How Gay-Friendly Is Collingswood?

Small-town gossip and tolerance blend in this Jersey town

When I heard last week was National Coming Out Week, my first thought was, really? We still need a “coming out week”? And then I remembered that I live in the Northeast Corridor, specifically, in the very gay-friendly town of Collingswood. I have to be continually reminded that the rest of the country is not quite where Collingswood is in terms of acceptance or even tolerance. My friend Louis Alberta once said, “Being gay is irrelevant in Collingswood; it’s like being white.”

Once, I was talking with my daughter, Allison, then a senior in high school, and my nephew, who was visiting from Pittsburgh. Somehow, we were talking about prom, and Allison was incredulous about a same-sex couple who were not allowed to attend prom together. My nephew Sean was incredulous at her incredulity (incredulousness squared?). This prompted me to ask how gay kids were treated at his much larger, much less racially, financially and, I guess, all –ly’s diverse high school. Sean’s response was, “If there are any gay kids, they’re sure not out!”

Pittsburgh is not that far away. Having grown up there myself, I hate to think of it as podunk, even in its suburbs. There is a spectrum of levels between tolerance and acceptance. I have a horrifying memory of watching Sacha Baron Cohen. Yes, the whole experience of watching SBC is horrifying, but when he dressed as a cheerleader at a University of Alabama football game, and the crowd starting booing, then yelling, then throwing soda and popcorn at him, I was just as confused as my kids. We thought the whole thing had to be a set-up, that there was no way people could get that angry over a male cheerleader prancing around. We were wrong. They did.

I live just outside ”one of the most gay-friendly cities in America”, and the student who was Allison’s senior-class president is gay. Dan Truitt, now a junior at Montclair State College, says that he did have it a lot easier than most, and he credits living in Collingswood, as well as having “the best parents in the world.”

In very new-millennium fashion, when Dan came out to his best friend, she told another friend, who left an away message on her AIM to the effect of, “Dan Truitt is gay, and I already knew it.” By the next morning, everyone knew it, but “no one said anything.” Dan was at his lunch table when a substitute teacher, who is also the mother of a child in the same class, told him she was “so proud of him.”

The small-town phenomenon of news about his sexuality spreading like wildfire blended with the big-city view that no one really cared. Dan believes that Collingswood is high up on the tolerance scale, but that no town in America has reached full acceptance. He let me know that a handful of kids came to him in high school, asking for advice on how to be sure of their own sexuality, and how to “come out” if they were sure.

When small-town rumors started circulating that gay people would be opening Grooveground, a local coffee and music shop, I talked with another mother about it on her front porch. She was concerned, she said, that if gay people owned it, gay people would come to the coffee shop and, “what if our teenagers yell things out their car windows at them?” When I said, “Well, then. Maybe it’s our teenagers we better talk to.” She just said, “Oh. Yeah. Right.” Then, I noticed a rainbow flag on a house a few doors down. “Who lives there?” I asked, and she said, “Oh, Bill and Jim. They are so great. They are so great with the kids; they’ll play Wiffle ball in the street. They watch our dog when we go away; they’re terrific.” I figured what she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.

Early this past summer, my soon-to-be 13-year-old son Christopher was walking home with a group of friends. A carload of teenagers drove past, fast, and yelled a gay slur (that six-letter “F” word I can’t even type). Chris and his friends all ran home. My son was more freaked out over what they yelled than about the fact that they yelled. We had to look up the etymology (really, the kid loves word origins), discuss why this was the word of choice, and etc. Chris took the epithet literally and couldn’t understand how someone could come up with that label to apply to a whole group while simply driving by. Obviously, no town is perfect, and some teenagers weren’t spoken to.

As one does, I talked with my hairdresser about all of this. Alberta, who is the owner of Bauhaus Hair Design Studio, acknowledges that his own perception may be skewed. “People come in here to get their hair done, and I’m gay. It’s not like I’m an accountant.” He lived here for a few years, moved away and came back in ’03, “but gay had nothing to do with it; it was about the town.” His successful salon doubles as a gallery, offering wine in ice out of its shampoo sinks during Collingswood’s Second Saturdays. “Being gay is kinda trendy,” he said. “I think we may have one up on the other Collingswood residents.”

Kathleen Volk Miller is co-editor of Painted Bride Quarterly and an associate teaching professor at Drexel University. Don’t follow her on Twitter @kvm1303 because she hardly ever tweets. She hopes to have her own website one day, and also, no war.