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.

beter kathyrn n me04052016
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.
michael n me in shl office04052016
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.

first mtg gwc ad04052016
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.

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.”

cropped-collegian-ad-197003202015_0001.jpg

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:

closet door sep 71 christopher03202015

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.

closet door sep 71 more summer w AWL03202015

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.