Friday, March 16, 2007

“Not In My Neighborhood!”

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #308, March 16, 2007)

Small town or big city, alternate lifestyles face hostility from the neighbors

PHOTO: Rosemont Manor in Weirton, W. Va.

Whenever I become too complacent with my standing in society as a gay leatherman, something happens to jolt me back to reality. There are still a lot of folks out there who aren’t comfortable having alt-lifestylers in their midst, as demonstrated by recent events in northern West Virginia and San Francisco.

Rosemont Manor, in Weirton, West Virginia, is a gracious old mansion perched high on a hill overlooking the Ohio River. The house was built in the early 1930s by steel baron Ernest T. Weir, the founder of the Weirton Steel Corporation. Since Weir’s death in 1957, the corporation had used the house as a lodging facility—”an exclusive haven for the upper echelon of National and Weirton Steel Corporations,” in the words of the <> web site.

When Rose Susko bought the Rosemont Manor property at auction she planned to use it as a bed-and-breakfast, and also to host meetings and social events, weddings and receptions, and to offer tours of the house. (The house is also her residence.)

The city, however, told Susko the property was zoned R1 (residential). “So is the golf course and country club next door,” said Susko. Nevertheless, it was a struggle to the property’s zoning changed to “R1 non-conforming usage,” which allowed commercial use of the property.

When Susko decided to make the mansion available to alternate-lifestyle groups for hosting events, she did so carefully and quietly. Other bed-and-breakfasts in the area advertise in alternate-lifestyle media, but Susko chose to set up a completely separate and private website (<>) and to market the facility by word-of-mouth.

The Our House on the Hill web site’s main page welcomed “BDSM, fetish, master/slave, lesbian/gay, transgender, fem-dom, leather, swingers, naturalists, and CFNM” (clothed female, nude male) individuals and groups and offered the facility for hosting munches, parties, meet-and-greets, educational events and as play space. The local and regional alternate-lifestyle community responded favorably to the invitation, as evidenced by the site’s calendar of events.

On the weekend of Sept. 8-10, 2006, Ms. Olympus 2006 Lady Raven held Lady Raven’s Leather Ball at the mansion. Somehow a local TV station, WTOV9 (the NBC affiliate in Steubenville, Ohio and Wheeling, W. Va.), heard about the event and decided to go for blood. The station’s Nov. 10, 2006 news program started with a florid and inflammatory “Target 9” investigative report: “What’s going on behind the doors of this mansion? . . . What we’ve uncovered will have your head spinning! . . . One day it’s a place for weddings, the next day it can transform into a place for alternative living—including a place for nudists!

On January 16, 2007, the station followed up with a second story: Weirton’s UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) administrator Jim McHenry had sent Susko a letter saying, “Your permit was approved for a Bed and Breakfast/Wedding and Reception facility . . . any additional uses must be likewise approved by this office.” (According to the city, “additional uses” include things such as meetings and social gatherings.) “Since, no application for expanded use has been made . . . this is a violation of the City of Weirton, Unified Development Ordinance.”

The city subsequently changed the zoning of the property back to R1 (residential) and refused to renew her business license, effectively prohibiting Susko from doing any business at all.

Susko subsequently appealed to the zoning board, which allowed WTOV9 to broadcast yet another story about the fracas. (Susko asks the question: “Who else gets television news coverage when they file a zoning-board appeal?”) At a hearing on March 6, the zoning board denied Susko’s appeal. She said she now will appeal to district court.

What’s behind the hostility Susko has experienced? Rural conservatism? Provincial prudery? “No, it’s not that,” said Susko. “There’s a lot of swinging activity in this area. It’s just hypocrisy.”

One might think something like this would not happen in a major metropolitan area like San Francisco, but one would be wrong., a web-based adult entertainment company, recently purchased the historic San Francisco Armory building, which had been vacant for over thirty years. plans to use the building as a film studio, both for themselves and to attract “mainstream” movie companies back to San Francisco. The company has said it intends to fix the broken windows, refurbish the building’s exterior security lighting and plant trees around the perimeter, but otherwise plans no major changes to the historic building.

The City of San Francisco says’s intended use for the Armory building is in line with its zoning. Nonetheless, some of the neighbors are taking the Armory purchase badly. A group called the Mission Armory Collective attracted about 50 people for a protest march outside the armory on Feb. 7. San Francisco resident Marc Holcomb said, as part of a story on KGO-TV (San Francisco channel 7, an ABC affiliate): “Just having the thought in my head that I’m right next to this, living right next to this is nasty.”

Whatever our progress politically and socially in the last few decades, statements and attitudes like that show there is still a long way to go.

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