Northampton High School student Jim Bridgman knew he was gay in the 1970s. He was a teenager with no one to turn to for support. Feeling frightened, isolated and confused, he joined other teens in snickering at the newly-out and obvious lesbians who patronized Forbes Library, where he worked part-time.
Adult gay men in Northampton didn’t fare much better, although they may have known where to cruise for casual sex and, if particularly blessed, had a few friends in town for private dinners or house parties. McCarthyism and would have still been deeply imprinted memories for older gay residents. Everyone was deeply closeted (like Northampton’s gay priest, Father Robert Arpin , for fear of exposure, loss of position, or worse.
The one exception to this in the 70s may have been the Gay Men’s Collective, briefly mentioned in this blog in the post about the Gay Movement in the Valley in 1971 . Imagine my surprise when a picture of the graceful old lady of a Victorian mansion where the Collective briefly lived showed up recently on my personal Facebook feed! Through a mutual friend, I discovered that Michael Prendergast had been visiting Northampton and took the photo below when he cruised by his former residence at 22 Butler Street.
The accomplished photographer shared not only this Victorian portrait, but also a small album of contemporary black and white photographs of friends and members of the Gay Men’s Collective when they lived there. Young men, long haired, with beards, mustaches or mutton chop sideburns, are shown draped around each other at the kitchen table or one of the livingrooms, with one woman or with a dog. Michael identified Sue, Jacque, John Mozolla, Michael Obligado, Gary, Barry, the dog Blue, as well as himself in these interiors. The flannel shirts, stoned expressions, as well as facial hair characterize them as part of the 70s hippie counterculture. That they were also part of the radical gay movement is emphasized by a fifth photo titled “Halloween 1971 at the House of the Radicals”. Nine of the young men pose in a variety of dress(es). Very tasteful and inventive if a bit strange for the time. The bearded dresswearer is now a more usual fashion statement.
Michael is unsure who took the pictures and no one has given permission to release them to the public, but a similar radical gay fashion may be seen in two historic homemovies recently posted to the internet of the very first 1970 Christopher Street Liberation March in New York City. http://www.back2stonewall.com/2017/06/1970-christopher-street-liberation-day-video.html and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HIpooMqAZk
Many conventionally dressed young men in long or short sleeved shirts ( button downed collars?) can be seen in the march, interspersed by those in tight shorts or teeshirts, some in drag, some barechested or swaggering in bell bottoms, and some small groups with long hair and mustaches. This mix of costumes reflected the newly emerging differences in identity (and politics) present from the beginning of the Gay Revolution in Northampton as well as New York.
In the Facebook commentary that followed Michael’s Butler Place portrait post, he estimates that the Collective was in residence around 1970-72. He describes living there with “borderline developmentally appropriate Woodstock era behaviors.”
He has kept touch with some of the house members. Michael Obligado and John Mazolla have died. He believes that both died of AIDS. Gary commented that they burnt the furniture in the fireplace for warmth when there was no money for the bills; the drag closet was stuffed with clothes from the Valley Women’s Center Free Store; and he’s not saying what happened in the attic.
Other than the Collective’s brief radical burst out of the closet, though, gay men living in Northampton usually had to go out of town to connect with each other during this decade. In the seventies, Amherst became the prime locale for a growing number of new alternatives to the Springfield bar scene. Townspeople were always welcome to the dances and events organized by the UMass Student Homophile League/Gay Liberation Front and their later incarnations. Starting in late 1974, information and news could be found by listening to WMUA’s “Gay Break” radio show broadcast from UMass. The first of its kind on the East Coast, Gay Break was hosted by Demian and Brian Egan through early 1977.
The first non-bar, off-campus gay group also formed in Amherst. About thirty people, including several women, met weekly as the Pioneer Valley Gay Union in the hair salon at the Lord Jeffery Inn during 1974-75. It was primarily a consciousness raising/discussion group with many Northampton members.
The UMass Gay Liberation Front, which members of the Gay Men’s Collective helped start, began the tradition of taking over local bars one night a week to establish marginally gay-tolerant space. The Rathskeller, a basement bar in the Drake (Hotel?actually a rooming house) on Amity Street in Amherst, was the first place established by sheer persistence and word of mouth.
Northampton resident Steve Trudel thought the dark, underground Rathskeller wasn’t a fun place to dance, so in 1972 or 73, he got others to go with him to Rachid’s, a disco bar in the new Mountain Farm Mall in Hadley. After several weeks of Wednesday night same-sex couples dancing, the manager tried to make them leave. Northampton’s Jeff Jerome was among the men who lined up to insist they get their cover charge refunded when police evicted them. The gay crowd kept returning, however. Wednesday nights at Rachid’s came to be considered profitable by the owner. They continued until the bar closed in the late seventies or early eighties.
After Rachid’s closing, the Pearl Street Nightclub in Northampton established an “alternative” dance night popular with gay men. By then, Northampton’s gay men were also beginning to organize themselves.
__Bridgman, Jim. “Yes, I Am” in One Teacher in Ten. Beacon Press. Boston. 1994. And in private comments to me.
__Prendergast, Michael J. Facebook comment exchange, along with many respondents. May 21-25, 2017.
__Gauthier, Bambi. Notes for me on 70s activity.
__Trudel, Stephen. Email correspondence with me. September-November 2004.