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Queer Renaissance in Lynn, Massachusetts? Yep.

Posted by Jim Lopata  December 15, 2012 10:07 AM

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aLynnMemorialAuditorium.jpeg
After years of disrepair, the 2100-seat Lynn Memorial Auditorium was reopened in 2006 following a full refurbishing. It now hosts major talent on both the local — Boston’s Gay Men’s Chorus — and national scale.

Just ask the leaders of NAGLY, Go Out Loud, Art After Hours, Lesbiatopia.com and other locals—the formerly maligned suburb is turning around, and LGBTs are leading the way

By Scott Kearnan

“Everyone deserves a second act.”

So says DJ Brian Halligan. Halligan stepped away from spinning for nearly a decade. But dance music remained a passion, so last year he decided to get back into the groove. He had few connections in the current local landscape, but networked away. Gig by gig, doors reopened. Now he’s not only a regular on the Cambridge and Boston scenes, but has a Friday night residency at gay club Cirque—a revamped version of gay bar 47 Central in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Halligan sees a certain commonality between his own experience, and that of the city.
“I feel like my story is a parallel to Lynn’s,” says Halligan. “There can be a certain condescension that comes across from people outside it. But it deserves that second act.”
Ah, Lynn. She’s sort of like Boston’s hardscrabble little sister: only a fraction of the size (about 90,000 people) but with a big reputation. That rhyme “Lynn, Lynn, city of sin” is ubiquitous enough to go on coffee cups, and associations with high crime rates and economic malaise have been hard to shake. But as one of the largest cities in Massachusetts, and located just a few miles outside Boston, Lynn has a thriving gay community. It’s becoming an increasingly popular pick for LGBT folks seeking a cost-effective alternative to living in the Hub, and those looking to enjoy the city’s revitalized dining, entertainment, and arts scene as a visitor.

The city is clearly pushing a renaissance: sinking money into building artist live-work spaces and residential lofts in Lynn’s downtown, a Massachusetts historic district. It has relocated EDIC power lines by the shore, opening up dozens of acres of land to exciting development opportunities. And it’s prepping a daily ferry system between Lynn and Boston to help commuters and boost tourism. (Expect to set sail in about two years.)

But also at the forefront of Lynn’s improving rep is a gay group that takes a lot of pride (pun intended) in the city: Go Out Loud.

“My introduction to Lynn was through the gay community,” says Kevin Sampson, part of the team behind Go Out Loud, a new collective that organizes events and other opportunities for the region’s LGBT community that are designed to stimulate networking—and the local economy. And there is definitely a diverse gay community in Lynn, reflecting the older side of the spectrum (the Diamond District, an area of historic Victorian homes, is popular with gay couples), and younger. In fact, nearly half the membership of the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth is from Lynn, says Coco Alinsug, NAGLY executive director. (The group is actively seeking space for a youth drop-in center, and Lynn is on the list of possibilities.)

Sampson and his husband moved to Lynn in 2006, house hunters lured by the affordability of the city. “At the time I was very Boston-centric and lived downtown. My husband met a friend who lived in Lynn, so we went up for a party. We stepped into his loft and my mouth hit the floor. I thought, ‘I could live in a place like this?’” They sure could—for a fraction of the price of, say, a South End condo.

Sampson wound up on the board of Art After Hours, a nonprofit organization that has emerged as a leading force in Lynn. At a meeting last year, board members were sharing ideas for a fundraising cultural initiative they could trail-blaze. “I don’t know how to paint, but I’m good at organizing things,” chuckles Sampson. “So I raised my hand and said, ‘I’m gay. I could throw a Gay Pride party.”

He did, pulling together “Sinful BBQ” in June at the Lynn Museum, the downtown’s first annual pride event. (It happened to coincide with the first North Shore Pride Parade, in nearby Salem.) From sponsors to volunteers, Sampson was overwhelmed by the support he received and realized that Lynn’s gay community was “hungry” for social outlets. So he formed an initiative, dubbed Lynn Out Loud, to encourage camaraderie via regular meet-ups at various venues. Soon Sampson got in touch with Kevin Letourneau, organizer of the longer-running Salem Out Loud series, and decided to pool resources. With an expanded team, they incorporated Go Out Loud, which officially launches in November, as a single resource galvanizing the area’s gay community.

But the goal of Go Out Loud goes beyond just enabling an excuse for cocktail hour. “We want to encourage new development and prospective businesses,” says Sampson. “Everything we do develops community and has a business impact. We want to show that building and fostering community has a positive, strong impact on local businesses … and therefore, it is in the interest of local businesses to attract us. We’re a really viable demographic.”

Encouraging engagement with the LGBT community is important to the city, says Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy. “I think when I took office, Lynn was a pretty insular community,” says Kennedy. “I’ve made a conscious effort to make Lynn welcoming and inclusive to all diversity groups, and I think it’s starting to be noticed.”

Kennedy has certainly made it apparent that she’s an ally. Several gay city officials serve in her administration, she’s made public appearances in support of the LGBT community (even at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Northern Nights, a new gay bar), and she recently went to bat for a Lynn high school student who was barred by her vice-principal for wearing a t-shirt that read, “All the Cool Girls Are Lesbians.” The story made national headlines, and Kennedy took up the matter with the school committee on the girl’s behalf. (“The people administering those rules should know about First Amendment rights,” chides Kennedy.)

Kennedy says she’s been supportive of the community for many years, ever since two old friends came out to her. “We used to go out after work, and they said, ‘Would you mind going somewhere where we feel more comfortable?’” The group wound up at Fran’s Place in Lynn, one of the area’s longest-running gay bars, and Kennedy—who had never known any out friends—was suddenly rubbing elbows with drag performers.

Today as Mayor, she hopes to make the gay community feel as safe and welcome in Lynn as she felt that night at Fran’s. “At first I felt awkward and out of place, but then I felt protected in there. That world was always very welcoming to me, and I felt very grateful for that.”

In return, the gay community is increasingly embracing Lynn. “There’s a strong gay presence and sense of community in Lynn, and a lot of diversity,” adds Renee Gannon, who works at a North Shore college and also runs Lesbiatopia.com, a lesbian-focused pop culture and entertainment website. Gannon is 30, and couldn’t resist the opportunity Lynn offered for a young professional to live large. The surfer wound up with a two bedroom, 1300 square-foot spot with a private porch and ocean views. Her monthly rent is $1,250. (For comparison: according to numbers released in August, the average rent for a tiny two-bedroom in the Back Bay is $2,857. In Jamaica Plain, $1,536.)

And even if you’re not looking to relocate, exploring Lynn’s scene is worth the quick drive or T trip on a weekend says DJ Brian Halligan, who has been luring plenty of Boston friends to his Friday nights at Cirque.

“There’s a pioneering spirit at work in Lynn, and it’s important not to underestimate what the city is capable of,” he says.

Consider this a round of applause for a solid second act.

SIDEBAR

Culture

Lynn Arts
25 Exchange Street, 781-598-5244, lynnarts.org
Long at the forefront of downtown’s revitalization, the organization’s headquarters houses gallery space, a black box theater, and classroom space for aspiring artists. It also hosts a Holiday Art Show, where you can snap up original pieces that are all priced under $300.
Arts After Hours (781-205-4010, artsafterhours.com) An at-large art org run by Corey Jackson, a man-about-town who also covers the city’s happenings on his downtownlynn.com blog. Leaning toward the cool and cutting-edge, this arts nonprofit produces stage shows, concerts, and culture vulture social events at venues around town.
Lynn Memorial Auditorium (3 City Hall Square, 781-581-2971, lynnauditorium.com) After years of disrepair, the 2100-seat auditorium was reopened in 2006 following a full refurbishing. It now hosts major talent on both the local (Boston’s Gay Men’s Chorus) and national scale.

Lynn Museum & Historical Society
590 Washington Street, 781-581-6200, lynnmuseum.org
The exhibitions here illuminate global affairs and celebrate local history. (“Shoes: A Step Back in Time” illuminates Lynn’s massive footprint in the shoe-making industry.) For a virtual preview, check out “Lynn Legacies” : a comprehensive primer on the city’s firsts, bests, and superlative accomplishments.

Dining

The Blue Ox
191 Oxford Street, 781-780-5722, theblueoxlynn.com
No, it’s not a Paul Bunyan-themed pizzeria. The Blue Ox offers casual elegance and an upscale but accessible American menu by chef Matt O’Neill, who worked with Barbara Lynch in her esteemed Boston restaurant empire. It’s a gay-friendly spot, so maybe you’ll spot yourself a babe at the bar – with the broad shoulders of a lumberjack, if you’re lucky.
Tatiana’s (70 Market Street, 781-477-0700, tatianasrestaurant.net) Kevin Sampson picked Tatiana’s for his first Lynn Out Loud gathering, and it’s obvious why. With a taste-bud tingling menu that includes Mexican fare, brick oven pizza, and sumptuous seafood, there’s something here for every stripe.

Christopher’s Café
25 Lewis Street, 781-596-2200, christopherscafe.net
Formerly of Boston’s South End, Christopher’s Café relocated several years ago to the Diamond District, a “gay-borhood” nexus in Lynn. The gourmet breakfasts are legendary, but lunch is served until 2 p.m.

Mildred’s Corner Café
45 Lewis Street, 781-595-4600
Another gay favorite in the Diamond District, it’s a (very!) cozy little breakfast and lunch spot with a kitschy vibe, copious Hollywood paraphernalia, and reputation for the friendliest service in town. (Try the pumpkin pancakes. Now.)

Bars and Clubs

Cirque at 47 Central
47 Central Avenue, 781-586-0551
Gay bar 47 Central was a longtime local favorite. But following a major renovation, the spot reopened, and re-branded, as Cirque last November. The vibe and décor have been elevated, a full kitchen has been added, and Cirque now boasts a killer sound system for resident DJs and guest performers. (Cirque consultant Frank Balboni has his own artist management company, and lures in divas like Martha Wash and Crystal Waters.) See? Change is good.

Fran’s Place
776 Washington Street, 781-598-5618, gofrans.com
After 60 years, Fran’s feels like an old friend. It’s a local institution, one of the longest-running gay bars around, and has a totally casual charm. Shoot pool, command the jukebox, and trade glances over cheap drinks before leading your prey onto the dance floor. Bonus: on fourth Thursdays, Fran’s hosts Allure, a rare all-female night for the North Shore.

Northern Nights
649 Lynnway, 781-595-1900, northern-nights.net
Lynn’s latest gay nightspot is located in a former McDonald’s. (Please, no jokes about “drive-through service.”) Now Northern Nights serves up its own snacks until 10 p.m., sure to help you fuel up before hitting the dance floor or catching a drag show. Plus, every night has a different theme—so check the website before heading up. (But mark your calendar for the 4 p.m. Sunday tea dance.)

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author: Boston Spirit Magazine’s daily blog brings you all of the information you need on New England’s LGBT community. In addition to highlighting local and national LGBT news, we will also highlight local leaders from the worlds of business, politics, fashion and entertainment and keep you up-to-date on all the latest events and parties, hot spots for travel, shopping, dining, and more!
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