If you live anywhere near Kat van der Hoorn (above, left) in Portland, Oregon, you’ll know her home as the one with the rainbow stairs. “We call it ‘the little gay house,” she says. “I want it to be a celebration of love and humanity in all the possible ways.” Here, Kat gives us a look inside…
On starting over: I moved into this house in October 2019 — after I came out as gay and separated from my wonderful, supportive and loving ex-husband. I live here with my two boys — Ethan, almost 6, and Pax, almost 4. My partner Michelle and I consciously don’t live together — we have kids who are very different ages, so for now we’ve decided to live separately but very devotedly.
On a safe space: The woman who lived here before us was a single mom and she wrote me a note — saying ‘this house has lived through 100 years of storms both inside and out.’ It has always felt like a very safe place to me.
On family routines: When I’m home with my kids, we spend 95% of our time in the living room — and the floor is covered with hot wheels. The house looked clean for this photo shoot for 25 minutes!
On family artwork: When my father passed away 19 years ago, the painting above the sofa was in his house, so it was a piece I got from him. He was a very vibrant person, so it matches his personality. It’s really special to me.
On choosing colors: I wanted this house to feel like a jewel box. Because the house is small — less than 800 square feet — I tried to make the spaces feel separate and dramatic. The living room is the calmest room in the house, but you can still see this super dramatic room with blue walls and a chandelier; that was a fun way to have color but keep the main living space feeling peaceful.
Chandelier: Cost Plus World Market. Mirror: Family heirloom. Painting of Black woman: Habiba Abdul Rahim. Sketch of woman in flowers: Sarah Gowun Park. Illustration of women embracing: Kaethe Butcher. Photo of older woman: Terry Berenson.
On celebrating the queer community: From the moment I moved in, I had the vision to make this a wall of queer and POC artists, mostly local. I hoped to celebrate women and non-binary bodies and people. Every time I see this wall, I feel so happy and connected to things that are bigger than I am.
On kid-friendly meals: I do lots of pasta and tacos and grains, and I try to hide vegetables in them. I recently made a grilled chicken pizza with parsley on it, and my youngest was like, ‘It’s good but I don’t like the salad.’ [Laughs] We also do snack plates, which is literally whatever is left over from the fridge, chopped up and put in sections.
On displaying personal photos: I wanted more photos of my kids up and was trying to figure out how to present them. Suddenly, I was like, this is ridiculous, just tape them up! Because they live here only half the time, I love seeing them all the time. And taped up photos are really easy to change out.
On a significant realization: When I started dating after my marriage, the first person I dated was non-binary. Because they were very masculine-presenting, I expected their house to look like a bachelor pad. But, instead, their bedroom was covered in twinkle lights with fluffy blankets, and I realized, gender identity doesn’t have to cross over with outward expression. It gave me permission to be in the world however I wanted to be. There are no rules, which is terrifying but also really freeing.
On expressing yourself: When I was living with my ex-husband, our house was totally different — classic, Scandinavian, minimalist, very elegant, what I thought being a grown up should look like. Neutrals! Lovely plants! Leaving that marriage and coming out and coming into myself, I was like, I don’t want to make a house that looks like a grown up, I want to make a house that looks like myself. I really asked myself: what would MY space look like? How can this house be an expression of myself? I wanted my bedroom to express my feminine side and feel like this nest-y nurturing place.
Mural: Michelle McCausey.
On a meaningful mural: My partner, Michelle, who is a fine artist, painted this mural. I was gone for a week and she said, can you trust that I know you and that I’ll surprise you? And it was definitely a trust exercise but I love it so much. The mural is all Pacific Northwest plants, and I’m a big hiker — that’s my therapy (as well as regular therapy!) — and in one corner is a full fern and two small ferns which represent me and my little kids. I cried when I saw it. It made me feel so seen.
On affordable artwork: These black and white drawings are from a wonderful French art art book — which I cut out and framed. That’s one of my favorite things to do — framing pages from art books. It’s an affordable way of getting to see a lot of artists and artworks, and the art can also change with relative frequency.
On a moody bathroom: The bathroom is very influenced by the interior designer Shavonda Gardner. When I saw her house tour, I was like someday I’ll have a black bathroom! It’s such a small room, and I’m never going to make it look bigger, so I thought I’d embrace it and make it a sexy, dark, moody bathroom. It’s probably my favorite room in the house. Everything is from Ikea or Goodwill, so it was affordable, too.
Painted waves: Michelle McCausey.
On bringing in a nautical feel: I was like, I’d love my bathroom wall to feel like a silver ocean. And Michelle was like, okay, I can do that. She painted the wavy wall with paint markers. Everyone thinks it’s wallpaper!
On choosing colors: I wanted my kids’ room to feel gender neutral but also full of color. When people talk about gender neutral, they think the color beige, but everyone I know who is non-binary or gender queer, are very not beige! So, we went for a vibrant green.
On sleep rituals: Since their dad and I live in separate houses, we decided to have the same type of bed for the boys in both places, so that going to sleep always felt the same. We ordered the exact same bunk bed for their dad’s house.
On dreamy artwork: I found these panels in an antique store and immediately knew they’d be really lovely in the kids’ room. They make the room feel celestial.
On a passion project: When we moved in, I had another contractor, and I told him that I wanted to do rainbow stairs. He said, You should be really careful because that’s a flag that you’re gay. And that, of course, made the stairs priority #1. They were inspired by these incredible stairs in Italy, and I showed Michelle a photo and was like, can you do that? She did an amazing job. The stairs have become something that people come to look at; people will take walks here and take pictures.
On discovering your true self: I came out late in life. I was scared because I didn’t want to lose my whole family. I loved my ex-husband dearly, and the only thing I knew about divorce was that it could be horrible and incredibly painful.
I had actually come out as gay when I was 16. My family was very supportive but said they were worried I would get hurt and have a terrible life. And I was like, okay, you know, it’s not worth it for me. So, I put myself back into the closet. I told myself, I was just experimenting. When I went to college, I exclusively dated men. When I was in my 20s, I moved to New York and met my ex-husband, and we had a really fun time together, and everything was great except sex. And that was the challenging thing to navigate. For more than a decade, I just thought I was frigid. I sought therapy. No one ever said, maybe you want to look at your sexuality. I thought there was something physically wrong with me, especially because I was crazy about my ex-husband.
Those years with my ex-husband were full of running from myself. We moved from New York to Australia and then back to New York and then Oregon. I always felt like I couldn’t get comfortable, I just needed to get out of there.
When we moved to Portland in 2016, I joined a gym — simply because I had two very little kids, and it had $3/hour childcare. It turned out to be the world’s queerest gym. Almost all the coaches were queer, and mostly queer women worked out there. It became this instantaneous home for me, which I didn’t totally understand or analyze, but it was a place I really felt like myself.
Then there was a non-binary person at the gym. I kept thinking, why am I thinking about this person all the time? What is happening with me? Fidelity was very, very important to me, so I talked to my husband and said, I’m developing feelings for this person, and if I don’t explore them, I don’t know if I’ll know who I am. My ex-husband is literally the most supportive human being, and he said, I get it, I wouldn’t want you to be hiding who you are. Those few dates with that person were like, ok, cool, this isn’t a person for me, but I’m definitely gay. There was this missing puzzle piece my whole life, and being with this person shoved this puzzle piece into place.
Honestly, it was freaking horrible — my entire identity was wrapped up in that I’m a New York Jewish girl who grew up thinking, you are going to get married and have kids and have a nice house. And I had all that. Two beautiful boys, a husband who worshipped the ground I walked on, a beautiful house in Portland. But I was like, I cannot be in this life, this life is not mine.
I had a huge, huge emotional falling apart. It was really bad for several months. After a few months, we were like, let’s separate, but we still loved each other; so I was dating with his blessing but we were still married and sharing a home. After a year, we were like, we both need more than this; we both deserve relationships and not just being friends who are living together.
We separated in July 2019 and I moved in here. I identify as gender queer. I dress and present very masculine until I start talking, and then people are like, oh, you’re a girl — and I’m like yes, I’m all of the things. I acknowledge the extraordinary amount of privilege I have to be a well-educated white person in a loving family with access to therapy; I had the privilege to explore this with support and space. And even with all that, it’s still excruciatingly painful. But I don’t feel like I’m running away anymore. It’s a wonderful gift to wake up in this life.
Thank you so, so much, Kat!
(Photos by Christopher Dibble for Cup of Jo.)