,” says Gregg Cartagine of Pound Ridge, who runs The LOFT’s parenting group. “But there’s not the same concentration in any one area.”
This was a hard fact to swallow for Jeff Seabaugh and Randy Lichtenwalner, who moved to Westchester from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen after they adopted three children. “Before having children, I couldn’t imagine living in Westchester,” says Seabaugh, an actor, playwright, and stay-at-home dad. “But I couldn’t imagine raising three children and a yellow Lab and a parakeet in an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen.”
They chose Peekskill. “Someone told us it was the Park Slope of Westchester, but we didn’t really find that,” Seabaugh says. The family later moved to Cortlandt Manor, where they are the only gay parents they know of in their kids’ elementary school. In addition, both parents are white, and the children—biological siblings—are Dominican. “We stand out,” Lichtenwalner says, “but not in a bad way.”
It does, he admits, “push people’s comfort levels a little, but we’re not in Wichita or somewhere like that.” He thinks “people are pre-disposed to be open and tolerant. I tell the kids, ‘This is part of our job—to make people see that we’re a family like everyone else.’”
The couple misses the gay community they had in Hell’s Kitchen. “There’s a safety in Manhattan,” Lichtenwalner, assistant principal in Tarrytown, says. “You can be who you are and no one takes notice.”
He says they haven’t taken much advantage of the gay community at The LOFT because, like many Westchester families, they’re busy with work and family. “Between basketball practice and karate classes, I don’t know when we’d find time to drive down to White Plains for meetings,” he says.
Social life in Westchester
Many gay couples are preoccupied with their families and responsibilities, and see no need for a gay bar. But for the young and single, the lack of a queer nightlife is a serious void.
Ask an older gay Westchester resident about the nightlife, and you’ll hear about how much better it used to be. This isn’t just an example of old-timers waxing poetic about the good old days. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were at least four gay bars and restaurants in Westchester—in White Plains and Port Chester. Now, there are exactly zero. For a full-time gay bar, residents must head to Barz in Nyack, New York, or to one of the many options in New York City.
Everyone has his or her own theory on the decline of the Westchester gay bar: homophobic landlords, competition from New York City, an older crowd. “There used to be a place we called Rosie’s, a great gay restaurant in White Plains,” says Vinnie of Yorktown. “Then Rosie died suddenly in the mid nineties and the bar closed, and none of us ever saw each other again.”
“In the eighties and nineties, bars were very successful,” Walter Piano, a Larchmont resident, says. “The Internet killed that.” Piano’s theory is actually backed up by research. Due to the popularity of Internet dating and online hook-ups, people don’t use bars as much to meet others. This phenomenon of gay bars leaving and not being replaced isn’t unique to Westchester. A 2008 study at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health entitled “Are Gay Communities Dying or Just in Transition?” found that the number and popularity of gay bars and clubs were in decline in the 17 cities in 14 different countries surveyed.
But younger Westchester residents are working to revive the county’s nightlife—with some success. On Wednesdays, New Rochelle has Hump Day Soirée at Buffalo Wild Wings, and on Sundays in White Plains, the “Secret Sunday” party at Elements is very popular. Hosted by Elements bartenders Kevin Burke and Brett James, who goes by the drag name Aneida Coxxx, since last March, their party has been the place to be on Sunday nights. “We are so close to New York City,” Burke says, “But locals are looking for a local hangout. People really appreciate it. Elements is not a gay bar, but it’s really opened its doors to us.” He reports that, even though there’s no cover charge, Elements has made money on Sunday nights through bar sales.
One recent Sunday night, the crowd was mostly young gay men, with a smattering of lesbians and straight women—including Aimee Feeney, of Silver Lake, who was celebrating her 22nd birthday. “These are all my best friends,” Feeney says. “People don’t know how many gays there are in Westchester.” The crowd was drinking, dancing, and after 1 am the bar got even more crowded as Connecticut residents came after their state’s bars closed. “I wish I had the capital to build my own gay bar,” Burke says. He adds that he expects to manage at a gay bar slated to open in Valhalla. “There’s definitely a market for it.” Geoffrey Demerrit, a White Plains resident who DJs at Elements on Sunday and hosted a now-defunct party on Wednesday nights at White Plains’s Cabo agrees. “We get the worst nights of the week, Sunday and Wednesday, and we fill the house. Imagine what we could do if we had a bar every night of the week?”
What about the children?
For those Westchester LGBT residents under the legal drinking age, there are some other options. Center Lane, an LGBT youth center, has branches in White Plains and Yonkers. It also hosts a yearly gay prom, which this year drew some 100 youngsters from the county and beyond. Since 1999, PrideWorks has been hosted by the LGBT youth organization Center Lane; Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); as well as Westchester County. This one-day gathering brought together 625 people in November 2010 for a day of workshops geared towards LGBT youth.
While there have been no highly publicized acts of local bullying, suicide, or denials of prom dates that have grabbed headlines, there is still homophobia in the schools—and the most recent data, from 2003, say that only 23 of the 44 school districts in Westchester have policies that specifically address sexual orientation. “The anti-LGBT problem in the schools can range from kids constantly hearing ‘That’s so gay,’ to direct verbal and physical assault,” says Mary Jane Karger, the co-chair of GLSEN’s Hudson Valley Chapter. “I would bet my life that that’s happening in almost every school.”
But things are getting better. There are 44 public and private high schools in Westchester with gay-straight alliance chapters—up from only two in 1997.
Shontay Richardson, 19, who came out as queer in eighth grade, helped start Dobbs Ferry High School’s gay-straight alliance three years ago. “Before that, there wasn’t really anything,” she says. “The school’s supportive, and it’ll be more supportive when more students start joining.” Since she graduated last year, its popularity has exploded. “They’ve been doing cool stuff. They meet every week, every Friday.”
But now, she’s in one of the few places in Westchester where there is a growing gay community: SUNY Purchase. Like Sarah Lawrence College, where an unofficial motto is “Queer in a year or your money back,” SUNY Purchase is known for having a gay-friendly campus. Richardson has found an active LGBT life at Purchase.
“Purchase is really gay,” she says. “Unlike the rest of Westchester, I don’t have to go searching.”
Raised in Ossining and based in Brooklyn, Diana Scholl is a contributing writer for numerous publications, including New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and City Limits. She is cofounder of We Are the Youth, a photojournalism project that shares the stories of LGBT young people.