Finding someone to date is no easier for gays than straights in Asheville
By Paul Clark, Asheville Citizen-Times,
ASHEVILLE - Mark File loves it when his straight friends try to set him up with another man.
They often think that because he's gay and the other guy is gay, they're perfect for each other. File, marketing director at the Richmond Hill Inn, has a good sense of humor about it. And he certainly appreciates their concern, because gay dating in Asheville is both easy and hard.
The city has a national reputation as being friendly toward gays and lesbians. Last June, Out magazine ranked Asheville the hottest small U.S. town in which to be gay. "Asheville, the Paris of the South, boasts the perfect combination of progressiveness and rustic charm," a blurb in the magazine reads. "Besides, who can resist a `hottie' with a drawl?"
The number of gays and lesbians in Asheville is still small, however, gays and lesbians say, and finding a partner here is no easier than it is for heterosexuals.
"I have a very eclectic and beautiful circle of ex's," said Rachelle Sorensen, a woman who started seeing other women two years after moving to Asheville in 1995. "The dating pool here is very small."
But the population as a whole is growing. Real estate agents who advertise on gay Web sites that focus on Asheville estimate that several dozen couples a year are moving to town, many of them from Atlanta and south Florida.
There are several organizations and informal meetings to bring gays and lesbians together. Asheville Supper Club convenes men for its monthly potlucks. On Sundays, as many as 30 gays play volleyball at French Broad River Park. The Association of Lesbian Professionals and the Asheville Gay and Lesbian Business Organization are as much social as professional.
Asheville has several bars devoted to or delighted with gays and lesbians, such as O'Henry's, Club Hairspray, Smokey Tavern, Scandals and Tressa's Downtown Jazz & Blues. Many other places, especially downtown, mix homo- and heterosexuals with ease.
"If you're gay (in Asheville), you feel comfortable in places such as The Flying Frog and The New French Bar as you do hanging out in gay clubs," said David Abernethy, a 44- year-old Montford resident. "This is true more so here than other cities."
File, 39, manages RomanticAsheville.com and said the section devoted to gays and lesbians is the eighth or ninth- most popular among the 75 pages the Web site offers.
"The old-time natives in the area are a `live-and-let- live' kind of culture," said Pete Tolleson, a 72-year-old Kenilworth gay man who moved to Asheville with his partner in 1984. "During the past 20 years, it has been getting progressively more welcoming."
"What really makes Asheville stand out from a gay perspective is how much of a nonissue it is," writer Parker Ray says in the February issue of Instinct, a gay magazine. The article lists several businesses that are either gay, "mixed" or welcoming.
Not all feel welcome
Outside Asheville, it's not so friendly. Many gays and lesbians contacted for this story who live in other Western North Carolina towns declined to participate, citing hostility where they live.
Susan Wilson, a 46-year-old woman who lives in Weaverville with her partner, said she's been verbally attacked for being lesbian, even though she doesn't flaunt their relationship and leads a quiet life.
"Most of the people my partner and I socialize with don't go to bars or nightclubs on a regular basis," she said via e-mail. "We are fairly content to stay home on the weekend and (work) around in our gardens, read a good book, crochet baby blankets for friends or watch movies on DVDs." Not a `nightlife' scene
Two years ago Darryl Hansome, now 49, moved to Asheville to be closer to his elderly parents in the Raleigh/Durham area. A retired state Highway Patrol trooper from Buffalo, N.Y., he knew nothing about Asheville's reputation among gays. Nor did he know anyone in town.
But he met someone through friends who went to the supper club. He met other gays through ManSpirit, a gay men's spiritual group in Asheville, and Gay Spirit Visions, organizers of spiritual retreats near Highlands.
"Asheville is not totally focused on the bars and the nightlife," Hansome said. "I've been fortunate in that there is a very healthy gay community here."
At 44 and having "somewhat traditional values," Abernethy said he's had a hard time dating here. So many gay men move here with partners that Abernethy, a real estate agent, has tried dating men younger than himself in hopes of increasing his possibilities. He's currently seeing someone in Greenville, S.C., he said.
"A single person that comes here comes for the love of the outdoors. So there's a small and shallow dating pool," Abernethy said.
"Our social circles are a little incestuous," Sorensen said of her lesbian community, "in that there aren't many of us and we all know each other in many ways. So it's difficult to make the transformation from friend to dating partner and from dating partner to friend."
File has been dating since he arrived two years ago from Greensboro. He believes it's easier to meet gays and lesbians here than elsewhere.
"Greensboro has a larger gay population, but they're harder to find," he said. "In many cities, there are a few places only for a couple to go out to eat in, that the wait staff doesn't look at you weird if you decide to hold hands.
"But I felt (here) you could do that in about any restaurant in downtown. You could be free and open, and you don't have to worry about that. Seems like more people here are `out' and about than in other towns."