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By Jean Lotus
Forest Park is close to transportation, near Chicago, has lower taxes and lower housing costs. These are the elements that attracted Kevin Bellie and his partner Bob Knuth to Forest Park five years ago.
"We moved here for the same reasons everyone else does: proximity to Chicago," said Bellie, the former artistic director of Circle Theatre. "I work and play in the city, but I don't want to live in the city," he said. "I like having my own garage and a backyard."
But something else attracted the two to move from an Oak Park apartment to building their own house in Forest Park.
"It's a very diverse community and we love that. [Diversity] bleeds over from race to include sexual orientation," Bellie said. "Proximity to the city and diversity are huge in Forest Park."
Bellie and Knuth are not alone. Forest Park has the second-highest percentage of same-sex households in the state of Illinois, according to a U.S. Census analysis by the Williams Institute, based at UCLA Law School. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Forest Park has 95 same-gender-headed households in a town with 7,834 households. With statistical adjustments, the Williams Institute research calculates the percentage of same-sex households to be 13.26 per thousand. Oak Park is number one in declared lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) households, with 356 in a town of 24,519 households (15.70 per thousand). Evanston is third with 10.87 per thousand.
Neighborhoods in Chicago, such as Boystown or Andersonville, have a "gay-concentration" higher than Oak Park, but the general population lowers Chicago's percentage down to 10.38 per thousand, fourth in Illinois. The national average is 5.5 per thousand, said Williams Institute's Gary J. Gates, who studies LGBT demographic data.
"Forest Park has a substantially higher concentration of same-sex couples than the average town in the United States," Gates said. "We list it as number 100 in the country. There is more than double, almost three times, the U.S. concentration of same-sex couples in Forest Park."
Forest Park has risen in the rankings over the past 10 years. It ranked fourth on the list in the 2000 data. In 2000, the top five LGBT-dense communities, in order, were Oak Park, Evanston, Chicago, Forest Park and Cicero.
Forest Park is a town that for a while had not one, but two gay bars, the now-defunct Nutbush and The Hideaway. These were the only such bars in the near-western suburbs for many years. A short-lived gay bar in Berwyn closed last year.
But housing bargains are what attract many gay couples, they say.
Bob Snyder and his partner Bob Schubert have owned a house in Forest Park for 20 years. It helped that Schubert grew up in Forest Park and still had lots of childhood friends in town. Like many couples, the two started out in an apartment in Oak Park.
"Oak Park was even known as gay-friendly back in the 1970s when I first lived there," Snyder said.
Greg Raub of the Oak Park Gay and Lesbian Association (OPALGA) said he didn't know when Oak Park got the reputation for being LGBT-friendly.
"I know that at one time Oak Park was much more conservative in general. And I would guess that the shift to a more liberal community overall contributed to the growth of the gay and lesbian community," he said in an email. Raub pointed out that former Oak Park village president Joanne Trapani (2001-2005) was openly gay. Today the village has two gay trustees, Ray Johnson and Colette Lueck.
But in spite of its gay-friendly reputation, when it came time to buy a house, the prices in Oak Park were just too high for Snyder and Schubert, as were the taxes.
"The taxes in Oak Park are outrageous," Snyder said. He's a retired teacher and the two Bobs run an interior design business from their home. "We were thinking about buying something and houses we saw in Oak Park required a lot of work. For the same price in Forest Park, we saw houses that had all the 'gut' stuff done, new walls, new electrical, new kitchen, new bathrooms."
Oak Park Realtor Gary Mancuso has many clients who are same-sex couples.
"[Forest Park being second in same-sex density] doesn't surprise me at all," he said. "Gay people often like to live near metropolitan areas."
Mancuso attributes the popularity of Forest Park to "bleed over" from Oak Park. "The suburb clients usually think of is Oak Park when they first investigate. Then they go further and discover Forest Park."
Nearby Berwyn has an active marketing campaign aimed at LGBT home shoppers, as well as a city-wide LGBT association, BUNGALO. Mayor Robert J. Lovero rode the float in the Chicago Pride Parade this June. But Berwyn has only 130 LGBT-headed households on the U.S. Census in a city of 20,719 housing units, or about 6.86 per thousand, not even in the top five for Illinois.
Williams Institute's Gates said the census has been asking the "same-sex" question since 1990, and the numbers of people answering has risen dramatically.
"Between 1990 and 2000 the number of reported same-sex-headed households more than doubled nationally," Gates said. That's because people are more comfortable telling the federal government the truth about their status.
"In the past, many same-sex couples described their partner as 'roommate,'" Gates said. "About 10 percent still do," he added.
Evidence that the stigma is weakening, he said, is the number of couples reporting in the most conservative parts of the country, such as the deep South. "A big part of why a southern state will have a higher number of same-sex households is because of willingness to self-report, not because there was an influx of gay people."
"I imagine there will be even more single-sex households reporting in the 2020 census."
Forest Park's Snyder had no trouble checking the same-gender household box on his 2010 census form.
"I don't really care if the government knows or not," Snyder said. "If you want to ask me, then you'd better be prepared for the answer."
He added, "I'm 72 and I grew up in an era where people were pretty much in the closet. Now I'm retired and I don't have to worry about who writes my paycheck and whether you like me or don't like me."
Many LGBT couples don't have children, said Mancuso, and that makes school district questions irrelevant. Forest Park is affordable for families without high school-age children, he said. But school options in Forest Park, especially at the high school level, can worry LGBT parents as much as traditional parents.
Kim Rostello and her partner Teri Blain have been together for 27 years. They bought their house in Forest Park 20 years ago, before having children. Then they adopted two daughters in 2000 and 2003. The family added a second-story addition to their house in 2006.
Like many others, Rostello and Blain started in an apartment in Oak Park. Along with her sister living there, Rostello said the village was close to transportation to her 30-year-job at University of Illinois Chicago.
"Oak Park being gay-friendly wasn't the first consideration," she said. "But it was nice."
Their oldest attends Forest Park Middle School, which Rostello loves. But she said the couple is not comfortable with the reputation of Proviso Township High School District 209. They are trying to figure out whether they can afford private high school.
"We're trying to weigh how expensive it is to pay our taxes into the Proviso schools and then pay tuition on top of that," Rostello said.
Raising children as a same-sex couple brings your orientation to the spotlight, she said. "Once you adopt children, there's no way that you aren't out," she said. "It doesn't matter to us. We don't cover everything up."
Rostello said the school district has supported the couple. "We had a little bit of trouble with bullying in second grade," said Rostello. "The school nipped it in the bud right away. It has never been a big deal for our children."
Rostello credits the District 91 PBIS anti-bullying program for keeping her children in a safe environment. When the middle-school classrooms were discussing gay marriage in school, her daughter was able to give a presentation on marriage equality, she said. "There was no problem with [students] asking her questions. There's a great focus on inclusiveness."
Still, Rostello wishes there were more outward signs of LGBT-friendliness in Forest Park.
"During the Pride Parade there was nothing going on in Forest Park, and that was a shame," she said. "It would be nice for people if the village endorsed marriage equality or there were more programs for LGBT parents to meet others raising children."
Bellie and Knuth lived in Oak Park for many years while running Circle Theatre, a troupe originally based in Forest Park which now performs at theaters in Chicago. Bellie has retired from being artistic director and Knuth now designs stages for bigger theaters around Chicago.
But when they decided to buy a house, they had one built in Forest Park. And when the builders asked the couple if they could show the home as an example to prospective buyers, Bellie said three out of the four couples who came to see the house were same-sex couples. Bellie was not surprised they were interested in Forest Park.
"It seems like Madison Street just keeps getting better and better. We go into the city to see friends, but they also come from Chicago to eat at Maya Del Sol [in Oak Park] and Bua Hana. Some of the Forest Park restaurants are equivalent to a major restaurant in the city as far as pricing and quality."
Sometimes the two wonder if they might move back to Chicago for the nightlife, but Bellie said they soon realize how much they like their Forest Park house and the garage where they keep their car.
"I never want to put a piece of lawn furniture out in front of my house when I shovel," Bellie said. "It was no fun and I got tired of that."
This article has been updated to correct the percentage of LGBT households measured in the Williams Institute study and to correct the name of the Hideaway tavern.