English Mill Town Welcomes Lesbian Families

Hebden Bridge was just another dying mill town in the English county of Yorkshire until a new community developed in the area. By 2001, the proportion of lesbian to heterosexual residents in the valley had outstripped London, Manchester or Brighton. The lesbians have found a welcoming environment where they can raise families without stigma.

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Britain has a number of centers of gay life in the big cities such as London and the seaside town of Brighton. The highest concentration of lesbians in Britain can be found in a small former mill town deep in rural Yorkshire.

Vicki Barker traveled to Yorkshire and she has this profile.

(Soundbite of music)

VICKI BARKER: Late night at the trades club in Hebden Bridge. Local group Rakish Paddy has feet stomping in the darkened room. Look closely and you'll see some of the couples here are single sex. They are the tip of a demographic iceberg, because it is this former mill town nestled among the Yorkshire moors which has, statistics show, the greatest density of lesbians in all of Great Britain. About one out of every five adults walking the steep and winding streets outside is a gay woman.

With its jumbly slate-roofed houses jammed into a long narrow river valley, Hebden Bridge could be practically any Yorkshire town. If you're familiar with the BBC series "The Last of the Summer Wine," you'd definitely recognize the scenery. But maybe not some of the local inhabitants.

Ms. KAREN TAYLOR(ph) (Resident, Yorkshire): I'm Karen and this is our baby Florence (unintelligible)

BARKER: Karen Taylor and her partner, Fiona Winder,(ph) treat their children to an early dinner at a local bistro. They moved here 18 months ago. Like so many of the gay women here, they wanted to raise a family in a place where a family like theirs is not unusual.

Ms. TAYLOR: It's been great. We've met lots of other lesbian mothers and (unintelligible) straight mothers as well. It's really cool. It's just basically not a big deal. We don't get so much - oh, right - when we explain that the girls have got two mummies, which - it makes such a difference to us.

BARKER: Houseboats line the Rochdale Canal, which zigzags through the town. The old mills and warehouses are mostly condos now, but the locks are still operated by hand.

On the moors high above, you can walk some of the ancient pathways which crisscross the Tenines(ph) and the Yorkshire Dales. But more than the beauty, it is the tolerance of the locals that has drawn the lesbians. If there are people here who object to that lifestyle, they're keeping it to themselves. But then the gay women are just following in the footsteps of hippies who settled here after the mills closed down in the 1960s. Hebden Bridge has had plenty of time to get use to alternative lifestyles.

At the Ladies and Gents Hairdressers on Market Street on a weekday afternoon, most of the hair they sweep up is gray.

Ms. RITA BAXTER(ph): You get some nice people that are gay.

BARKER: Long-customer, Rita Baxter.

Ms. BAXTER: I know we've got quite a few gay women around. Well, it don't bother me because, you know, they keep their selves to their selves, don't they.

BARKER: Why do you think these gay women...

Ms. BAXTER: Because they can't find the right fella.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BARKER: Nikki Simmons(ph), standing among the other mothers as a local primary school gets out, agrees the lesbian influx is no big deal.

Ms. NIKKI SIMMONS: Myca knows he's got two mums, and it's just par for the course, really. Holly definitely would say that she's going to marry her friend Romy and she'll add at the end of it, Girls can marry girls, mum. And I'll say, Yes, dear, I know.

Mr. DAVID FLETCHER(ph): The present generation of lesbians in Hebden Bridge seem to think that they've invented something new.

BARKER: David Fletcher, a 75-year-old academic, grew up in Hebden Bridge. He says women in these parts have gone their own way ever since the Industrial Revolution. That's when many men, all handloom weavers, lost their livelihood, and the women became the breadwinners, working in the new textile factories.

Mr. FLETCHER: The women in this part of the world, from about 1820, 1830 onwards, had this independent economic power which gave them independence in many other ways. Even when I went to school here, it wasn't unusual to find a family of, say, five children that have different surnames because they've been fathered by different men. It wasn't a problem.

BARKER: Another long-accepted practice, says David Fletcher: women choosing to live with other women.

Mr. FLETCHER: Economically it's a lot cheaper if two people live in the same house and share the same bills. And if they're fond of each other, well, you know, they get their satisfaction in other ways, perhaps.

BARKER: Some in Hebden Bridge worry that property prices are starting to creep beyond the reach of the town's original inhabitants. But just as many people will tell you the women have bolstered the local economy. And their children, filling the local schools, have given this once dying mill town a future.

(Soundbite of children playing)

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in Hebden Bridge, England.

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