COLUMBIA COUNTY, N.Y., a two-hour drive north from Manhattan, is a bucolic vision of rural America — lush rolling farmland, cow-dotted hillsides, stalwart red barns. The Hudson River School artists of the mid-19th century captured the visual splendor of the region, including the English-born painter Thomas Cole, who first encountered upstate New York in 1825 and once remarked that “the Hudson for natural magnificence is unsurpassed.” Though primarily agricultural, the area has long attracted gentlemen farmers: Over the years, various Livingstons, Rockefellers and Roosevelts have made homes here.
In modern times, however, the county has also been distinguished by its outsize share of gay artists and writers, refugees from the city. Gore Vidal was a pioneer, purchasing Edgewater, his mansion on the Hudson River, in 1950. It was here that he threw his legendary parties, with guests ranging from Saul Bellow to Shirley MacLaine. (Vidal called the Hudson River — which connects the region to New York City — “a splendidly convenient boulevard.”) In the decades after Vidal left to begin life as an expatriate, he would be replaced by successive generations of gay artists: Ellsworth Kelly moved here in 1970; the director-producer team James Ivory and Ismail Merchant in 1975; the poet John Ashbery in 1978.
The more recent gay artists and thinkers are hidden in plain sight: There’s the photographer Lyle Ashton Harris and the writer Wayne Koestenbaum, and a few years ago the New York contemporary art dealer Jack Shainman opened the School, a museum-quality exhibition hall in a renovated 1929 high school in the town of Kinderhook. (Nick Cave and El Anatsui have had solo shows here.) The creative director Simon Lince lives with his husband, Cary Leibowitz, the artist known as Candyass, in a 1795 farmhouse in Ghent, flamboyantly redesigned by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, with a sign hung over the back balcony that reads “Linceowitz.” Franklin Tartaglione, a painter, bought an old concrete-block sheepshearing mill in 1986, and, over the last 30 years, he and his husband, the writer Dave King, have transformed it into a thoroughly original residence — part Brutalist structure, part Edith Wharton mansion, part homestead.
In addition to creative renovations, more and more contemporary houses by formidable architects like Michael Bell, Steven Harris and Joel Sanders are popping up. My husband and I bought land here in 2002 and hired Bell, whose minimalist work we had seen in a 1999 exhibit at MoMA called “The Un-Private House.” In the years since, we have watched the region become — both slowly and all at once — a gay utopia, a place where art is made and taste is manifest and our sexual proclivities are taken for granted. Columbia County, like all gay utopias, has its own aesthetic — one foot in the avant-garde, another in the historical. It is a place that regards creativity as native to our being at least as much as our sexuality.
THE IDEA OF A GAY UTOPIA, an invented queer homeland, is not a new one. There are and have been gay communities in almost every major American city for decades. And there are de facto gay resort towns across the country, such as Palm Springs and Provincetown, which are defined by their distinctive natural beauty: The latter, at the farthest tip of the Cape Cod peninsula, has the feel of a sleepy New England fishing village gone disco; the former is a lavish desert enclave sprawled along the base of several spectacular mountain ranges. While Provincetown is residually bohemian and Palm Springs outwardly conventional, both offer the same promise of protection, a camaraderie of shared otherness. They are a safety zone for their residents, who invented these communities, in part, to partition themselves from the judgments of mainstream America.
The precursor for the modern gay American utopia was 1920s and ’30s Nollendorfplatz, the Berlin neighborhood that the writer Christopher Isherwood discovered when he moved to the city in 1929, and which he eventually immortalized in “The Berlin Stories,” collected in 1945. Here were eccentric figures in drag, torch singers like Marlene Dietrich and legendary venues — “dens of pseudo-vice,” Isherwood called them — like the Eldorado, known for its sexually fluid parties. Nollendorfplatz, like every gay utopia that followed, was borne from necessities both sexual and political. The neighborhood was a shelter from persecution and censure, and beyond the parties and openness and extraordinary characters, it was an environment in which gays were finally able to recognize themselves and experience basic human dignity — in society, if not from the law.
For years, I considered my personal Nollendorfplatz the Fire Island Pines, a Dionysian Mount Olympus off the southern shore of Long Island where unparalleled sexual freedom was enjoyed with celebratory abandon. A decade before I started going there in the ’70s, before the word “gay” had even entered my lexicon, I was an alienated teenager lying on my bed in the suburbs of Florida in a state of despair about my future. Where in the world would I find a place for a homosexual like me — a word I was too ashamed to utter aloud. On Dec. 15, 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” from its list of psychiatric disorders. It was front-page news across the country. For the emerging gay community, though, it was vindication.