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Gay couples find their home on Vashon
Last spring Barb and Heather Rhoads-Weaver attended a potluck at Vashon Cohousing for same-sex couples with children and were pleasantly surprised to see about 30 other families show up for the event — many more people than they were expecting.
“It was really huge. People were coming out of the woodwork,” Heather recalled.
Despite being a rural community with slow growth, 2010 census results released last week show what many Islanders may already know: Same-sex couples are one of Vashon’s fastest-growing demographics.
Though the Island’s population only grew by about 500 in the last decade, the number of households headed by same-sex couples more than doubled, jumping from 2.3 percent in 2000 to 5.5 percent in 2010 and making Vashon — as it was in 2000 as well — home to the highest concentration of same-sex couples in the state. The statistic also puts Vashon’s gay population just ahead of Seattle, where 5.4 percent of homes are headed by same-sex couples.
The Rhoads-Weavers, who have lived on the Island for about six years and married in Canada in 2003, say that while Vashon may look statistically similar to Seattle, in fact it’s different here: Because of Vashon’s sparse population and strong community spirit, they noted, gay and lesbian couples tend to be fully integrated into the larger community — evidenced in part by the fact that events such as the recent potluck aren’t really that common.
“It’s just spotty. It’s not like there’s a regular get-together,” said Heather, a wind energy consultant, sitting with Barb at her home office near Winghaven Park last week.
“Maybe it’s a good sign that we don’t feel we need to do something like that.”
The Rhoads-Weavers say they moved to Vashon six years ago for the same reasons most straight couples do — they loved the rural feel and tight-knit community. They were also ready to start a family.
“We knew it was a good place to raise kids,” said Barb Rhoads-Weaver, an attorney who now has a practice on Vashon.
Vashon’s reputation for being a gay-friendly place, however, did play into their move, Heather said. They felt accepted living in Seattle’s Central District, and expected the same on Vashon.
“We looked at that data and thought we’d be comfortable here,” she said.
But while the pair socialized often with other gay and lesbian couples in Seattle, they say most of their friends on Vashon are straight.
“When we were in Seattle we went to more gay events. That was the way you socialized with your network,” Barb said. “But we don’t feel the need to do that here.”
In fact, most of the couple’s friends are now, like them, parents of young children. Since moving to Vashon, Heather and Barb have each given birth to a child who was then legally adopted by the other. Shane, a 1-year-old girl, and Luca, a 3-year old boy, now both attend preschools where the couple says the other children seemed to be accustomed to having friends with two moms. The two say they have no fears about eventually sending their kids to public school.
“They’ll get more attention because of their red hair than because they have two moms,” Barb said with a smile.
Jill Dziko knows the feeling. She and her partner Trish Dziko, who is African American, moved from Seattle to Vashon about two years ago because they felt their four adopted children would get a better education at Vashon schools. The kids, who now range in age between 8 and 13, have been picked on at school for being black, but not for being the children of a lesbian couple.
“We’ve had more issues having to do with race than having two moms, which has been very interesting,” Jill Dziko said.
Dziko, who is active in volunteering with the sports her kids play, said she has never heard of a gay couple being discriminated against on Vashon.
“It’s such a great place to live and such a great place to raise kids. The added bonus is it is a community you can be open in,” she said.
Stephen Silha, a freelance writer and social activist, remembers when things weren’t quite as easy for gay people on Vashon. Silha moved to the Island more than 30 years ago, and while he says he’s always felt very comfortable on Vashon, he also remembers times when he was treated differently by those who knew he was gay. Once, in fact, he recalled, a car drove straight at him and his partner as they walked hand in hand along the side of the road.
“There have been times when it’s been hard to understand why people treated me the way they did. It seems like a logical explanation,” he said. “Fortunately, that was in the past.”
Silha believes Vashon has become even more accepting over time, in part because many middle- and upper-class people from Seattle have moved to the Island and in part because of the social organizations that have existed, such as the Rock Men of Vashon, which was active in the early 1980s, and the Vashon Gay Pride Alliance, which formed in the early 1990s.
He remembers being taken aback when the Rock Men marched in the Strawberry Festival parade years ago and one onlooker shouted, “This isn’t Castro Street, you know.” Even in the late 1990s, he said, a sign on Vashon Highway that said the Gay Pride Alliance cleaned that stretch of road was stolen and shot at numerous times.
“I think the Island has become more accepting overall. … I certainly haven’t had anyone try to run me over in the past couple decades,” he said.
Silha, who is currently making a documentary about James Broughton, a gay poet and filmmaker, says he’s even seen the Vashon School District in recent years train teachers to handle the bullying of children with same-sex parents. He wasn’t surprised to hear that the number of gay and lesbian couples on Vashon has more than doubled in the past decade.
“Vashon is an extremely comfortable place to live for same-sex couples,” he said. “I get the sense that more gay people are moving to the Island. For one reason or the other it’s continuing to attract gay couples.”
While gay and lesbian Islanders seem to blend in on Vashon more than ever, at least one Islander says Vashon still isn’t tolerant of everyone.
Banyan Fierer, 42, identifies as what he called gender queer — someone who has a fluid gender expression. An Islander for three years, Fierer can often be seen in loud, colorful and even sparkly outfits, and until recently he wore his hair long. And while he, too, finds most of Vashon to be accepting, he feels he and his partner, who are both yoga instructors, aren’t treated the same as other gay people on the Island.
“I have always dressed creatively, since I was a kid,” Fierer said. “I’ve definitely had experiences on the Island where that has not been OK with people.”
Fierer, who teaches a yoga class for kids on Vashon and is involved with a community farm project, says he sometimes hears people whispering about him when he goes out in public and has been criticized for looking different.
In one of his worst encounters, he said, an employee whom he sought help from at a Vashon retail business looked Fierer up and down, shook his head and walked away. “That was probably the most blatant discrimination,” he said.
Fierer and his partner are moving off the Island, in part, he said, because of the intolerance they’ve experienced.
“We certainly have had great experiences with some of the people here, but the fact that we’ve had those (negative) experiences and so much of the community says how great and accepting the community is seemed to be problematic for a long-term situation,” he said.
Fierer said that he and his partner plan to eventually move to Earthaven Ecovillage in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, a community similar to one he once lived in in Southern Oregon.
“We would rather live in a more positive and accepting community,” he said.
Barb, who is a friend of Fierer, said she was saddened to hear about his experiences and feels that Islanders, like people in other places, are still intolerant of those with different gender identities.
“While we’re fortunate to be here,” she said, “it’s not a utopia.”