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Last year, when organizers of New Jersey’s statewide Pride event announced they were postponing the 30th Annual LGBTQ+ Pride Celebration from October until this summer, there were more than a few unhappy lesbians. But now, with the event — held in ocean-adjacent Asbury Park — happening June 5, you might want to book your Airbnb. According to lesbian locals though, you may need your Zillow app too.
The Jersey Shore contains over 40 different towns and communities along its 141 miles of coastline, bounded by Perth Amboy at its north end and Cape May to the south. The New Jersey destination is famous for its garish Atlantic City boardwalk, the rock ‘n roll of Asbury Park, the aftereffects of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, and that eponymous MTV reality television show that introduced America to spray tans and the abs of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino.
The Shore, as locals call it, has more recently seen the demolition and rebuilding of entire neighborhoods, speeding along gentrification and raising property values. For many, the most hallowed part of The Shore is Asbury Park, which devolved from a music-drenched cruising ground to borderline urban blight, albeit with incredible proximity to the beach.
When Jersey Pride was formed in 1991, the area housed two things perfect for the LGBTQ+ community: safe spaces to gather for an annual Pride celebration and a surplus of undesired and inexpensive homes in need of renewal and outright repair. Bring on the queers!
Betty Jean Pace (above left with her wife), who moved to the Jersey Shore before she came out, says, “the gay Pride people came in… and they took an area that was really rundown, and they brought up a lot of the old Victorians and made them beautiful.”
Today, Pace, who lives in Toms River, brags she was the first out lesbian contestant for the Ms. New Jersey Senior America Pageant — and the reason why the application form for the competition has since been changed.
“They asked for the name of my husband,” she admits. “I crossed it out and put ‘wife.’”
Pace, who was the fourth runner-up in 2019, can rattle off the names of LGBTQ+ folks living in the houses surrounding hers in Monmouth County, with lesbian and bi women making up about two-thirds of that list — even in an area known more for its conservative politics.
“It’s a really big town now,” Pace says, “It’s a real, diverse community. A lot of women go to the women’s nights and things [or to] Georgies, a lesbian bar, which was all redone.”
While Asbury Park is still the gay mecca for New Jersey itself, surrounding towns Brick, Ocean Grove, Seaside Heights, and Toms River all have areas with significant LGBTQ+ populations.
Some locals say queer folks make up 20 to 30 percent of the local population.
“We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re suntanning,” says local musician and resident Barb DeStefano.
As to Tom’s River and the other traditionally red-voting neighborhoods, Pace insists, “You will see women holding hands with women, men holding hands with men…it’s like a little tiny Provincetown, but at the Jersey Shore.”
Certainly, the Trump years were less comfortable.
“They would have these big demonstrations on the water for Trump. They would try to intimidate us…and stare at us instead of saying ‘hi’ to each other. So, I just threw them kisses.”
But Trump is out and the ongoing pandemic has meant even more queer people have moved into the area.
“A lot of…gay people came in and bought like half the town up,” Pace says. “So, one house you’ll see an American flag. On the next house, you’ll see a gay flag. They kind of got used to living together, which is interesting.”
Today, Pace says the Jersey Shore is both comfortable and “healthy for lesbians. In the summers we tie the boats together or…we’re out in the back. It’s sing-alongs on the water. Sometimes, you know, we take your boat and you tie it up and go have fun.”
Come Pride, she’ll join her friends in blowing kisses and inviting the lesbians who jet ski, kayak, and canoe behind her home to come over for coffee.
This piece originally ran in Out Traveler print magazine. The Spring 2022 issue is now available on newsstands.