Gay in the Southbay
There may be no parade down Hermosa Avenue, but South Bay’s gay and lesbian residents wouldn’t trade their beach home for anything.
So what is it like being gay in the South Bay? Not as different as you might you think.
- Written byDarren Elms
A gay guy walks into a bar …
No, seriously. On this occasion it’s me, and the bar is Mother Lode, a tried and true watering hole on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
To equate this joint with one of the many dive bars sprinkled around the South Bay, the closest would be Ercoles … old wooden features, pool table, musty aroma of drunken nights past. But the predominant customer base at this bar is gay men, and tonight is no exception.
A few seconds after arriving, my partner spots his friend Dave across the room, a bunch of pals gathered around to toast his 30-something birthday. One of these guys is Oliver Sehulster, nursing a beer in one hand and shaking my hand with the other. Over the blend of chatter, laughs and pop music raging from the speakers above us, we begin a conversation.
“So, what do you do?” Oliver leans in to ask me, as many do when meeting someone for the first time. “I’m the editor of a magazine,” I tell him. “Oh yeah, which one?” he inquires.
When outside the beach cities, this is typically when I engage my default response, “It’s a local lifestyle publication, so you likely haven’t seen it. Southbay magazine.”
“Sure, I have,” he nods approvingly, to which I assume is courtesy and offer my follow-up default response, “You probably haven’t.”
“No, I have. I just got it in the mail last week,” he insists, describing the cover in detail to remove any doubt I still might have.
I’m surprised. Not that he’s heard of our magazine, but that he lives in the South Bay. Manhattan Beach, to be exact.
It’s not that it’s terribly unusual to run into someone from the South Bay north of the 405, it’s just not often that the person is also gay or lesbian. Neighborhoods in West Hollywood, Silver Lake and Long Beach have long been traditional havens for members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, both socially and residentially. But Manhattan Beach? I was intrigued.
“I moved from Seattle to West Hollywood when I was 22,” he shares. “West Hollywood was a perfect place to be in my early 20s. It was a blast, and I wouldn’t change a thing about that chapter in my life.”
But Oliver says he started coming down to Hermosa Beach Pier with a close female friend whom he worked with. “Maybe it was my visits to the South Bay, or maybe it was just the time in my life that fueled a change. I remembered that I used to have so many passions and interests that didn’t involve drinking at The Abbey .”
As a kid, Oliver had three loves: sports, being active and nature. “These things were important to me then, and I realized they still were,” he says. “Clearly, the South Bay was a place that offered this fulfillment.”
So eight years ago, he packed his surfboard and relocated to Manhattan Beach and hasn’t looked back. “I discovered that being gay doesn’t mean I’m required to live in the ‘gayborhood’ … and also realized that I never want my zip code defined by my sexuality—ever.”
Michael Holtz also made the move from West Hollywood to Hermosa Beach only six months ago, but for different reasons. A competitive swimmer, he needed an environment conducive to his triathlon training, and also to be closer to a new job as marketing manager for Sports Authority. For someone who has lived in lively gay neighborhoods worldwide, including SoHo in London and Chelsea in New York, he sees the transition as a positive challenge.
“Gay culture was very much a part of my work and my life. After coming out as a national swimmer, it was very important to be surrounded by supportive people in my community,” he says. “I think as time moved on, I started to realize I had a larger opportunity: to educate and influence people outside the LGBT community that we are just like anyone else.”
A local gym owner and lesbian who prefers to remain anonymous says she never felt the lure to live in West Hollywood, singling out the attitude and scene as deterrents. Instead she has made the South Bay home for the last 12 years.
Drawn by the people, fitness-minded spirit and a supportive, small-business community, she couldn’t think of a better place to set up her life and gym. “The South Bay is very accepting of me being gay—socially and professionally,” she says.
Oliver also chose to set up shop here, opening Pelicon Brand Development, his graphic and web design company, in Manhattan Beach. His work was recently featured across the city, providing the official logo for the Manhattan Beach Centennial.
“People who live here love the town and protect the integrity of the ‘hometown’ vibe,” he believes. “Manhattan Beach and our neighboring beach cities are environmentally conscious, support healthy and fit lifestyles, and have a strong community spirit. Residents and businesses alike are engaging, involved and philanthropic, which is another reason MB is so appealing to me. This town is absolutely unique. We are all lucky to be a part of it.”
Though she equally shares Oliver’s love for all the above, our gym owner finds one aspect of being gay and living in the South Bay challenging: dating.
“Everyone is pretty much straight and married,” she says with a smile. “Sometimes I will question if someone is single and gay. But it is very hard to ask, ‘Hi, are you gay? Want to go on a date?’ I feel like in WeHo or Venice, everyone looks gay to me. Or what I call ‘hetero-flexible’!”
Oliver sees it another way. “Dude, I have minimal competition,” he laughs. “The benefits speak for themselves!”
For him, living in the South Bay has never been an issue of acceptance. “I may not flaunt it, but I am and always have been very open about my sexuality. I am so fortunate to live in such an open-minded and accepting environment, that I don’t have to be worried to give a guy a kiss while having a beer at Brew Co.”
He acknowledges that while he often hangs with a small group of gay men who also love the South Bay as much as he does, most of his local friends are straight. “These are people from all over the world that have ended up in Manhattan Beach and from day one have made clear that my sexuality will never be an issue. It never has. That’s love.”
Michael’s experience pretty much mirrors Oliver’s. “I don’t need gay friends to survive. The majority of my good friends in the South Bay are actually straight. They are very supportive of me as a gay male, and I believe that they have the utmost respect for me because I am living my life for who I am and have nothing to hide.”
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to make a ruling on two major cases that directly affect the LGBT community. The first could potentially overturn the
Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, granting legally married gay or lesbian couples federal protections under the law.
The second has even more local resonance: the future of Proposition 8, the California proposition banning gay marriage passed by a 52-48 majority in 2008, which has since been overturned and appealed in the courts. Since Prop. 8 was accepted more than four years ago, polls show support for gay marriage tipping dramatically in the opposite direction, with 61% in favor to 31% opposed, according to a Field Poll conducted in February.
If marriages are indeed once again granted to gay and lesbian couples here in California, would the South Bay be a natural choice to settle down and potentially raise a family?
“Absolutely,” says Oliver. “This is a perfect community to grow up in. Schools are amazing, the city is progressive, it’s an entirely active and healthy atmosphere for kids, and I hope to raise a family here one day.”
Michael concurs. “This is totally my environment. Having a partner, house and growing a family would be great in the South Bay.”
While our trio of residents enthusiastically see themselves raising families and playing an active part in the South Bay for some time, they hope the community continues to grow and give back in return.
“There is not a large presence of LGBT culture in the South Bay, so people are just not exposed to it,” points out Michael. “I find myself lucky enough to have the ability to influence others by just being myself.”
and also realized that I never want my zip code defined by my sexuality—ever.”
One way Michael advocates for equality is doing exactly what he loves most: swimming. With other swimmers, like 10-time Olympic medalist Gary Hall, Jr. and five-time Olympic medalist Greg Louganis, he participates in Swim for Equality series—fundraising races that include a 1.2-mile cold-water swim in June from Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay and a 1.7-mile swim in the warmer waters of Malibu. The event has yet to arrive on South Bay shores, but maybe that will change now that Michael calls Hermosa home.
Our gym owner sees a broader approach. “We need better education, about being gay and accepting gay people, in our school system,” she expresses as one way the beach cities can promote tolerance in generations to come. She also hopes to see more LGBT fundraising events and an influx of gay-owned business.
“It would be awesome to have an upscale gay restaurant. The gay boys know how to decorate, cook and throw wonderful get-togethers. Come on!”
While it may take some time before the South Bay offers institutions that primarily cater to gay men and women (as of now The Dolphin Bar in Redondo is the only establishment to proudly hang a rainbow flag outside its door), the honest engagement of these locals in their community seems like a great place to start.
“I was aware of the lifestyle changes and what difficulties of being gay in the South Bay could bring … and I was concerned,” admits Oliver. “Although I am a confident guy, I was nervous about being out in a predominantly heterosexual town. Growing up on the West Coast in primarily liberal areas, I’ve rarely had to deal with discrimination. I thought, ‘This could end up a huge mistake,’ and I was scared. Leaving my friends and moving alone to South Bay as a gay guy was a significant risk. Turns out … it was worth it.”