The Goddess of Knowledge and Maiden Charity


Former city poet laureate Leslea Newman posited, tongue in cheek, that Northampton was fated to be Lesbianville “in 1884, when Thomas M. Shepherd designed the official city seal, which depicts the Goddess of Knowledge holding hands with the Maiden Charity.”  I included this quote in one of the earliest blog posts  along with a fuzzy reproduction of the city seal and a request for a better reproduction.

 

Recently, out of the blue, this three year old wish was granted. Elizabeth Sharpe, Co-Executive Director of Historic Northampton, sent me a scan of the original artwork by Shepherd from their holdings. Thank you Betty. Historic Northampton is also online if you are out of town and wish a browsing visit, including old maps and other sources. https://www.historicnorthampton.org/    and is also on Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/HistoricNorthampton/

 

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Northampton City Seal by Thomas M. Shepherd Courtesy of Historic Northampton

 

SOURCES:

__Leslea Newman. “Greetings from Lesbianville U.S.A.: grrrls, goddesses, and Gloria Steinem! Northampton, Mass., is the Sapphic center of America, tucked away among New England academia,” The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), 1 March 2005, /Greetings+from+Lesbianville+U.S.A.%3A+grrrls,+goddesses,+and+Gloria…-a0129710080.

__ Historic Northampton. https://www.historicnorthampton.org/    Check out the History Sources Online feature and also on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/HistoricNorthampton/

Bars at the Cultural Center


On a hot day with big blue sky when I was nineteen and an Army private, I took the city bus from Fort Sam to downtown San Antonio for the first time. After a tourist stop at the Alamo, I just walked around until I came upon an adult bookstore. Hoping to find some clue to gay women’s life in 1965 Texas, or at least a copy of the Ladder, I hesitantly scanned the display aisles, skirting men looking at I-didn’t- want-to-know-what.

Near one line of magazine racks, a young Latino caught my eye. Looking pointedly at my short hair and the wedding band on my left hand, he said hello and walked with me out of the store. Vincente, a high school student, befriended me then and there.

With the connivance of his Army nurse boyfriend Fred, who owned a car, Vincente began to pick me up at the WAC barracks for dates on the weekends. The story was that we were going horseback riding. That was the only excuse I could think of to  leave the post wearing pants instead of the required WAC clothing standard skirt.

We actually did go to “the country,” because that was what everyone called the gay bar outside the city limits. The bar was housed in a large single-story building surrounded by an even larger gravel parking lot in the middle of a very dark nowhere. Daylight might have revealed cattle pasture and scrub, but I never saw it during the day. The bar was mostly dance floor surrounded by tables. It was dimly lit and smoke filled. Vincente called me his auntie and taught me to dance to whatever was on the jukebox. This is where I came out, beyond that earlier declaration to myself and a few individuals, as a gay woman and butch. Doing the Jerk and the sounds of Motown became embedded forever, by hormones, in my DNA.

 

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Vincente’s 1965 school picture, inscribed on the back as my boyfriend for appearances

The inside of a queer bar was exposed to the world after the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando Florida June 12, 2016.  Pictures of the physical space, bar, and dance floor were flashed through newscasts and social media. These were also pictures of a kind of emotional space created by the people who danced there. In this case, those people were mostly young, male Latinx drawn from one of the largest Puerto Rican communities stateside.

In the days that followed the mass shooting, the importance of bars as central to queer culture was repeatedly stated in many different ways by that local queer community and others around the country. Queer bars were compared, even, to going to church. This centrality of bars to queer culture seemed primary even as Orlando’s GLBT community center stepped in to offer information, support, and services to the victims’ family and friends. The community center also kept the larger community informed about what was happening and needed.

In local discussion over the next few months, I was reminded that not everyone came/comes out in bars. There was a period in Northampton’s history when the Women’s Movement and then the Lesbianfeminist and Lesbian separatist communities offered an alternative to the bars of Springfield and Chicopee. The spaces – both physical and emotional – that these movements provided were where I came further out politically. They shaped the identities of at least one generation of Lesbians, those who once knew why the word was capitalized.

The height of these movements, however, had a relatively brief period locally. While there were many interest groups, events, and a few businesses during that time, spaces that actually functioned as dedicated meeting and activity places were sparse and limited in their functions. Lesbian Gardens existed as part of the Valley Women’s Union on the third floor of 200 Main Street from 1975 until 1976. The whole group left the space when they were unable to meet a steep rent increase. The Common Womon Club opened on Masonic Street the next year, 1977. They provided a lesbian community dining, meeting, and communication space. They also sponsored many events in larger venues, including dances. The Club closed six years later, largely due to its unprofitability and reliance on an ever-changing collective of underpaid staff.

Only institutionally-supported centers seem to last in the Valley. In Northampton, this meant that Smith College housed a Lesbian Alliance for many years. (The name of the group given space has frequently changed.) Local area efforts in 1990 to open a GLBT community center failed, in large part because of the relatively high rental cost of space in the downtown.

This brief period since the 1970s of new spaces emerging outside the gay bars reflected a national trend. The disappearance of those new spaces is also reflected across the country, though a few spaces with the largest supporting population have lingered on.  Most recently, there has been increasing conversation about the disappearance of lesbian space prompted by the closing of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which was an annual national gathering for 40 years.

The national discussion of disappearing women’s space also includes women’s (lesbian) bars. Northampton also has a history of bars that grew alongside and then largely outlived that of the Lesbian, separatist and feminist, spaces. Even as Lesbian Gardens was being organized by Separatists, lesbians found a way to dance in the backrooms at the straight bars Gala and Zelda’s in 1975. Other than that, lesbians relied on sporadically sponsored women’s dances elsewhere. Lesbians also followed the women’s bands that played the straight club circuit in the Valley and later attended lesbian DJ’ed nights in straight spaces.

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the Gala Cafe. Hand-tinted photo by Sandra Leigh Russell, used by permission of the photographer.

 

It was not until 1987 that Northampton had its own LGBT bar, owned and run by lesbians: The North Star on West Street lasted eight years. Competition came from Pearl Street, a straight dance club which began to hold a gay night. In 1996, a group bought out the North Star and opened the Grotto in that space, which lasted through 2001, perhaps. I have heard mention of a Club Metro, but have no information on it. The latest and the longest surviving LGBTQ bar has been Diva’s, opened in 2001 on Pleasant Street, but is announcing its “last” events this autumn of 2016.

The historical pattern seems to suggest there is enough business to support one bar establishment in Northampton if it makes an effort to cater to the wide variety people under the queer (or not) umbrella. It also suggests that a bar is more central to queer culture and community in Northampton than any of the other physical spaces that have come and gone.

A red light was mounted on the wall behind the bar in that 1965 Texas gay club called the Country. When it flashed on and off whoever was on the dance floor scurried to switch to dancing with partners of the opposite sex or sat down. Others stopped smooching and groping as the local police came in the door and did their nightly walk-through looking for illegal behavior.

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In 1965 every newly promoted sergeant was buying a Mustang. While the military could go through any personal possessions in the barracks at a whim, a search warrant was needed to look at anything in a person’s locked vehicle.

 

Out in the parking lot, military police crunched across the gravel, writing down license plate numbers of those with the mandated military stickers. The Country was off-limits to military personnel, a fact listed outside the orderly rooms of every barracks in the area. If one could sort out the names of establishments that were just violent, this list was a de facto gay guide. Being discovered at the Country could lead to further investigation and a dishonorable discharge or coercion to inform and entrap others. Gay women in particular were disproportionately discharged for homosexuality in almost annual salacious witch hunts, which I and many of my WAC friends endured.

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Every WAC in this 1965 track team photo was investigated for being a lesbian in one witch hunt or another while I was stationed there in San Antonio.  Me, “Legs”, on the left. On the right    F. Louise “Grif” Griffin known to many as co-creator of Something Special the lesbian dining experience+ in Miami.

 

Fifty years later things may have appeared to change, but it is apparent from Pulse nightclub massacre news accounts that some of the victims and/or their families did not want it known that they were in a queer bar. While the law might now at least superficially protect them as brown and queer people, the cultural attitudes that spawned the killer did not. There was and still is a danger in being queer, out, and out with others.

This danger is also part of Northampton’s history. As lesbians found each other in the town’s bars they became the target of rape and assault. Coming far enough out of the closet to march as a community with allies en masse down Main Street brought phone stalking and threats of murder and arson. It took a concerted political struggle with Northampton’s government, police, and press to begin to change the environment.

There is no making sense of the mass murder at the queer nightclub in Orlando, but a pause has allowed me to re-see, through my anger and grief, the importance of queer cultural meeting spaces for dancing and celebration. These centers of affirmation are an essential part of the LGBTQ story past and present, including Northampton’s. Over the coming months, I will be sharing accounts in this blog of much of what has just been briefly mentioned.   Meantime keep on dancing.

A Revolution of Sorts


The friction of contradictions fire the crucible out of which Northampton community formed.” This sentence is how historian Kerry Buckley introduced Historic Northampton’s 2004 update of the city’s story, A Place Called Paradise ”The dynamic between factions_ newcomers and old-timers, Yankees and immigrants, young and old, has always been part of the creative tension that, at its best, has enlarged the community’s capacity for tolerance.”

Add LGBTQ peoples to Buckley’s list of contrary factions. LGBTQ peoples in large numbers came to, or came out within, Northampton starting in 1970, creating friction both in the town and amongst themselves. Peoples, in the plural, because it has been successive waves of differently-identified persons who have emerged, come out, gathered, organized, agitated, advocated, and created on their own behalf. There have been multiple peoples over more than four decades, with little in common except an outlaw status — outside heteropatriarchal marriage (until 2004) and stigmatized — that has formed the basis for occasional coalition and a more mythical community.

LGBTQ people were here in Northampton all along, just not visible until starting in the 1970s various populations, sequentially, came out to each other swelling to a critical mass  that allowed for  organization. Lesbians; then gay men; then their parents; add queers and bisexuals, here come transsexuals, and transvestites; don’t forget young people; how about spouses or significant others? Each newly emerging group defined themselves, voiced their needs to each other, and added unique solutions to respond to those unmet needs. Each group spun themselves into the fabric of a subculture that gradually became more visible on Main Street. Chief among the needs for each group of people have been safe and supportive ways to meet each other, and, as increasing numbers of people came out and met, new groups or activities formed to meet increasingly specific needs.

Collectively (and fractiously) growing in strength over time, the activity centered in Northampton often provided an organizational nexus for all of Western Massachusetts. The long-lived and most visible LGBTQ cultural institution, the annual March/Parade (under varying names), began as a coalition for change in Northampton, reflected the shifts in politicized populations over time, and became a forum of expression for all of the region. As part of a state and national movement of change, a loose alliance of groups centered here helped bring new civil liberties in the state as well as inclusion in the politics of the municipality.

Some would say an integration of sorts has been achieved by these LGBTQ peoples, with many needs now met by mainstream institutions, and visibility largely unremarked upon in most parts of town. There is a record of groups forming and then falling away over time, but was that because they were no longer needed? The reasons for this could be explored in this blog, as well as a search for any lessons about creating change that can be applied to this new era. And still to be painted is a portrait of Northampton LGBTQ (add the latest initial) today, to hold up in comparison to that of the 1960s isolation. What has stayed the same? What has changed? What still is needed? Who is going to create something to fill that need? And can history hand them some tools to do it with?

COMING NEXT: An Overview of the 1970s.

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button I brought back from Christopher Street March NYC June 1971

 

Comments On the Introduction, Plus_


It’s been an eventful week of reaction to the last blog post which fills me with both joy and trepidation. Thought I’d share some more wonderful responses to the Intro post that only appeared on my private fb page or messages. So with permission copying here:

_From Judith Gallman Schenck; “I remember the wonderful sub-culture we had when we went out for breakfast at Common Womon private women’s club, shopped at Womonfyre bookstore, practiced karate at Nutcracker Suite, went to events at Lesbian Gardens, and hung out at the Gala lesbian backroom bar. There were prices to pay – violence against the community, etc. – and it seems like such a long time ago. Ah, there are stories to tell!”

_Judith Gallman Schenck; “My favorite RECENT story is about the movies Out For Reel used to show. After a show at the Academy of Music, we, along with about 300 other lesbians, were walking toward City Hall and our car when we passed a group of male college students. One of them looked at all of us and said to his mates, “I told you Northampton was a great place to meet girls.” We fell over laughing.” Judith has promised to share one account of some of that “violence against the community”_ previously published in a Lesbian magazine.

_From Beth Bellavance-Grace (who is featured with Karen in the tabloid photo); “I just want to state for the record, I coined the word ‘Lesbianville’ and unfortunately handed it to the Enquirer. Did you know there was an article in the L.A. Times about Northampton? It came out after our engagement was finally posted in the [Hampshire] Gazette. That’s how the slimy Enquirer got on to the story. Then they came and lied about who they were; we were told they were from a paper in Plymouth writing an article about how different Northampton was to Ptown. Ah youth. We were so naive then. But certainly not for long.” The LA Times article is available as a synopsis or full text (pay-per-view) ; http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/doc/281489467.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Dec+19%2C+1991&author=Mehren%2C+Elizabeth&pub=Los+Angeles+Times+%28pre-1997+Fulltext%29&edition=&startpage=&desc=A+Place+to+Call+Home+A+Small+Massachusetts+College+Town+Has+Become+a+Haven+for+Women%2C+Especially+Lesbians I am urging Beth to find and share some of her fine documentary photographs.

_And Fern Spierer (who is featured in the graffiti on the railroad bridge) shared the National Enquirer clipping with the daily blog Only in Northampton who posted it Dec. 27, garnering 150 likes, 16 comments and 35 shares in a flash. I think that’s lesbian power, or at least a measure of the interest in this part of the town’s past. I used the opportunity to credit Wicked as the source of the clipping and OiN later graciously posted about the blog, as well as using the press clipping as their cover photo. Many thanks to Fern and OiN for pushing this blog a little further out of the closet, or as I replied to Fern, the turtle sticks her head out a little further from the shell. Try linking here to their post for more comments to the “lesbianville” clipping: https://www.facebook.com/OnlyInNorthampton/photos/a.175072409338756.1073741828.173832649462732/371353086377353/?type=1″

Coming up next on this blog; I’ve asked myself how does one approach and enter a stream of over three centuries of history? And do so in a way that carries others along into this great, evolving story? Stay tuned to see if I manage to figure it out.

An Introduction to Northampton’s Queer History


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(clicking on photo will enlarge it to readability though it will load slowly)

No one I know was pleased when Northampton was dubbed “Lesbianville, USA” by the National Enquirer in 1992, but as sexploitive as that coverage was, there is an element of truth to it. Over the last thirty years, lesbians have become a visible presence in the city. That there is an unusually high number of women in the town willing to openly identify as being in a same-sex partnerships was confirmed by the 1990 U.S. Census .

What the tabloid left out, of course, is the context of this lesbian visibility. No mention was made of the facts that it has happened slowly over decades as a part of nationwide social change, and that it happened here with much effort and struggle, both within a nascent community and against the resistance, sometimes-violent, of mainstream Northampton. Chic lesbians did not simply spring forth fully-grown, as from Zeus’ brow, to stroll hand-in-hand down Noho’s streets.

People have great interest in knowing why this has occurred in Northampton, but I have yet to discover a satisfactory explanation for the town’s lesbian, and more recent gay male, preponderance. Many point to the existence of Smith, the Ivy League women’s college, as a major supporting factor but no one can say why this institution started here in the first place. Leslea Newman, tongue in cheek, has posited that “it was fated in 1884, when Thomas M. Shepherd designed the official city seal, which depicts

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Courtesy of Historic Northampton

the Goddess of Knowledge holding hands with the Maiden Charity.”  At best I can conjecture that the element which attracted the colonists to this place, the meandering river with its deep deposits of rich open soil, has also attracted those who resonate to some geometaphysical aura, a particular and feminine fecundity that supports creative possibilities. After all, the River has shaped the town’s eastern border into the profile of a breast.

Regardless of the reason, what I’ve found so far is not an unusual story. From initial surveys of U.S. and regional LGBTQ histories, it appears to me that Northampton’s history of the development of LGBTQ sub-cultures and later communities largely parallels that of communities across the country in the emergence of ideas, issues and new activities. Though there are some important anomalies other than the larger lesbian presence, as well as distinct differences between the three counties, the local queer history usually lags behind larger metropolitan areas outside Western Mass where new ideas and activities seem to germinate; generally occurs to lesser magnitude simply because of population size; and has been a bit ahead of the developments in even smaller towns.

While the story of lesbians is central to this Northampton history, it is also linked to that of other people who have also been stigmatized for acting outside the sexual norm. The names for these activities and the people sometimes identified with them have changed over time, leaving me to fumble for an adequate way to describe the fuzzy parameters of this history. “LGBT,” “Queer,” and “Sexual Minorities” are just a few of the most recent umbrella terms coined to describe this loosely related population. This naming process, both the imposed and self-selected, is a major thread in the story, and so throughout the blog posts you will see these descriptive names shift with the time. An effort will be made to include “all of the above” in this history blog of Northampton’s odd, by any other name, citizens.

Most of this history is still missing, especially that of the Native residents of the Nonotuck home land and the first three hundred years since the English founding of the town. Much of the oldest history to be included here is just a synopsis of what little has been uncovered so far of that early heritage, with a working outline, based on the histories of other locales, of what might be discovered by future research. The bulk of the blog posts will focus on the last forty plus years, drawn from more readily available sources: remembrances of people still alive who’ve been part of this social change, and facts and accounts drawn from documents that were generated at the time.

Because of this blog’s limited focus and format, much can only be mentioned briefly. I hope to provide an overview and at least thumbnail sketches of the plethora of organizations and groups that have shaped social change here since 1970, those that were at least semi-publically “out.” And though people’s sense of this community knows no strict geographic bounds, I will generally have to focus on what’s been centered in Northampton and only indicate its connections and comparisons to the rest of the Valley.

As the posts accumulate, you are invited to amplify and/or correct these pieces of history, suggest more, and also add your stories, particularly how your life has been impacted by the events that will be retold here. Please remember that this is a public site, so “out” no one but yourself. All these caveats aside, I hope this blog will give you some perspective on an important part of Northampton’s history.

Kaymarion Raymond

SOURCES:

_“Strange town where men aren’t wanted.” National Enquirer.Vol. 66,No. 39, April 21, 1992:8.   I only have a photocopy with handwritten date, might this have been April 21?  Yes, thank you Mary McClintock for verifying pub date.

_“Household Composition (Non-traditional living arrangements): Massachusetts.” 1990 U.S. Census of Population & Housing, Summary Tape Files 4B & 4A. State Data Center/ Massachusetts Institute for Social & Economic Research.    Northampton had the fourth largest number of lesbian couples in the state, after Boston, Somerville and Cambridge. The tabloid figure of 10,000 was probably taken from the total for the county.

_Leslea Newman. “Greetings from Lesbianville U.S.A.: grrrls, goddesses, and Gloria Steinem! Northampton, Mass., is the Sapphic center of America, tucked away among New England academia,” The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), 1 March 2005, /Greetings+from+Lesbianville+U.S.A.%3A+grrrls,+goddesses,+and+Gloria…-a0129710080.

_Seal of City of Northampton was copied off the town webpage. I would love a not-so-fuzzy version. Anyone got?