Election Reflection


Ronald Reagan might be credited with prompting the inception of Northampton’s Pride March. Following his swearing-in as the 40th U.S. President on Jan. 20, 1981, the Valley experienced growing violence toward women, gays and people of color. The Valley Women’s Voice, an area feminist monthly newspaper, carried reports of this from alternative news sources across the country during 1981.

Springfield experienced an increase in forcible rapes that was three times the average national increase (though that also rose). One analysis of that increase in rape in California found that 30% of the victims were lesbians. Within a two-month period, six women drivers in Springfield and South Hadley were forced off the road or lured to stop their cars then beaten and raped by the “tire iron man.”

The Puerto Rican communities in the North End of Springfield and Holyoke were targets of arson. In the first eight months of 1981, 85 fires in Holyoke left 600 people homeless and killed six residents. That same summer, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in Westfield.

Accompanying this direct violence was federal and state legislation in 1980-81 that denied gays immigration and citizenship. Legislation also cut funding for or access to food stamps, Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) positions, contraceptives and abortion, emergency assistance, aid for dependent children, and community health programs. Two of the many programs affected in the Valley were Springfield Womanshelter, which lost five of its eight staff for battered women’s services, and Northampton’s only program for alcoholic mothers, which closed.

The election of Reagan in 1980 brought not only a new militarism and cuts in community services, but also encouraged the consolidation of Christian fundamentalists into a New Right “Moral Majority.” The Oklahoma legislature voted to castrate homosexuals for sex crimes. The U.S. Congress forbade the provision of federally-funded Legal Services for gay people, among many other results.

Upon hearing of the New Right campaign in San Francisco and the concurrent rise in violence against lesbians and gays, Northampton lesbians pointed to recent local efforts by men to close women-only events, the firing or not hiring of lesbians, and increasing verbal harassment. Lesbians noted that the lack of any state law or city ordinance prohibiting discrimination increased the danger, but expressed willingness to defend themselves.

In April of 1981, a lesbian who worked at an unnamed local mainstream media organization answered the phone at her job, and learned that the “Citizens for Decency” wanted some coverage for their picket of the Frontier Lounge, a Springfield gay bar. She handled the call routinely and then, when she got home, called everyone she knew who would be willing to fight back. As reported in the Valley Women’s Voice by Sarah Van Arsdale, the twelve, mostly male, “Citizen” picketers with their messages from God were met by an equal number of counter-demonstrating lesbians with their own messages.

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Anti-gay and counter Demonstrations at the Frontier Lounge in Springfield. Originally published in the Valley Women’s Voice. Photo used by permission of the photographer Kathryn Kirk.

Toward the end of 1981, federal legislation was introduced to rollback even more social progress in America. The Family Protection Act threatened Affirmative Action, desegregation, and the rights of workers to organize, as well as the survival of women, the poor, and people of color. “Homosexuals” were specifically to be denied protection under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Over the winter of 1981-82, a coalition of Northampton-  area activists started a Family Protection Act Education Project. Their first actions were to give books to Forbes Library and set up an information table on Main Street in the cold of February 1982.

Two months later, an offshoot calling itself the Gay and Lesbian Activists, GALA, put out a call for a gay and lesbian march through Northampton to demonstrate opposition to the Family Protection Act.

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On May 15, 1982 Northampton became home to Western Massachusetts’ first Lesbian/Gay March.

Estimates of who and how many people participated in the day’s march and rally varied by source: “300 college-aged people” (Boston Globe); ”500 homosexuals and gay rights supporters, a mixture of college-aged and older people mostly from the Valley” (Daily Hampshire Gazette); “600 people” (PVPGA Gayzette); or, “more than 800 men, women and children” (Valley Women’s Voice). It was the first lesbian/gay demonstration and organized outing on the town’s streets, the first time the largely separate Lesbian and gay men’s communities came together in a sizable way, and the first public demonstration of support by straight friends and local progressive groups. The newly-formed Gay and Lesbian Activists (GALA) was responsible for this unprecedented event, which was endorsed by over forty Massachusetts groups.

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Marchers assemble in front of the school before starting to march. Photograph used by permission of the photographer Kathryn Kirk.

The March in Support of the Lesbian and Gay Community wound mostly through Northampton’s back streets, with signs, balloons and chants of “We are everywhere! We will be free!” From Bridge Street School, marchers only emerged onto Main Street for two short blocks before filling Pulaski Park for a two hour rally. Disguises were provided by the organizers for those unable to risk identification. Masks, costumes, sunglasses, face paint, and paper bags were worn by some marchers, including a Northampton high school teacher who has since been able to make her lesbianism known. Contingents from PVPGA, GALA, the Northampton Committee on El Salvador, the UMass Labor and Relations Center, and the Center for Popular Economics carried banners.

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The two hour rally in Pulaski park included speeches and entertainment by GALA; Angela Guidice, local lesbian anti-racism worker; John Calvi, gay folksinger from Vermont; local lesbian writer Judith Katz; and Marshall Yates, representing Third World/Lesbian Gay Focus for the People’s Anti-War Mobilization that had recently convened in town. As well as celebrating, the rally’s speakers drew the connection between all the different people threatened by the proposed Family Protection Act.

SOURCES:

__Van Arsdale, Sarah. “Lesbians/Gays Fight Back!” Valley Women’s Voice. March 1981.

__A Sister. Letter to the Editor. Valley Women’s Voice. April 1981.

__Van Arsdale, Sarah. “Lesbians Oppose Attacks On Gays.” Photograph by Kathryn Kirk. Valley Women’s Voice. June 1981.

__Newsbrief. “Cross Burns in Westfield.” Valley Women’s Voice.  Sep. 1981.

__Sperry, Jackie. “But That Can’t Happen in America.” Valley Women’s Voice. Sep. 1981.

__LaBonte, Dale. “The ‘Family’ Protection Act: Beware.” Valley Women’s Voice. Oct. 1981.

__McCrate, Elaine, spokeswoman GALA. Press release. Apr. 28. 1982. Northampton MA.

__GALA. Flyer. “Support the Lesbian and Gay Community March. Northampton. Sat. May 15.”

__Young, Iris and Irvine, Gail. “Gala March: The First.” Valley Women’s Voice. Northampton. Summer 1982.

__G.S. PVPGA Gayzette. “GALA March a Success.” Northampton. June 1982.

__Bradley, Debra. “Homosexual march here attracts 500.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. Northampton. May 17, 1982.

__Associated Press. “Northampton March Backs Gay Rights, Hits New Right.” Boston Globe. Boston. May 16. 1982.

Just Before the Revolution


Was there a gay revolution in Northampton? A look at the gay subculture that existed here just before 1970 may help answer that. I am still looking for and surveying existing literature but here’s a summary of one piece of research.

Lack of documents is one thing noted by Vincent Bonfitto in his 1990 search for Valley gay history prior to the modern gay and lesbian political movements. Only by interviewing seven older gays and lesbians (all of whom may have been white), including Warren Clark and Jean Grossholtz, for his Master’s thesis at UMass was he able to add a little to our sparse knowledge of post-WWII Valley gay subculture.

In general he found this subculture was largely limited to very private social networks meeting in each others homes; and, often isolated individual couple relationships. Gays and lesbians in this era often had to go out of town to find venues for meeting each other. The experiences of men and women and their subcultures differed in significant ways.

Those interviewed by Bonfitto noted that social life for gay male academics centered around private Smith College cocktail parties and trips to Jacob’s Pillow dance center in  Becket MA in summer. Gay male social life was absent at Amherst College, where a gay male faculty member had been asked to resign in the 1950s. No information was included on UMass, except that couples existed. One social network consisted of gay priests in the diocese. Three of the four men interviewed had lost jobs because of homosexuality, one not rehired at Amherst High School in 1962 for, among other things, being “effeminate.”

Gay men in the Valley cruised public facilities for anonymous sex in Amherst, Holyoke, and Greenfield, as well as Northampton. The largest cruising grounds familiar to the men were in Springfield, including the lobby of the Bridgeway Hotel, a huge public men’s room next to City Hall, and the park behind Old First Church off Court Square.

The nearest gay bars were also in Springfield. Though they occasionally were visited by gay women, they were largely for men, with varying clientele. The fourth floor bar and restaurant Blakes was run like a private club, very “high class,” and had drag balls during the holidays. The Arbour was a formal, “posh” piano bar for the over-thirty crowd, while the Arch and Sports Lounge were more informal and mixed class. The Arch, in particular, was known as a pickup place. Bonfitto doesn’t mention the race of bar patrons, the location of the bars, or dates of existence.

Gay women’s or lesbians’ culture appears to have been much more restricted and largely separate from the men’s. Throughout his thesis, Bonfitto refers to the women as “lesbians,” with no note of the actual self-referents of those he interviewed. The three women noted very closed social networks, little bar attendance, but the known existence of a reputed butch-femme bar culture with alcohol-fueled violence. At Mt. Holyoke College, students who came out (were discovered) were moved by the administration to live by themselves in single dorm rooms or off campus. The only alternative to the Springfield bars mentioned above, for women,  was attendance in Boston at Daughters of Bilitis events and vacationing in Provincetown.

Aside from Bonfitto’s thesis there are a few other published sources I have yet to review that contain bits about this period. Some scraps have come my way. I was told by a Smith College alumnae who came to live at Green Street in the early 70s that she had been suspended for a semester and sent home to get psychiatric treatment because her feelings for another woman became apparent to others.

In 1969, among the many old WAC friends who visited my partner Susan and me in Williamsburg, was a gay female couple then living in New York. They brought the portentous news that one of them was transitioning to male. Because of Susan’s regular correspondence with Ladder editor Barbara Grier, our friend Karl (literary pseudonym) wrote what may have been the first article on transsexuals published by the magazine. In 1972, the couple, now legally married and with an adopted child, moved to Northampton and totally assimilated.

The Ladder Apr/May 1970. Written by a transsesexual who moved to Northampton in 1972 with his wife and child.
The Ladder Apr/May 1970. Karl (a literary pseudonym) moved to Northampton in 1972 with his wife and child.

The semi-rural nature of the Valley and the generally small size of towns, even those with academic institutions, undoubtedly contributed to the very private and often isolated existence of gay people in Northampton and the area prior to 1970.

What began to change and how it happened are the topics of the next series of blogs on the 1970s. I am very much looking forward to getting my personal copy of Lillian Faderman’s new history the Gay Revolution. It’s been given fine reviews and I’m sure, like the other volumes I have of her work, I will underline, highlight and scribble madly in its margins. A timely publication that can be referred to as we lay out the story of the revolution here in the Valley. Stay tuned in!

COMING NEXT: A Kind of Revolution: Overview.

SOURCES:
__Bonfitto,Vincent F. “The Formation of Gay and Lesbian Identity and Community in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts, 1900-1970.” Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 33(1) 1997, 69-96. Haworth Press. I will include more material in future blogs.
__Ericsen, Karl. “The Transsexual Experience.” The Ladder, Apr/May 1970, 25-27. Daughters of Bilitis, San Francisco.

FUTURE WORK? LOOKING FOR: I have also been told about, but not yet verified and researched, semi-pro women’s baseball and basketball teams in Springfield, and a Valley-wide industrial women’s softball league that may have existed in the 1960s. Who knows about this? Also were there male equivalents? Or bar leagues as have been found in other large cities? Does anyone know the location of the Springfield bars mentioned by Bonfitto, or (pie in the sky) have photos? I will post a blog soon on the Girls Club, lesbian bar in Chicopee started in the 1940s.