It Started In Amherst


In the Connecticut River Valley, the Women’s and Gay Liberation Movements both began in Amherst. They soon spread to other communities, reaching a unique intersection in Northampton that marks the beginning of the town’s LGBTQ history. It all happened within the context of sweeping nationwide social change also focused around the counter-culture, anti-war, New Left and Black Nationalist movements, all which had local counterparts.

Though the first event of Valley Second Wave feminism may have been the appearance of WITCH at Smith College in 1968, the first group to form was Amherst Women’s Liberation in 1969. Four Amherst women found each other, and found four more, to form the first support (conscious raising) group and spread the word. Within a year, AWL had grown to a hundred women members meeting in support, study, and action groups, as well as in monthly forums. The groups met in the women’s homes and in church space.

In December 1970, AWL rented space over Pierce’s Art Store at 200 Main St. in Northampton and opened the Valley Women’s Center. VWC’s half of the second floor space, shared with a beauty parlor on the other side of the stairwell and entry hall, included a storefront-like drop-in space with couches, bulletin board, reading material, desk, phone, call log, mimeograph machine, as well as a second, smaller room used for counseling. The third floor open loft space was used for larger meetings, including the general membership meeting, and, at one point, a free store.

During the summer of 1970, my partner Susan heard about AWL and joined a support group. What interested me, however, was a personal ad I found in the UMass student newspaper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, when I returned to school that Fall as a sophomore: “Anyone interested in extending the Boston Student Homophile League into the Amherst area. Contact Jerry 586-1602.”

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Or some version of it, because by the time I saw it and called, Kathy had joined Jerry as another contact person. From my recollection of what she told me, after that initial ad and others, the group met in various places in Amherst, including a church, before settling to weekly booking of space at the Campus Center at UMass. The advertised names were pseudonyms for Michael Obligado and Kathryn Girard, both UMass grad students.

Again, a singular event is noted as the “first gay outing” in the Valley: Roz Shapiro and Cindy Shamban read lesbian poetry in their dorm corridor at UMass in 1968. The first political gay group in the Valley I’ve found evidence of is SHL. Students, mostly from UMass, were the majority of those who called the contact number for more information. Within a year, membership grew to a hundred, and included UMass faculty and staff, people from other colleges, and from local communities.

To protect the privacy of those who attended and prevent harassment (which could include violence), the meeting places were not publicized. Providing a safe space to meet and socialize was always a primary function of the UMass Student Homophile League, followed closely by a need for information on a wide range of issues and a place to discuss them. The group quickly added a public educational function. Members advocated for its right to exist and for change in public attitude and behavior toward gays. The pages of the student newspaper, particularly the letters to the editor section, became one forum for advocacy.

Attendance at the Second Christopher Street Liberation Day (June 1971) in New York City was a pinnacle of SHL’s first year, as reported here in SHL’s mimeographed newsletter The Closet Door that I wrote:

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christopher st 197103202015button gay revolution 197103202015

The Northampton meeting of these two streams of activism occurred the summer of 1971. Kathryn Girard and I had previously been invited to an AWL support group to lead a discussion on being gay. That led to an invitation to conduct a similar discussion at the monthly forum in July, attended by about fifty women. This was followed in August by AWL paying the registration fee for me and three other SHL women to attend the first New England Lesbian Feminist Conference in Kent, Connecticut. My secret lover was there with her other primary (and “public”) lover is what I remember most from that conference. Oh, and it was the first I heard of granola or slept on the hay in a barn.

Summer ended at the Tri-County Fair where Amherst Women’s Liberation got a booth and AWL’s Isabel Arnold invited SHL to share the space. That Fall these and other events were reported by me in the SHL’s first(?) newsletter The Closet Door, run off on AWL’s mimeograph machine, as was the flyer circulated at the Fair. I notice in rereading that newsletter that I still referred to us as “gay women” in spite of having just attended a Lesbian Feminist event and also used the pejorative diminutive in referring to Women’s “Lib.” The seeds of ideas were planted however.

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Coming Next: Checking out the women’s bar in Chicopee.
Sources:
____[Raymond], Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline Elizabeth. The Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978. Northampton. Ceres Inc. 1978.
__Massachusetts Daily Collegian, coverage of SHL/GLF starting Sep.24,1970.
__The Closet Door, Student Homophile League, Sep. 1971.

 

1968 Snapshot


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Susan and I, Nash Hill Road

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.

theladder cover oct-nov 69In 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 sex variant 1st edition 1956Literature 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.

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May Sarton (source; pinterest)

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. better mrs stevens

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.