Northampton came late to the Revolution, both the American and the Gay, but for the last thirty-eight years a march, originally in support of lesbian and gay rights, has taken place on the second Saturday in May. That first 1982 march came twelve years after Boston’s first but was finally prompted by the egregious behavior of a US President and Republican-dominated Congress eerily reminiscent of today. That march began as an act of resistance, drawing a wide coalition of allies defending all the people newly under attack. I have previously posted that story and you may want to visit it. https://fromwickedtowedded.com/2017/01/19/election-reflection/
VWV Summer 1982 photo by Kathryn Kirk
That act of resistance was not without costs. The backlash encouraged across the country by the New-Right reached onto Northampton’s streets. I will be telling that story, as well as the bravery of those who marched the second year, at the beginning of May, when we would usually have a parade and rally. Yes, this year the event is cancelled because of the COVID-9 pandemic. Another pandemic, that of HIV/AIDS, was beginning and being ignored by a President back in 1983 as well. This blog has only briefly touched on the AIDS epidemic in the piece about former Northampton priest Robert Arpin https://fromwickedtowedded.com/2016/06/03/father-bob/. Perhaps now is a good time to piece together an AIDS Quilt for the Valley. I would welcome online remembrances to sew together.
GAY RIGHTS PIONEER BARBARA GITTINGS’ SURVIVING PARTNER of 46 years Kay Tobin Lahusen called me yesterday to alert me to Barbara’s inclusion in “TIME” magazine’s 100 Women of the Year project. They commissioned 89 new “TIME” mock covers to commemorate 89 women who should have been on the magazine’s covers over its near century of existence. The remaining 11 are existing real covers of women who had been named Person of the Year.
BARBARA’S cover used a 1964 photo by Kay rendered by Serbian artist Ivana Besevic, and incorporates the motto “Gay Is Good” coined in 1968 by Barbara & Kay’s close friend and mentor Frank Kameny, the father of the modern gay rights movement. The accompanying text by “TIME’s” San Francisco Bureau Chief Katy Steinmetz reads:
“The Stonewall riots have become the focal point of the modern LGBTQ-rights movement, but they didn’t start it. The groundwork was laid in the previous decade by activists like Barbara Gittings, who understood that before marginalized people can prevail, they must understand that they are worthy and that they are not alone.
In an era when it was dangerous to be out, Gittings edited the Ladder, a periodical published by the nation’s first known lesbian-rights organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, creating a sense of national identity and providing a platform for resistance. In the August 1964 issue, her editorial blasted a medical report that described homosexuality as a disease, writing that it treated lesbians like her more as “curious specimens” than as humans.
Gittings would go on to be instrumental in getting the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness and in getting libraries to carry gay literature. Whether she was wielding a pen or a protest sign, the militant advocate had a simple message: when society said that being gay was an abomination, Gittings said that gay was good.”
Prints of the illustration are available at: https://fineartamerica.com/…/barbara-gittings-1964-time.html
Barbara was memorialized in 2012 along Chicago’s Legacy Walk, the world’s first outdoor museum of LGBT history. SEE: https://legacyprojectchicago.org/person/barbara-gittings
“It was scary,” Steve Trudel recalls, “but the police action and media reports were so outrageous that even though I wasn’t into cruising rest stops myself, I was moved to do something about it.”
Steve lived in Northampton in the late seventies. He and other men were galvanized into protest by October 23-24, 1978 newspaper accounts of a sting operation at an Interstate 91 rest area in Holyoke in which sixteen men were arrested for soliciting casual sex. The names and addresses of those arrested—along with the “morals” charges made against them –were widely reported in area newspapers, including the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the UMass Daily Collegian.
Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton MA and UMass/Amherst Massachusetts Daily Collegian coverage Oct. 23, 1978
Scenic Area 1 mile (today on I-91)
The rest area was not the one listed in GCN’s 1976 New England Gay Guide . It attracted men from up and down the highway, as well as locals. A fourth of those arrested lived in Connecticut. One was from Vermont, another from Eastern Massachusetts. Three were from nearby Hampden County. Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette printed the names and addresses of the five from Amherst, Florence, Hadley and Northampton, including two who lived together. While the age of the sixteen men charged ranged from twenty to sixty-two, most were in late thirties and early forties.
Springfield (MA ) Union Oct. 24, 1978
Police justified the entrapment because seven weeks previously a man reported that he had been raped and robbed there by another man. Such victimization of men who cruised for anonymous sex (and who were unlikely to report crime to authorities), was so common that it was referred to in the gay subculture as “being rolled.”
Rather than trying to solve the crime however, police focused on shutting down the sexual activity, which they characterized to the press as “homosexual attacks.” For two weekend evenings, Oct. 21-22, plainclothes police made themselves available for proposition at the rest area and then arrested anyone who approached them. The men were charged with “lascivious behavior,” “open and gross lewdness,” and/or, if there was any physical contact, “assault and battery.” In a follow-up article in the Springfield Union, the Captain of the local State Police said that the alleged homosexual activity was continuing in the rest area adjacent to Mount Tom in spite of the arrests, and that the state police undercover work there would continue until the situation [was] cleared up.
Only one of the sixteen arrested, the man from Somerville, submitted to the facts of the case in the Holyoke District Court on Oct. 23 and was fined $125. All the others pled innocent and were given trial dates, or were given hearing dates to enter a plea. Their court dates were scattered over the coming month. It would be interesting to know the results of further hearings or trials but I could find no later newspaper coverage . Holyoke District Court records are not digitized for this time. Does anyone know where the paper records are stored?
The press coverage of the arrests provoked a response from Valley gay men and their allies. Several were moved to write letters to the editors of local newspapers, including, I am told, the Valley Advocate and one printed in Springfield Union from Amherst resident Paul Shepard.
Springfield Union Nov. 1, 1978.
Two weeks after the arrests, Nov. 5, approximately fifty people protested police and media action by bringing signs and mimeographed handouts to the rest stop at midday, standing so they could be seen from I-91 as well as by those pulling into the rest area. Steve Trudel and at least one other gay man from Northampton were among the protesters. The UMass Gay Alliance was one of the organizing groups with members present.
Springfield Union, Nov. 4, 1978
The purpose of the demonstration was to expose the harassment of gay men for adult consensual behavior; the waste of police resources which could better be used solving “real” crimes such as the rape and battery of women; and the general oppression of gay men. Demonstrators also wanted to correct the false image of gay men created by homophobic police and media.
Flyer distributed Nov. 5, 1978, mimeograph one of two sides, courtesy Bambi Gauthier
There were no hassles and at least one TV station filmed the demonstration. In an interesting aside, Steve recalls being interviewed at the demonstration by a Valley reporter who he recognized from other political events and who gave him “the creeps.” So Steve asked him if he had a history of doing undercover work. The reporter admitted he had previously worked for the government.
Springfield Republican Nov. 4, 1978.
It was very radical analysis and action for the time. While there was no overt reply or statement made by the local governments or state police in response to the rally, I couldn’t find news records of further arrests at that scenic area or of that nature. So it appears that the outcry successfully stopped further entrapment of gay men.
as seen today (2019), there are no holes in the fence and bushes and trees are cut back.
Steve remembers it as “the only exciting (pro-gay) political action at the time. It was difficult to do, to put oneself out there.” Valley gay men with a political consciousness, it seemed to him, were few and far between in this decade. Just as many Northampton lesbians were energized working with feminist women, a few politicized gay men found support, albeit out of town, in other progressive groups.
Steve and Bill Starkweather were joined at the I-91 demo by members of a group they belonged to: a pro-feminist men’s action group formed at Hampshire College in 1978. This group referred to themselves as ”positively men”and continued until at least 2004. Steve’s realization that there was more to being gay than sex and dancing led him to demonstrate solidarity with other oppressed groups. In Northampton in 1978, he was among the group of men who provided care for children while the mothers participated in the Valley’s first Take Back the Night March . He and others of the group of also attended the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
It would be a few more years before gay men in Northampton formed their own group and began working in coalition with the city’s lesbians.
In a post note: I found documents online indicating that at least ten of those arrested in 1978 are now deceased. It is too late to ask them how that public outing in the form of being charged with crimes impacted their lives. Seven of the deceased had enough information in their death notices to indicate their marital status. Three of them had wives and children while four did not. One of those bachelors was the “Beloved friend of Robert…, William…, Rudy…, Bruce…, Todd…, Jack…,[et al.]” And he had volunteered at a local AIDS support organization. Another of the unmarried men was a resigned Catholic priest charged with child sex abuse in 2002.
__Trudel, Stephen. Phone interview and email correspondence. Sep. 20, Nov. 22, 2004.
__”16 men arrested in sex raid.” Springfield Union. Springfield MA. Oct. 23. 1978.
__ “Five men from area charged in sex cases.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. Northampton MA. Oct 23, 1978.
__Horgan, Sean T. and Quinlan, Joseph. “16 arrested in sex raid at I-91 South rest area.” Massachusetts Daily Collegian. UMass Amherst. Oct 23, 1978.
__Perkins, Robert. “Cops to continue probe of highway rest area.” Springfield Union. Springfield MA. Oct. 24, 1978.
__Shepard, Paul. “Questions raised by police raids on I-91 rest area.” Letter to the Editor. Springfield Union. Springfield MA. Nov. 01, 1978.
__”Gay Rally set at Rest Area.” Springfield Union. Springfield MA. Nov. 04, 1978.
__Blomberg, Marcia. “Group protests I-91 arrests.” Springfield Republican. Springfield MA. Nov. 05, 1978.
__”Diocese of Burlington releases priest sexual abuse report, names.” Vermont Business Magazine. Aug. 22, 2019.
__thanks to Bambi Gauthier for bringing this story to my attention and providing copies of some documents and contacts to interview.
Judith’s Schenck’s account of the fight at the Gala in Northampton, the summer of ’77, was previously published in Common Lives/Lesbian Lives in a slightly different version. The paragraph CL/LL cut, for space reasons, has been re-instated here and flagged for the reader’s attention.
The Gala Fight: 1977 by Judith Schenck
I claim this as a way
of letting go
I give you the memory
I don’t need to carry it
We had all been enjoying the steaminess of the summer night, using the weather as an excuse to strip to tank tops and show off our muscles. As I leaned against the jukebox nursing my first beer of the evening, I imagined I looked interesting — droll, perhaps, witty, maybe – but interesting, definitely. This was how I viewed myself.
The few lights gave the bar the sleazy, smoky, familiar atmosphere we all knew. It was a world we had made our own. At some tables, couples leaned close in earnest conversation, while next to them eight women crowded into a booth designed for half that number. The music was loud, and we knew all of the records by heart: 116, Marvin Gaye, Got to Give It Up; 108, Thelma Houston, Don’t Leave Me This Way; 115, Bee Gees, Jive Talkin’; Afternoon Delight; This Will Be; Soul Train; Rubberband Man; Love Hangover. Nobody needed the cure. We knew what it was: just dance.
In a slow-motioned, stop-action blur, I saw them come in through the door. I moved in front of them, standing directly in the path of the huge, blonde man with the twisted lip. If you’re going to call a place yours, you’ve got to be as willing as the next woman to stand up for it.
In the act of standing, however, I wasn’t really aware of the assumptions I was making. They had to do with how safe a white woman is in this culture, especially in New England, and about shared class values with white men. I was less surprised to learn that being a lesbian changes all of that than I was to discover that those really were my assumptions.
I told the three young men that they weren’t welcome. It was a private party. They should talk to Jeanie, the owner. I felt I had been firm, but reasonable. I had done exactly what Jeanie had always told us to do if men came into the back of the little pink bar. I had been a good girl. I was following the rules. But the big one in front shoved me, and I moved back to my spot in front of him, I heard someone yell that he couldn’t do that.
I remember seeing his hand coming toward me and I can hear again the blip-blip of thoughts flying through my mind. His hand became a mitt, a paw, an animal’s weapon, and encircled my left breast. He squeezed hard and then twisted it. In front of all of those nameless shadows of women there, he claimed a man’s power over a woman, the power to do what he would, power over, power to hurt, power to force.
I pushed him away and decided that I would step in and give him pain in the only place he could feel anything. I wanted to take the one place a man is soft and show him how it felt to be softness and vulnerability raped, ruptured, and destroyed.
But the man was better trained in tactics of violence and struck me while I was still (in the best lesbianfeminist tradition) processing my feelings. He struck with a force that literally rattled my teeth, and before I realized what had happened, he hit me in my jaw a second time.
The women had crowded up behind and caught me as I went down. When I opened my eyes, I saw another woman lying on the floor next to me with blood coming out of her mouth.
As the women I held me, I felt briefly safe. He stood over me, grinning, holding his fist at the ready. He taunted me, and I was filled with a fury that could reshape the world, a rage to destroy and kill. When I tried to get up, I found the women were holding me tightly, preventing me from responding. They put me in a booth and held me there while other women acted out their interpretations of my rage.
The worst bruises I carried away were the deep purple marks on my arms where I had been held and protected. Every day for three weeks, I looked at those marks and knew that he had no such marks to remind him. I had needed so much to release my anger at him, to somehow redeem myself in front of the women there. I was afraid that because I had not struck back immediately they might think I wasn’t a good enough dyke, that I hadn’t done it right.
My sense of shame was so deep that I was convinced that I smelled of him. I went to the local emergency room to have my jaw checked to insure it wasn’t broken, but when the nurse found out where the attack had taken place, she told me I got what I deserved and walked away. The doctor refused to x-ray my jaw, even though I had been hit directly on the hinge, when he discovered I had been in a fight with a man in a known lesbian bar.
When I learned the name of the blonde man who had hit me, I went to a local women lawyer – at that time the only female lawyer in town. She told me I didn’t have a chance with any legal action, because “in Northampton it wouldn’t even be considered against the law for a Polish boy to hit a lesbian.”
the following paragraph has been restored
I went to a community meeting on violence against women, surrounded by my friends who were helping me pick up the pieces of my soul. Standing near the doorway, I was stunned to hear woman after woman talk about what happened, criticizing “the woman” who had started it all. That woman, me, had done it all wrong. They detailed my failures in the attack. My failures. My friends urged me to speak up, to correct people, but I couldn’t do it. I left quickly. I could not find safety from that blonde man among my sisters. I smelled of him.
All of my life, I waited for the violence of the white man to fall on me. In Mississippi, I learned that safety for anyone is only temporary, and night after night as a child I lay in bed covered with the cold, immobilizing sweat of fear, waiting for the white man to come. I moved further and further north, but discovered that he is everywhere.
I internalized my anger, and one day realized with a shock that I had stopped washing my left breast, had stopped touching it altogether. To my eye, it seemed to physically shrink. He had touched it. It didn’t belong to me anymore.
I was afraid. Every time I saw a group of men, I broke into that cold sweat of fear again, and I waited for the harassment that eventually came. They smelled my fear and surrounded me with threats wherever I went. I held onto images of strength, but found no way to move them from the outside to the inside. I chanted, prayed, and then went a little crazy. I began to drink a lot, trying to blur the memory.
On the one-year anniversary of the fight, I celebrated a year of pain and frustration by walking the streets endlessly, roaming for hours with energy I didn’t understand and couldn’t control. One night I followed a man for almost an hour with my knife open. Someone had to pay besides me. A white man is a white man is a white man, I thought.
I was irrational, thoughtless, demanding, needy, and desperate. On a drunken dawn drive, I picked up a male hitchhiker whom I decided to kill. As he chatted on and on, I planned each detail of his murder. I opened my knife in my pocket, and as I readied it I heard him say that he was a construction worker only temporarily. What he really wanted to do was be a daycare worker. My mouth fell open. Yes, he said, he wanted to teach children that men could be gentle as well as strong. I cursed him, folded my knife, and drove on.
When next harassed by teenaged boys, the stab of usual fear passed quickly as I remembered a story I had recently heard. A man in a bar repeatedly bothered a local woman who was a karate expert, and she continued to warn him to leave her alone. He, of course, didn’t, and she broke his nose. I decided I would pretend to be her. I laid claim to one strong woman’s strength, and hoped in time to find my own.
I told the boys I didn’t think they knew what they were doing, that it would be best if they left me alone, that messing with me was not what they really should be doing. It would be in their best interests, I told them, to move along. And they left.
I laughed at them all the way home, and somewhere inside knew that not all of the strength used had been the other woman’s. It was a beginning.
Judith Schenck is a retired salesperson who has lived in Northampton since 1977. Her passions are painting and drawing, writing, the Red Sox, the Patriots, and her dogs Tessie and Kona. She lives in Florence with her wife and significant other of 42 years. She has written extensively about growing up in the Deep South in the 1950’s and 1960’s as well as her time at a woman’s collective in her blog Looking Back.”
__ Many thanks to Judith. It has taken many years for me to actually publish her generously shared story. Photos have been provided by her as well.
__Common Lives, Lesbian Lives. Iowa City, Iowa. Issue #2. 1981.
__Context of Northampton, bars and the lesbian community in the 70s can be found in this blog post : https://fromwickedtowedded.com/2017/10/02/bars-and-the-violent-backlash/
(another) Gala Cafe watercolor by Laura Kaye, from a photo by Belinda Starr.
used by permission