The Gala Fight: 1977 by Judith Schenck


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

anymore

judith schenck 1977

 

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

judith schenck

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.

Sources:

__ 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/

laura gala watercolor via belinda_edited-1

(another) Gala Cafe watercolor by Laura Kaye, from a photo by Belinda Starr.

used by permission

 

 

DJs For Dancing Womyn


Toward the end of the 1970s, the local women’s rock bands were playing larger, out-of-the-Valley music circuits. As “wimmin’s” dances grew in popularity, the music was more frequently provided by newly initiated professional lesbian disk jockeys, many of them Northampton residents. Dancing may be one of the oldest subculture traditions. It’s been important not just as recreation and community bonding, but also as part of the mating ritual. Longtime Northampton DJ known as Mary V[azquez] commented, “You often [didn’t] see women reappear at dances until they [were] looking for a new partner.” Mary also observed that lesbians into music and dancing were a different community from lesbians into softball.

Through correspondence and several interviews, Mary helped fill in the local DJ herstory. She recalled that Sheryl W. [later Jeribu (spelling?)] was the first Northampton lesbian DJ. Sheryl W. started in 1975 at the Gala Café and continued on regular nights there with assistance from Angela G. through 1979. Sheryl played a lot of Rhythm and Blues, spinning mostly Black women’s music with some by men.

larger lk gala_edited-2Laura Kaye watercolor of the Gala Café (Bridge St. Northampton) 1981, commissioned by Mary Vazquez, used by permission of both.

Mary had followed all the developing women’s bands in the Valley and became interested in becoming a DJ when she heard Diane S. spinning for Wednesday Nights for Women at Farley Lodge/UMass. The 1976 remnants of the UMass Gay Women’s Caucus became the Lesbian Union and successfully lobbied for their own space and student government funding. In the summers of 1977 and 1978, the Lesbian Union offered events open to women from both off and on the UMass/Amherst campus. Diane S. was also part of the Women’s Media Project, producing and teaching women radio broadcasting at WMUA.

gayla womens media project julaug78_edited-1Notice in the Women’s Media Project newsletter Jul/Aug 1978

Sheryl let Mary assist a bit at the Gala Café and then let Mary borrow her equipment for gigs at other places. Soon Mary wanted to have her own equipment instead of being a roadie and lugging someone else’s heavy crate of records.

As she described recently, “ I met a very nice music man that made speakers in the late 70’s. They were beautiful but I could not afford them. He found me two speakers I could afford so I used them, an amplifier, and two record players I bought at a tag sale. In later years I was able to buy more professional turntables made for DJing and two CD players but continued to use those original speakers. They were very heavy but they worked just fine and did not cost me anything. The music had a good sound. “

“ I also had a great assistant that was strong so she did all the heavy lifting. I had what were called 12 inch [vinyl] records that contained one song so for a 3 hour gig I had to have between two and three milk crates full of 12 inch records that were also very heavy.  I used some 45’s but only used them on occasion. Set up time took about 30 minutes. It was a lot of equipment from the car to the dance place. I later used cassettes at the very beginning before CD’s. Too difficult to cue up. Now I could do the same gig with two light weight speakers and a computer.”

PB230010.JPG

Mary Vazquez vinyl record collection. The plastic crates on the left were used to take a selection to dance gigs. Photo courtesy of Mary Vazquez.

With her new equipment Mary began working Common Womon Club’s  summer disco dances in 1978-79. The dances were first held in the Common Womon and later in the low-ceilinged basement of the Polish American Club/Home on Pearl Street in Northampton. Mary got paid $30 for a four hour dance gig.

cwc dances july 1981_edited-1

undated flyer for a Common Womon Club dance

Mary Vazquez noted that ‘Hamp lesbians liked different music than the gay women at the Girls Club in Chicopee. While “Women’s Music” – that is, feminist – was beginning to be produced this decade (most notably through Olivia Records) except for a few slow songs, it just wasn’t danceable. This made it challenging for the new DJs to put together enough musicfor a four-hour dance that was not politically objectionable and also got women up on their feet and moving. In the beginning, Mary drew a lot on pop music by women as well, as, she said, “less offensive” men like Stevie Wonder to create the right eclectic mix.

By the end of the seventies, disco music began to come out with its distinctive dance beat. Disco was readily adopted by local lesbians, easing the DJ’s job of trying to be politically correct while getting women to have a good time dancing.

Mary Vazquez: “Here’s a few tunes from the seventies that I myself played when I first began DJing for the women’s community. As I said, it was a tough crowd as I had to be very careful that I was always politically correct. This often would put a ‘crimp’ in my personal choices. Here are some of the specific tunes that I know I played and were always a big hit on the dance floor:                                               [all with youtube links. please have a little dance 🙂 KM]

Love Hangover,’ Diana Ross, 1976

Don’t Leave Me This way,’ Thelma Houston, 1977

 ‘Dancing Queen,’ Abba, 1978

 ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie,’ Taste of Honey

 ‘If I Can’t Have You, Yvonne Ellerman, 1977

 ‘Bad Girls, Donna Summer, 1979

 ‘I Will Survive,’ Gloria Gaynor, 1978 (still a dance floor pleaser)

 ‘YMCA, Village People, 1979

 ‘Ring My Bell, Anita Ward

 ‘MacArthur Park,’ Donna Summer

 ‘Good Times, Chic, 1979

 ‘Hot Stuff.’ Donna Summer.

 Mary summed the list up:  “Most of these songs if played today would still be crowd pleasers. The end of the 70s was the beginning of the Disco era, a great time for dancing the night away.”

gala fresh ink mar 8 79_edited-1Ad in Fresh Ink, Mar. 8, 1979

Mary V. recalls that Mary C. and Faye Wilson also began DJing at about the same time she did, circa 77-78.  Mary C. spun the Common Womon Club’s New Year’s Eve Ball in ’77 at the Polish Home, a memorable costume event I wish we had pictures of. Faye incorporated New Wave into her mix. When the Polish Club/Home was sold circa 1979, the lesbian community lost a valuable large music venue. Since the Gala was sold and razed that year, as well, Northampton lesbians had to go out of town to dance. In the early 1980s, three of these pioneering DJs joined together to find a new venue in Amherst. Jeribu(Sheryl), Faye and Mary V. formed La Mix (the mix of their different kinds of dance music) to produce a regular series of womyn’s dances, a story for another time.

Sources:

__[Raymond,] Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline. The Valley Women’s Movement: a Herstorical Chronology 1968-78. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978. https://www.vwhc.org/timeline.htmlChronology

__Vazquez, Mary. Interviewed by Kaymarion Raymond. July 6 and Sep. 1, 1998.

__Vazquez, Mary. Email correspondence Nov 29, 2004, June-Nov.2019.

__Vazquez, Mary. Music of the 70’s. Email to Kaymarion. January 03, 2005.

__Dyke Doings. Sep/Oct 1976. Northampton.

__Women’s Media Project newsletter. July/Aug 1978.

__Carney, Maureen. “The Common Womon Keeps the Pot Boiling.” Valley Women’s Voice. Sep. 1979.

Further reading: Women in DJing is a popular topic right now. Mary shared this recent New York Times article, which nicely sums it up, past and present, the challenge of changing technology and the scarcity of women in the profession;

__Women Put a Spin on the D.J’s Art by Tammy La Gorce. New York Times. July 28, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/07/23/nyregion/women-djs-brooklyn.html

In the next decade as recording technology rapidly evolved Mary Vazquez and other DJs had to make the change from vinyl records to cassette tapes to CDs. For those interested here are some links to that tech history;

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8qbz7b/an-illustrated-history-of-dj-gear

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disc_jockey 

Mary and the three other women mentioned were rare birds in the 70s male dominated Discjockey world. That hasn’t changed, as these articles attest:

__I Grew Up Loving Dance Music. But Where Are All The Female DJs? by Serena Kutchinsky 17 April 2017. She not only offers statistics but asks “what can be done to make dance music less pale, male, stale?”

https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2017/04/149671/female-djs-annie-mac-nightwave

__Women Weigh In On The Art of DJing by Sesali Bowen July 19, 2017.

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2017/07/164637/hip-hop-djs-2017-female-disc-jockeys

 

 

 

 

 

The Peak of Lesbian Enterprise


An unprecedented number of Lesbian enterprises existed in Northampton in 1976-77, both old ones and new, that evolved out of the 1975-76 Separatist struggles. What particularly made this creative flowering different was that Lesbians were, for the first and only time, able to control, rent, and/or buy multiple spaces within downtown Northampton.

This was made possible in large part by the economic decay of the downtown. Its largest business, McCallums Department Store, had closed and many others followed as the city’s population sprawled and shopping malls were built further and further down King St.

When I moved to Green St. in 1970,  everything I needed was within walking distance. Over the next decade, much of that disappeared except for a changing cast of banks, bars, and restaurants. One by one, all but two of the neighborhood markets folded as well as the A&P on Bridge St. and the supermarket on Conz St. The working population that lived downtown in rooming houses or over just about every business aged and declined, too. Two downtown schools – Hawley Junior High and St. Michaels – closed. The working people’s businesses I relied on began to close their doors: Fine’s Clothing, Woolworth’s Five and Dime, Tepper’s General Store, Foster and Farrar Hardware, Whalen’s Office Supply. For a brief time, before real estate speculation and gentrification took hold and turned Hamp into Noho (competing nicknames), space affordable to women became available.

Below is a map of current downtown that I’ve amended with the location of the major 1970s Lesbian enterprises, which peaked in 1976-77. Following it is a brief description of the activity that took place at each address. All of this will be detailed in future posts if I haven’t already.bst 70s map_edited-2

#1. 200 Main St. Lesbian Gardens. Third floor space that was originally rented along with half the second floor by the Valley Women’s Center/Union. 1974-77. Currently Harlow Luggage building.

#2. 66 Green St. Green St.Top two floors, rooming house that started to be lesbian in 1972 and continued to be all or mostly lesbian at least until 1991. Building bought and demolished by Smith College. Currently grass.

#3. 1 Bridge St. Gala Café.  Lesbian backroom 1975-1979. Torn down, part of Spoleto’s currently in that space.

#4. 25 Main St. Nutcracker Suite. One large room on a back corridor as I recall, I believe on the fourth floor, 1976-77. This address also was used by the Grand Jury Information Project, Ceres Inc., and later, I believe, by Chrysalis Theatre. It was in what is now known as the Fitzwilly’s (Masonic) building.

#5. 19 Hawley St. The Egg and Marigolths. 1976-77 (estimated). Originally rented in 1973 by Mother Jones Press which in 1976 became Megaera Press and joined with Old Lady Bluejeans distributing and the Women’s Film Coop to form the Women’s Image Takeover WIT. Additional space in the building was rented to accommodate several craftswomyn and Greasy Gorgon Garage auto repair. These formed a collective of businesses with the self-chosen odd name. Sweet Coming bookstore moved there in 1977.

#6.  78 Masonic St. Common Womon Club. 1976-82. Private dining club for feminist vegetarians owned by the non-profit Ceres Inc. Later bought by Bill Streeter for his book bindery. Currently it is the Mosaic Café.

#7.  68 Masonic St. Nutcracker Suite: Women’s Self Defense and Karate Dojo. Moved from Main St. 1977-78. Womonfyre Books. 1978-82. Owned by Ceres Inc. Later bought by Bart’s Ice Cream as their bakery. Currently it is lesbian owned Bela Vegetarian Restaurant.

Bars and the Violent Backlash


Being a small town may have spared Northampton the particularly virulent backlash that began to be experienced in the 1970s by feminist, lesbian and gay organizations in large cities. Bars, conferences, centers, publications and presses across the country had begun to be subjected to sniping, break-ins, vandalizing and arson.  The nearest incident was the Springfield firebombing of the Arch bar in 1973, which may have been Mafia related, but the Boston offices of Gay Community News were burglarized in the 70s before being destroyed by arson in 1982. Northampton, however, wasn’t totally spared a violent reaction to the new lesbian visibility.

One response of the growing number of lesbians that began to come out in 1975 was to find local bar space rather than travel to Springfield or Chicopee. Jeanie, owner of the Gala Cafe on Bridge Street, was amenable to hosting women in the bar’s backroom once a week and discouraging men from intruding there. The bar with blinking neon lights was a small, squat pink stucco building between the railroad overpass and Jack August’s restaurant. The backroom, which may have once been for family dining, held a jukebox and booths squeezed round a dance floor.

 

jean gala
“Jean at the Gala.” 24”x36” etching by Barbara Johnson. Used by permission of the artist.

 

When the first lesbian disc jockeys began to spin records there, the place soon became packed, attracting many more gay women than just those who were politically active in town. This custom was to continue through 1979. Because the Gala was so small, in the summer of 1975, the larger backroom of Packards on Masonic Street was rented for “Wednesday Nights at Zelda’s.”

 

gala cafe_edited-1
“Remember When?” Handtinted photo by Sandra Leigh Russell. Used by permission of the photographer.

 

Over the summer of 1975, there was greatly increased visibility of lesbians on Northampton streets several nights a week. Women leaving these neighborhood bars began to be taunted by men. Rumor had it that several weeks of harassment culminated in a lesbian being attacked outside the Gala by several men armed with a shovel and a machete. The rape of a lesbian who was walking home from the bar was also rumored. (I am still seeking substantiation. Without it, I can’t verify these incidents.)

Responding to the increasing frequency of such incidents, Lesbians formed a Community Education and Self-defense Group in August of 1975 that organized small groups of women which became known as the Dyke Patrol. They established a physical presence outside the two bars, Lesbian Gardens and the occasional Wimmin’s dance, and also escorted women to their parked cars. This seems to have worked as an immediate deterrent, for the Patrol was disbanded six months later. It was, however the beginning of a violent male pushback on the streets of Northampton that would escalate over the next decade as Lesbians, and then Gay men, insisted on a new visibility in the City.

The Gala Café was razed in 1983 along with Jack August’s, the restaurant next door, to make way for a sports bar.

 

SOURCES:

  __[Raymond], Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. the Valley Women’s Movement: A Herstorical Chronology 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978. Valley Women's History Collaborative

__Old South St. Study Group. “Analysis of a Lesbian Community-Part One.” Lesbian Connection. Jul 1977. P7-8.

__Potter, Clare. The lesbian periodicals index. Naiad Press. Tallahassee FL. 1986.               Listed, between 1973-1979: Sniper shot at women convening in Seattle; Gay Community News (Boston) and Majority Report (NY) offices burglarized; A NYC women’s center vandalized; St. Louis Women’s Center and Iowa Clinic firebombed; Fires also set at the Los Angeles MCC Church, Seattle Gay Community Center and a St. Louis bar.

__Mitchell, Phoebe. “Last Call for a Bar Ahead of Its Time.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. July 07, 2004. Northampton MA.