As America grows more aware and accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) neighbors and co-workers, a few regional surprises have surfaced courtesy of the United States Census Bureau and a study by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
The studies report that by 2005, there were more than 323,000 gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, both single and coupled, living in Pennsylvania. However, surprisingly, Pike County now logs about 12 same-sex couples for every 1,000 households, giving that county the distinction of having the highest concentration of same-sex households in Pennsylvania. As a point of reference, Pike County’s population is just 57,369 compared to Luzerne’s 320,918 and Lackawanna’s 214,437. The commonwealth’s most populous counties are, of course, Philadelphia, at 1,526,006, and Allegheny at 1,223,348, according to census figures.
Pike’s percentage is even higher than Philadelphia County, which has 10.62 same-sex households for every 1,000 homes. Monroe County has 8.46 couples for every 1,000 households, and Wayne County now has a 7.88 percentage of same-sex couples.
The individuals in all of these same-sex couples average 41 years of age. This is significantly younger than individuals in married couples, which average 49 years of age.
Analysis of the reasons behind the Pike County LGBT presence is as varied as the county’s citizens themselves. Adrian Shanker, president of Equality Pennsylvania, emphasizes that the public should not be surprised by the Pike County numbers.
He explains that when the results of the census and study are closely examined, it becomes apparent that the specific questions asked only for the number of same-sex couples, and not individual people who are LGBT. Therefore, the numbers of LGBT residents are probably even higher than the census indicates.
“The truth is that LGBT people live everywhere, including Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Monroe County and Pike County,” says Shanker. “Pennsylvania, as a whole, is a desirable place to live and if LGBT couples were more readily recognized there would be even more of them living in the state.”
He ponders the positive economic impact that would occur in Pike County if LGBT people were recognized as equals by all of the region’s residents. For example, Shanker says that New York City businesses, like hotels, are experiencing a $400 million influx of revenue because that state legally recognizes gay marriage.
He notes that almost all of the states surrounding Pennsylvania recognize gay marriage. That means LGBT couples in Pennsylvania flock out of the state to be married. Shanker believes these patterns mean Pennsylvania’s legislators have failed the business community by chasing these weddings across state lines. “The big picture is that there is money to be earned from recognizing the LGBT population, including the recognition of gay marriage. Refusal to make this legal creates impediments on business,” says Shankar.
A welcoming place
Linda Trompetter, Ph.D., executive director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Diversity Education Consortium, speculates that the LGBT presence in Pike County parallels increases in other populations, such as Latinos. She says these population increases are not just economic in nature, but often involve couples with children who want to raise their kids outside of urban areas.
“Pike County is a welcoming area with great living conditions,” says Trompetter. “The region’s proximity to New York City for work is also obviously being considered.”
The LGBT transplants in Pike County are just the same as the general population, says John Dawe, executive director of the NEPA Rainbow Alliance. He says LGBT people are often financially well off. Moreover, many are retirees or senior business managers with significant wealth or owners of vacation homes who retreated to the Poconos to live permanently. “Milford, in particular, offers an attractive cost of living, plus many homes that are spread out with privacy,” says Dawe.
Manuel Hernandez, M.D., M.B.A., assistant professor of the department of emergency medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine, agrees that rural areas often are desirable for all homeowners, including LGBT people, because of reasonable property values. “These people have made a clear choice to move to Pike County, and no longer feel that gay people must closet themselves,” adds Dr. Hernandez.
It makes sense for many urban gay people to move to an area that will accept and embrace them, says Ida Castro, M.A., J.D., vice president for community and government relations and chief diversity officer at The Commonwealth Medical College “If you look at the American population below age 35, they accept LGBT people and have no issue living alongside of them,” says Castro.
Perhaps the most detailed explanation of Pike Country’s population shift comes from Sean Strub, a Milford-based community activist and businessman. He outlines how inclusion has historically been a Pike County tradition, and that the region attracts many types of people with very different political and cultural perspectives. For example, during the time of the American Civil War, Milford offered more than 1,000 hotel rooms for tourists. Gen. William T. Sherman was a visitor. In the early 20th century, Milford was a center of silent filmmaking. Pike County was also an inspiration for painters of the Hudson River School. Then, approximately 30 years ago, urban tourists, including LGBT people, started to “stick around” the region after buying what was once considered vacation property in Pike County. “This is when the predictable tensions really began in the community,” says Strub. The tensions are mostly, however, those of urban vs. rural citizenry. He adds that today’s children have had vastly different cultural experiences than previous generations, and most have grown up seeing gay and lesbian people in their lives. These kids are therefore much less likely to buy into stereotypes and bigotry. “The average person is becoming broadly aware of the presence of LGBT people in a truly global context,” says Strub.