If you had asked me before last week, when the 2010 census data was released, I would have said Fire Island is Long Island’s “gayest” community. But Fire Island incorporates several municipal jurisdictions and thus does not show up in the census as an entity unto itself.
But Dering Harbor (Shelter Island) and Orient do, and they turn out to be the two hamlets with the highest percentage of same-sex couples in either Nassau or Suffolk. (Credit Newsday with first reporting this story in its editions of last Thursday. Go to newsday.com/table-same-sex-couples-on-long-island-1.3023709 to see where your community ranks.)
But wait! A closer look at the data reveals that Dering Harbor’s No. 1 ranking is a statistical aberration. And that’s because one of New York State’s smallest (in terms of population) incorporated villages has only 11 full-time residents living in its 35 households, with one out of the four households with couples living in them indicated as “same-sex.” Thus the census shows 25 percent of Dering Harbor’s “couple households” as same-sex. But with such a small sample, that’s obviously misleading because the village has just one same-sex household.
Orient, however, is another story. It has 21 same-sex households (13 female, eight male) out of a total of 196 households with couples living in them. And that translates to same-sex couples in 2.7 percent of the 772 total households and 10.7 percent of “couple households,” making it the “gayest” community on Long Island, according to the 2010 census.
Having lived in Southold Town’s easternmost hamlet for some 34 years now, I am not surprised. It’s been apparent for years that our lovely little village of 743 residents has a substantial number of same-sex households — and is decidedly the better for it.
Let us count the ways:
Leadership. An inordinate number of our community institutions have been headed by lesbian and gay individuals, and are the better for it. And, to be perfectly honest, the women have significantly outstripped their male counterparts in this regard.
The arts. Theater groups, chorales and cultural organizations here have benefited greatly from the leadership of, and participation by, members of the lesbian and gay community.
Political life. Some of my Tea Party-sympathetic neighbors might not like it, but Orient is arguably the North Fork’s most progressive (and, yes, most Democratic, with a capital “D”) hamlet, and the lesbian and gay community can take a significant amount of credit for that.
Environmental activism. Here, again, leadership by members of the lesbian and gay community has been instrumental in the debates over farmland preservation, ferry traffic, public water systems and the like.
Real estate. Lesbian and gay couples have renovated and improved a significant number of properties here — helping to increase the property values of their straight neighbors in the process — and a statistically significant number of North Fork real estate professionals are openly gay.
So, how and why did Orient specifically, and the North Fork in general, become places where same-sex couples settled?
First, there is the “end-of-the-line” phenomenon, whereby communities like Key West, Provincetown and Fire Island became gay enclaves. Orient is, quite literally, the end of the line on Long Island, and thus its geographic location could be a factor.
Then there’s the Jane Chambers factor. Acclaimed lesbian playwright Jane Chambers was a resident of Greenport at the time of her death at the age of 45 in 1983. And her play “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove” is viewed as a elemental work in lesbian theater history. According to a recent web search, “It is the story of a dissatisfied straight woman who leaves her husband to spend some quiet time by herself and who unwittingly and naively wanders into the midst of a group of seven lesbians at the beginning of their annual beachside vacation.” Some say Ms. Chambers and her play helped identify the east end of the North Fork as a place where gay individuals could find comfort and acceptance.
And let us not forget the pastoral attractions of Orient and the North Fork — particularly when measured against the glitzy attractions of the South Fork — and the comparatively affordable cost of housing here. A lesbian friend of mine said it was largely a function of “word of mouth,” as more and more of her friends opted for the quietude of Orient over the nightlife of, say, the Hamptons.
My voila! moment in this regard first came about a decade ago, when I observed an all-women’s softball game taking place behind the Oysterponds Elementary School in Orient. When I later learned that the majority of players were lesbians, I realized that the face of our little village had changed forever.
Not to mention for the better.