Gay Men in ‘70s ‘Hamp


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.

 

22 Butler Place #2
22 Butler Place, Northampton in 2017, Photo by Michael J. Prendergast

 

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.

 

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Ad from GCN 1976 New England Gay Guide

 

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.

SOURCES

__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.

__http://www.back2stonewall.com/2017/06/1970-christopher-street-liberation-day-video.html

__https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HIpooMqAZk

 

An Intense Confluence of Radical Ideas: Umass Fall 1971


 

The 1970 co-founders of UMass/Amherst Student Homophile League (see previous posts)  had rapidly moved into other forms of activism creating a leadership vacuum within the group. Kathryn Girard joined the Women’s Caucus of the School of Education and Michael Obligado started, with other more radical SHL members, the local Gay Liberation Front. I stepped into this opening for leadership that Autumn of 1971, editing a few editions of SHL’s newsletter the Closet Door, and ushering the group through the process of getting recognized status as a student group and student senate funding.

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Kathyrn Girard and I outside the GLF space in the Student Union basement (across from the Hatch) early 1971, photographer unknown

Shortly after I started going to SHL meetings in the fall of 1970, I broke up with my partner Susan  and moved into a rooming house in Northampton. I had to leave the cats and dog in her custody. In addition to a subscription to the lesbian magazine the Ladder, my partner and I had established a mutual correspondence with its editor Barbara Grier (publically Gene Damon). Susan sent clippings of relevant news and book reviews. I contributed black and white line drawings on demand that were published as illustrations under the pseudonym Kate McColl.

ladder illustration04052016
Illustration I did for the Ladder under the pseudonym of Kate McColl. I don’t have the date for this issue.

I sent Barbara a letter telling her of this change in relationship, and also about my involvement with the area’s first gay group, SHL. I think she was in St. Louis, Missouri, working as a librarian and living with a partner, Helen. Her response was, “…enjoy your gay lib play therapy.. but when the boys take over go find a women’s lib groups and educate them…”

b grier memo edited
Dictaphone memo sent to me from Barbara Grier dated 11.12.70.

It took an eventful year before I finally understood and took Barbara’s advice. I was, after all, a recent veteran out of Ohio. I was Republican (“I like Ike“) stock and older than most UMass undergrads. I looked around at freshman orientation in 1969, at the anti-war protests, hippies, and drugs, and, when surveyed by the school, projected my four year experience there would make me, in a reactionary way, more conservative. Ha ha!!

I cannot adequately describe the intense confluence of radical ideas flooding the campus (and Valley) at that time, some of which were (literally) hallucinogenic. This was a massive influx that stunned then stirred my brain into bursts of new synapses. Light bulbs turning on, indeed.

Sifting through a book of paper scraps jammed together, I see the autumn of 1971 as being pivotal, not only for my personal identity, but as a further base-laying for Northampton’s unique LGBTQ culture. Three historical developments are apparent then: 1.) An early organizational separation between gay women and gay men; 2.) a wide emphasis on radical (as opposed to reform) feminism that began receiving regular energy boosts from nationally known feminists (and lesbians); and 3.) the melding of these two circumstances that would lead to the emergence of a phenomenally strong and multi-faceted expression of Lesbian feminism.

Several news items of note appeared in the October 1971 Closet Door. There are notices of the beginnings of three collectives. The women’s collective would live together in North Amherst on Leverett Road. They overlapped with another newly forming group, the women’s newspaper collective that was to produce the area’s first feminist newspaper, The Full Moon. The Men’s Collective mentioned was, in fact, gay. Michael and friends rented a large house on Butler Place in Northampton. Included in the newsletter is the invitation to attend weekly parties there after the SHL Thursday evening meetings. I think the cover charge for the parties  helped pay the rent. The guys would show off their latest drag costumes garnered from the free store at the Valley Women’s Center.

closet door collectives formedited
Closet Door SHL newsletter Oct. 1971

I am not sure how it happened but by the end of Nov. 1971 I had written a multipage report on the status of women and activism at UMass which was printed in the alternative campus paper, Poor Richard’s.  In the meantime, I came out to my mother over the phone because I was included in the first mainstream media coverage of the Valley’s Gay Movement, Dec.7 in the Springfield Union. My mother’s response was that she had read something in the Readers’ Digest and would pray for me.

gay society forms  edited
Courtesy Springfield Union published Dec. 7, 1971.
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Michael and I clowning around in front of the Union photographer, Really? Print this!

I also let it be known in SHL that I would be doing less in the group as, instead, I organized a Dec. 8 first meeting of the Gay Women’s Caucus. The space advertised was JQA lounge near the brand new Southwest residential area Women’s Center, in what, I heard, was a former janitor’s closet. The Caucus was the foremother of the UMass Lesbian Union. The attendance was small and my memory needs to be refreshed by others (Jane? Dale?), but my recollection is that the small size and very wide range of interests meant we mostly met socially with each other rather than suggested potlucks or CR/study/action groups. It was a clear statement, however, that gay women had needs separate from gay men, something that other women outside SHL may have already concluded as they joined feminist groups on campus or Amherst Women’s Liberation.

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schedule of events at the end of 1971 published in an article I wrote in Poor Richard’s

 

The year ended for me with euphoria when nationally known feminist and poet Robin Morgan spoke at UMass as part of the Distinguished Visitors Program. (I would like to know who orchestrated this major funding coup.) Addressing a capacity crowd of mostly women in the Student Union Ballroom, she focused on the current state of radical feminism in the U.S. It was the first of many solo appearances by Robin in the Valley. She had previously visited the Smith Campus at the invitation of undergraduate Sandy Lilydahl in 1968 as part of WITCH, Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

I fell in love with Robin when she refused to take questions from men after the lecture. I also loved her handling of a student reporter. A few of us sat with her in the campus center coffee shop afterwards, where a male from the Collegian persisted in asking her questions.  My mouth must have dropped open when she told him to “stick his prick in his mouth and sew it shut.” Oh my!

robin at umass 7104052016
Photo caption reads “Robin…makes a point about why she feels women.” Massachusetts Daily Collegian Dec. 15, 1971. My guess is that since Robin wouldn’t talk to male reporters they finally got it and allowed a woman to report. From my scrapbook.

A few days later a (first) regional women’s conference was convened at UMass by the Leverett Rd. Women’s Collective. Among the ten scheduled-in-advance workshops was a “gay” one, facilitated by yours truly. Little did I anticipate the explosion of political activity I would be swept into over the coming decade, except I knew it would be with women, with sisters.

regional womens conf 7104052016
First (?) regional women’s conference 1971.

Sources:

__ McColl, Kate. Illustration. The Ladder. Circa 1970-71.

__Grier, Barbara. Memo note to Kay Raymond. Dated 11.12.70.

__Closet Door, newsletter of the Student Homophile League, UMass Amherst. Oct 1971.

__Bradley, Jeff. “Gay Society Emerging on UMass Campus.” Springfield Union. Dec. 7, 1971.

__Raymond Kay M. “Part II. The Other 42%.” Poor Richard’s: a Weekly Magazine. UMass Amherst. Dec. 3, 1971.

__Spencer, Buffy. “Ms. Morgan Says Women’s Movement Alive.” Massachusetts Daily Collegian. Amherst. Dec. 15, 1971.

__Raymond, Kay(marion) and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. A Herstorical Chronology of the Valley Women’s Movement, 1968-1978. Ceres, Inc. Northampton. 1978.

__Flyer, mimeographed. Regional Women’s Conference.  UMass Amherst. Dec. 17-19, 1971.