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The LGBT Community on Vashon Island

Stephen Floyd and Phil Dunn (in the Tea Shop)
Stephen Floyd and Phil Dunn (in the Tea Shop)

ords sealed the deal for Emma Amiad when she brought her partner on a Spring drive to see Vashon Island 24 years ago. They drove from the north-end to the south-end and when they reached the Tahlequah Ferry dock Susan was sold on the idea of moving here. At the time, she was living near Everett and the prejudice around gay and lesbian issues made life tense and uncomfortable. On Vashon in addition to the lush environment, she felt a peace and tranquility she did not experience elsewhere.

Emma found Vashon Island after a friend told her about the islands in the Sound and she went to Sound Foods with some vegetarian friends. Even then, people on Vashon were blazing the way since most restaurants did not create vegetarian dishes in the late 70’s. After she and Susan moved to Vashon, Emma began working for Vashon Island Real Estate. The LGBT community refers to all people who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. She remembers sitting at the front desk when a straight couple came in to ask about possible housing and Vashon’s culture. They mentioned they had plenty of LGBT friends and they wanted their friends to feel comfortable when they came to visit. Emma’s responded, "Honey, did you come to the right place!"

The progressive atmosphere on Vashon is an important factor in people’s decision-making process. As the census reports show the percentage of same sex households has increased more than two-fold in the last decade. Networking among people has contributed immensely to this growth. Friends told Stephen Floyd and Phil Dunn what a great place Vashon was. After decades of activity in the LGBT movement in the 80’s and 90’s, they felt they needed a place where they could relax and grow into the people they wanted to be. The ability to explore one’s potential, "running down your dream" as Tom Petty sings, is important to everyone but it is especially important to members of the LGBT community. As Phil said, "We came looking for peace and to grow a forest."

Even though Lotus and Barb Smith have lived on Vashon Island since their childhood, they, too, have found the accepting atmosphere on Vashon to be an opportunity to grow and develop into the people they wanted to be. After they finished high school here, they both wanted to leave. However, later events in their separate lives brought them back. The closeness to city jobs was a big factor for Lotus and her husband when they decided they wanted to live in the country. When Barb decided to go to school, she, like many kids, lived with her mother, Mary Smith, to save money. She thought she wanted to go somewhere else but events kept her here. When the need came to reveal their sexual orientation, they found it easier to simply live the way they wanted than to hide it. Lotus was faced with a dramatic change in other people’s understanding of her but felt that hiding her orientation was more weird than revealing it—even if it had been possible to hide the changes in her lifestyle. She actually discovered that being a woman in construction was more of a hurdle than being a lesbian.

When Barb Smith realized her own sexual orientation, she simply decided that most of the community would simply think, "Oh, well." She knew some people might talk or get upset but she felt she did not need people’s approval of her lifestyle. Since she had known people since grade school, there was no point in trying to be anonymous. People knew her, as well as Lotus, in other contexts. Since there were no gay and lesbian organizations or specific entertainment spots, she socialized openly with all her friends.

After a lifetime of facing obstacles in her career and living arrangements, Emma found the cooperative, non-judgmental attitude of people on Vashon to be very encouraging and life enhancing. As Lotus and Barb had discovered, both Emma and Susan found their sexual orientation simply was not anyone’s business and very few people cared. For the first time in their lives, they felt like they had the ability to be the persons they wanted to be. They enjoyed LGBT organizations established in the 80’s and 90’s but they also felt welcome in other organizations. Emma has been a social activist in a variety of fields besides the establishment of a successful real estate business. Susan created a nursery business on the west side of the island. However, she now works with Emma in the real estate business and creates videos and CDs.

Stephen wanted to teach English and Drama to children and started in the Vashon Island School District as a substitute in Special Education. The District hired him as a full time aide and he obtained his teaching certification from Antioch University-Seattle. As he was finishing, the position as English and Drama teacher became available. Although he was nervous about the upcoming interview when he applied, the District saw his gifts and hired him.

Both Stephen and Phil find the proximity of Seattle with its theatres and museums appealing. After acting professionally in Portland and San Francisco, Phil immediately looked for acting jobs in Seattle. However, low pay rates were discouraging, barely paying for the cost of transportation. He found work on the Island and threw himself into local theatre productions. In Drama Dock he has served in many positions from President to stage hand. Drama Dock has found his dedication and tireless energy to be invaluable.

According to Emma, the domestic partnership laws passed in the Washington Legislature have made a big difference in people’s attitudes. Once the general population discovers that nothing bad happens when everyone’s rights are recognized, the urge to discriminate fades away. As Stephen commented, all his students seem to know he is gay without asking or being surprised. In the construction business, Lotus found people more concerned about her gender than anything else. Phil chuckled about people’s surprise in Drama Dock when they realized he was gay.

No community is perfect and there are people here with stereotypical visions of others. Of course, this liberal climate has not always prevented problems on Vashon as people can cite instances of discrimination. However, as Randy Marinez says, it has improved in the last decade. "I tell everyone that Vashon is a paradise for my family. It is wonderful and very unique, in the normality of our existence on Vashon and the care we engender here…And in my experience it is continuing to be a liberal, progressive place that supports individuality."

The recent increase in same sex households is related to the passage of domestic partnership laws in the state, networking among people with a common interest, and the general lack of concern about sexual orientation that is characteristic of the younger generation. Changes in the military’s policy in regard to gay and lesbian soldiers will hopefully open more opportunities for them. Vashon continues to lead the way as it does in alternative energy, eating habits, lifestyles and just letting people be people.