In the Spring of 1968 we moved to the Valley so my partner could go to grad school. Susan made the down payment on a tiny hunters’ cabin, heated by a Glenwood stove, with 100 acres of wooded hillside on a dirt road in Williamsburg. After unpacking essentials we made our long planned (but delayed by illness) tour of Europe, where we were inadvertently tear gassed in Paris during the student protests. That, and the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy, should have woke us up to what was coming, but we blithely continued with our life plans. Susan started commuting to Smith, I got a job at the VA Hospital in Leeds, we added to our family of cats and dogs, and she taught me to drive a stick shift in downtown Northampton traffic (if one could call it such a thing), where I panicked as I repeatedly stalled her red VW bug.
In a burst of new freedom from no longer being in the witch-hunting military where we had met, Susan got a subscription to the Ladder, a national gay women’s periodical mailed discretely in a plain brown envelope. We knew no one in the Valley at that time, let alone other gay women, and aside from visits by old WAC friends, this little magazine became our window into a subculture that we thought must be existing somewhere nearby. We did look, but concluded that the women of ‘Burgy who might look like “that” were probably just practical and, well, rural.
Between classes, Susan began to search the stacks at Neilson Library for little suggestive gems reviewed in the Ladder by Gene Damon, the pseudonym of editor Barbara Grier. The search widened when, at Barbara’s suggestion, she found an out-of-print copy of Sex Variant Women in Literature by Jeanette Foster. Susan’s evening reading of these novels that might have only a minor mention of a gay or bisexual character became part of our routine, accompanied by stories of her undergrad years at Smith and who might have been gay, suspicions intensified by her discovering__“Ho! Ho!”__ who else had previously signed out these library books.
She became an ardent fan of May Sarton. We had one memorable summer afternoon searching for the author’s home in the tiny rural town of Nelson, New Hampshire. Having located a house that looked like the photograph in one of Sarton’ memoirs, I was sent to the front door to knock while Susan watched safely from the car. I must have passed the look test, because we were, much to Susan’s delight, invited in for a glass of sherry and then a tour of the garden. And as we were leaving my partner was given a hard to find copy of the controversial Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Sing.
Yes, Susan pointed out the Chase and Duckett houses side by side on the Smith campus, named after two former faculty women rumored to have been lovers, and we visited the woman-owned Hampshire Bookshop. Still, we were largely isolated during our first two years in the Valley, referring to each other as “housemates.” At my VA job, I invented a boyfriend to shield myself from curiosity. This was not unusual at the time when discretion meant survival. It took careful, coded introductions to become part of a social network. Change only began to occur in our lives when, in 1970 I, now a sophomore at UMass, spied a personal ad in the Collegian for a meeting of the Student Homophile League. Susan later joined an Amherst Women’s Liberation support group. Unknowingly, we found ourselves on the cusp of a revolution.
Coming Next: Was there a gay subculture in Northampton before 1970? If so, what did it look like? An examination of what three different historians have discovered about post-World War II ‘Hamp that sets the stage for the coming social revolution.