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Excellent article on gay Durham and the NC Gay and Lesbian film fest

As you know, I blog here from the Tar Heel state in the deep blue city of Durham, my hometown. One of the things we’re proud about here is the gay-friendly community. A great article by Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell (who interviewed me about NC bloggers) is in the Durham Herald-Sun, captures what makes this city special, despite being surrounded by a lot of Red counties.

Suzanne Westenhoefer was a hoot last night at the Carolina Theatre.

Kate and I will be taking in quite a lot of films at the NC Gay and Lesbian Film Festival today through Sunday. We had a blast at Suzanne Westenhoefer live performance. The gay Triangle area population was out and in full force. The movies showing will be packed all this weekend.

I know most of the people bolded in this article; a whole lot of the community is out and proud here.

In 1995, the gay film series that evolved into the N.C. Gay & Lesbian Film Festival was greeted by conservative picketers who denounced the N.C. Pride program as obscene and anti-family. Now, as the 10th annual festival kicks off tonight with nary a protester in sight, it is the biggest Carolina Theatre-sponsored film happening and also a Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau signature event for the entire community.

Festival attendance statistics provided by the theater say the 1996 festival sold 880 tickets. Three years later, ticket sales had jumped to 3,300. Last year’s attendance peaked at 8,991. And, according to Carolina Theatre Senior Director Jim Carl, those figures do not include attendance at festival galas, concerts or the community outreach room. Not only has attendance risen significantly for the statewide event, but so has the number of films shown and available for consideration. The 1995 series featured only a handful. This week, more than 60 movies, including five world premieres, will be shown.

It’s a little harder to socially connect here at first, since there is no specific gay district — though Ninth Street comes close — but organizations are all over to help newcomers to the area connect to the social scene. One way to facilitate socializing that helped start up a few years ago, is an online community. TriangleGrrrls, was created to help newcomers to the area meet and go out to dinners and social events, as opposed to the old saw bars and clubs. It was actually through one of the events, Java Jolt (board games at a local coffee house after work) that I met my future wife, Kate. Allie, who moderates the site now, is interviewed for this article.

As for Allie Fowler, a 37-year-old Durham resident and volunteer for the lesbian Web site, the film festival is always part of her social calendar. “It’s a chance to see old friends, to meet new friends and to see films with characters that we can relate to,” she said. “It is affirming to see films from all over the world and in different languages and to see our joys and struggles are shared by people everywhere. It’s nice to be able to watch films where we as the viewers do not have to ‘project’ ourselves into a typically heterosexual story.”

As the festival continues to draw larger audiences, there’s also a growing sense, both inside Durham and out, that it’s is a friendly city for gays to move to or visit. Durham will be featured in a coming guide of best cities for gay and lesbians. Only one other N.C. city — Asheville — made the cut for Gregory Kompes’ “50 Fabulous Gay-Friendly Places to Live,” to be published in October by Career Press of Franklin Lakes, N.J.

Downtown and the Durham Bulls stadium. (DCVB).

…Gay publications have discovered Durham as a welcoming destination. For instance, Passport gay travel magazine has described Durham and the entire Triangle as an oasis of progressivism and professional gays in Jesse Helms’ old stomping grounds.

In June 2003, the city and county, Duke University, the visitors bureau and Downtown Durham Inc. commissioned a “scorecard” that would examine Durham’s performance as “center of creativity” as defined by the research by “The Rise of the Creative Class” author Richard Florida. Compared with more than 270 other similarly sized counties, Durham scored high in the gay-tolerance index, ranking eighth.

And that’s good news to Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau President Reyn Bowman, whose organization recently conducted focus groups with area gay residents about ways to attract gay travelers and consumers. “They fit a profile,” he said. “Our travelers to Durham, compared to nearby cities, are higher educated, have more income and tend to travel more as couples. We have a good family and cultural segment, so gay and lesbians fit our product.

“They are interested in all types of things, but they have a strong bent to cultural things and history, and they are a little more comfortable with things that are more genuine. So they can be gritty, like Durham. They are less interested in the white-bread places.”

…Could the City of Medicine be the Triangle’s City of Tolerance for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people? Some praise Chapel Hill for its liberalism, but give it a thumbs-down in terms of affordability. Others say Raleigh and Cary have a strip-mall culture that contrasts with the gritty, urban feel that Bowman believes gays often enjoy.

Durham doesn’t have the big city gay identity of, say NY or SF, but that pace of life and urban living isn’t for everyone. The gay crowd that settles here and likes it puts down roots because you can just be yourself in a laid-back Southern/Yankee blended atmosphere — and can still afford a house and have visible community.

Durham Skyline (Duke East Campus Skyview). Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau

There’s actually not a huge gay population here — probably less than the standard estimate of 10 percent of the population anywhere, said Gates, who in the late 1990s became one of the first scholars to track the residential patterns of same-sex couples using census data. For 2004’s “The Gay & Lesbian Atlas,” which he co-authored with Jason Ost, he found that the former six-county Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan statistical area (MSA) ranked 56 of 331 such groups in per capita number of same-sex couples living there for the 2000 Census.

The entire MSA had 2,891 same-sex couples with 642, or 22 percent, living in Durham city. There were 96 in Chapel Hill and 673 in Raleigh. So though the capital has a higher number, Durham has a much higher concentration of same-sex couples.

It’s not so much the numbers as the attitude, said Trianglegrrrl Risa Foster, a 45-year-old Trinity Heights resident. Speaking of the film festival, one factor in Durham’s seemingly tolerant take on gay issues, Foster said it “does bring the name of Durham out to other parts of North Carolina — straight and gay.”

I don’t think it could have been started anywhere else in the state, and the reason is not so much because you have a large gay community but because you have a l
arge, accepting, thinking and fearless community
,” she said, citing the universities, public officials and progressive organizations.

Durham’s John Short, coordinator of the N.C. Pride annual parade, cited the proliferation of gay events and agencies in the city. “The Gay Men’s Chorus, the Lesbian Health Resource Center, the Common Women’s Chorus are all located here,” he said. “There are at least a dozen gay organizations, and there are a few in Raleigh, but Durham has always been more open to artists and creative people.” The N.C. Pride parade got its start in Durham almost 20 years ago, and in 2001 the organization decided to locate it here permanently.

“It had gotten so big, and it was too large that it was hard to start from scratch in another city,” Short said. “But we had acceptance here. Plus, we’ve had a good deal of support from the merchants on Ninth Street. Straight businessmen will support you here. In Raleigh, they won’t even talk about it.”

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding