Lesbians settle down among Cloverdale's vineyards
by Matthew S. Bajko
Nestled beside the Russian River's creek beds and the vineyards of northern Alexander Valley lies Cloverdale, where a growing number of lesbians are choosing to buy second homes or retire.
Call it Palm Springs for the Sapphic set.
"We love it up here. I couldn't think of a better place to retire," said Phyllis Hornstein, 60, who moved to town with her partner, Judy Visse, 68, seven years ago from San Rafael. Visse's brother had owned a ranch in town and the couple decided to retire there.
"We love the pace up here. It is not too fast," added Hornstein, whose daughter from a previous marriage lives nearby with her daughter.
They bought their house, built in 1904, for $325,000.
"A steal," said Hornstein.
Only after moving into their new home close to downtown did they discover they weren't the only lesbian couple to spend their golden years in Cloverdale. They met other lesbian couples at local garage sales or at Antiques & Uniques, a cooperative where they sell items they find.
"A lot of lesbians live in Asti [a nearby town] and the hills around here. We were shocked but so happy. We thought we were the only ones for a long time," said Hornstein, who has been with Visse for 27 years. "When we came up here we weren't sure how redneck it would be. We had some reservations. But then when we went to the bank, to the supermarket, people were like, whatever."
Cyril Colonius, 57, the openly gay sabbatical pastor for the United Church of Cloverdale, said he has felt extremely welcomed since he became a member of the church last year.
"I think the people who go to this church have been in the struggle for equality and justice a long, long time and welcome gay and lesbian folks. The gay rights struggle to them is no different than the struggles they have been involved in for many, many years," said Colonius, who lives in Ukiah, 30 minutes north of Cloverdale and is the executive director of the Mendocino County AIDS Volunteer Network. "The church declared itself as welcoming and affirming five years ago, I think. Because it is part of that movement, I think people were very well equipped to welcome an openly gay man."
Just 85 miles north of San Francisco along Highway 101, Cloverdale is the northernmost town in Sonoma County and is bordered by the Maacama Mountains to the east. Incorporated in 1872, the city is 2.7 square miles in size with a population of approximately 8,454.
Actual numbers of just how many lesbians live in the town are difficult to come by. According to data from the secretary of state's office, as of February of this year, 16 same-sex Cloverdale couples, mostly women, had registered as domestic partners.
Sonoma County has long been home to a large LGBT population, and in their 2004 book The Gay and Lesbian Atlas , demographers Gary J. Gates and Jason Ost named nearby Santa Rosa the city with the highest concentration of lesbian couples.
Based on 2000 census figures, Sonoma County had the second highest percentage of same-sex households in the state, totaling 2,125 gay and lesbian couples, second only to San Francisco County, according to the Web site http://www.gaydemographics.org. Based on 2000 U.S. census data there are an estimated 155 unmarried partner households in the city.
Over the last decade there has been a growing influx of lesbians in their 40s to late 70s moving in to Cloverdale. The city's lesbian community has melded seamlessly into the general population.
"The gay community here is very friendly but not gay centric. It is totally integrated with the straight community," said Roz Katz, who moved to Cloverdale with her partner, Carol Russell, six years ago this September from San Rafael, where they had lived for 30 years after a brief stint in San Francisco. "In San Francisco nobody asks you what your religion is. In Cloverdale nobody asks you what your sexual orientation is."
They helped launch the North Bay Pride Music Festival in 2005 as a way to bring together the local LGBT community. About 2,200 people showed up for the event.
"We didn't want gay Pride to go by without something," said Russell, 64, who successfully ran for a seat on the city council in 2006.
The couple had owned a second home for a time in the Palm Springs area but th
"We knew we wanted to live somewhere near the Russian River and that was gay friendly," said Katz, 68, who married her partner of 39 years in San Francisco City Hall June 17.
Having sold their Palm Desert house, they at first had looked at buying in Bodega Bay and then Healdsburg. They soon discovered that their money would go further in Cloverdale, just another 15-minute drive up the highway.
"We wanted to get out of Marin. We felt it was overcrowded. A lot of our friends were relocating as well," said Russell. "We fell in love with the house and the city."
They moved into a new development called The Cottages, where single-family homes at the time were priced in the high $400,000s to low $500,000s.
"When we first drove in and somebody smiled at me, I just felt like it was a very welcoming place," said Russell. "No sooner than we arrived did we realize there was a lot of gay people here."
Cloverdale bills itself as "where the vineyards meet the redwoods" and has become a popular vacation spot for a growing number of gays and lesbians attracted to the town's numerous Victorian bed and breakfasts, warm climate, and close proximity to countless wineries.
Anna Smith, who bought the The Shelford House B&B, built in 1885, with her husband Stan in 2002, said they have seen an increasing number of gay male visitors reserve rooms.
"Most are coming from San Francisco. Once they get here they don't want to leave," she said.
With same-sex marriage now legal, the Smiths are fielding calls from couples looking to have wine country weddings. The inn sits next to Cabernet vineyards and has several outdoor sites for ceremonies.
"We have had quite a few calls for gay weddings. But you have to book the whole inn for a wedding party and I only have one weekend in August available," said Anna Smith, who recently hosted a 10-year anniversary party for her real estate agent and her partner.
Attractions such as nearby River Rock Casino and Francis Ford Coppola's Rosso & Bianco winery in Geyserville are adding to Cloverdale's draw for gay tourists and retirees alike. The town has a small airport where private planes can land and redid its train station in hopes that a commuter line will be built between Sonoma and Marin counties ending at the Larkspur ferry landing.
Business and life partners Mary Dixon and Laurie Kneeland relocated their Mail Center, Etc. to downtown Cloverdale from Santa Rosa two years ago and couldn't be happier. Kneeland has lived in town for 22 years and met Dixon seven years ago.
"We belong to the Kiwanis Club up here. There are a lot of couples but we are the only different ones. They've taken us with open arms," said Kneeland. "I think this town is very open."
"It is a friendly little community and it is developing and growing," added Dixon.
Kneeland, who moved to San Francisco from Seattle in the early 1960s due to its reputation as a gay mecca, said she doesn't miss city life at all.
"If I want the city I just come down to go to a Giants game and then I am ready to come home," said Kneeland. "You are in the middle of everything here but people don't realize that. You can go to the city, north to the casinos and redwoods or west to the coast."
Colonius moved to Mendocino with his partner of eight years, Joe Rogers, from West Hollywood and has been pleasantly surprised with how accepting the area is. He said it is a mistake to view the community as merely conservative or label it as anti-gay.
"In rural communities, especially up the 101, there is a great deal of diversity because so many people lived in the Bay Area and have been open to that diversity," he said. "Yet people born and raised in this community have seen that diversity move in, and at times there is some tension, but they have learned to live with one another."