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.

Bars at the Cultural Center


On a hot day with big blue sky when I was nineteen and an Army private, I took the city bus from Fort Sam to downtown San Antonio for the first time. After a tourist stop at the Alamo, I just walked around until I came upon an adult bookstore. Hoping to find some clue to gay women’s life in 1965 Texas, or at least a copy of the Ladder, I hesitantly scanned the display aisles, skirting men looking at I-didn’t- want-to-know-what.

Near one line of magazine racks, a young Latino caught my eye. Looking pointedly at my short hair and the wedding band on my left hand, he said hello and walked with me out of the store. Vincente, a high school student, befriended me then and there.

With the connivance of his Army nurse boyfriend Fred, who owned a car, Vincente began to pick me up at the WAC barracks for dates on the weekends. The story was that we were going horseback riding. That was the only excuse I could think of to  leave the post wearing pants instead of the required WAC clothing standard skirt.

We actually did go to “the country,” because that was what everyone called the gay bar outside the city limits. The bar was housed in a large single-story building surrounded by an even larger gravel parking lot in the middle of a very dark nowhere. Daylight might have revealed cattle pasture and scrub, but I never saw it during the day. The bar was mostly dance floor surrounded by tables. It was dimly lit and smoke filled. Vincente called me his auntie and taught me to dance to whatever was on the jukebox. This is where I came out, beyond that earlier declaration to myself and a few individuals, as a gay woman and butch. Doing the Jerk and the sounds of Motown became embedded forever, by hormones, in my DNA.

 

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Vincente’s 1965 school picture, inscribed on the back as my boyfriend for appearances

The inside of a queer bar was exposed to the world after the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando Florida June 12, 2016.  Pictures of the physical space, bar, and dance floor were flashed through newscasts and social media. These were also pictures of a kind of emotional space created by the people who danced there. In this case, those people were mostly young, male Latinx drawn from one of the largest Puerto Rican communities stateside.

In the days that followed the mass shooting, the importance of bars as central to queer culture was repeatedly stated in many different ways by that local queer community and others around the country. Queer bars were compared, even, to going to church. This centrality of bars to queer culture seemed primary even as Orlando’s GLBT community center stepped in to offer information, support, and services to the victims’ family and friends. The community center also kept the larger community informed about what was happening and needed.

In local discussion over the next few months, I was reminded that not everyone came/comes out in bars. There was a period in Northampton’s history when the Women’s Movement and then the Lesbianfeminist and Lesbian separatist communities offered an alternative to the bars of Springfield and Chicopee. The spaces – both physical and emotional – that these movements provided were where I came further out politically. They shaped the identities of at least one generation of Lesbians, those who once knew why the word was capitalized.

The height of these movements, however, had a relatively brief period locally. While there were many interest groups, events, and a few businesses during that time, spaces that actually functioned as dedicated meeting and activity places were sparse and limited in their functions. Lesbian Gardens existed as part of the Valley Women’s Union on the third floor of 200 Main Street from 1975 until 1976. The whole group left the space when they were unable to meet a steep rent increase. The Common Womon Club opened on Masonic Street the next year, 1977. They provided a lesbian community dining, meeting, and communication space. They also sponsored many events in larger venues, including dances. The Club closed six years later, largely due to its unprofitability and reliance on an ever-changing collective of underpaid staff.

Only institutionally-supported centers seem to last in the Valley. In Northampton, this meant that Smith College housed a Lesbian Alliance for many years. (The name of the group given space has frequently changed.) Local area efforts in 1990 to open a GLBT community center failed, in large part because of the relatively high rental cost of space in the downtown.

This brief period since the 1970s of new spaces emerging outside the gay bars reflected a national trend. The disappearance of those new spaces is also reflected across the country, though a few spaces with the largest supporting population have lingered on.  Most recently, there has been increasing conversation about the disappearance of lesbian space prompted by the closing of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which was an annual national gathering for 40 years.

The national discussion of disappearing women’s space also includes women’s (lesbian) bars. Northampton also has a history of bars that grew alongside and then largely outlived that of the Lesbian, separatist and feminist, spaces. Even as Lesbian Gardens was being organized by Separatists, lesbians found a way to dance in the backrooms at the straight bars Gala and Zelda’s in 1975. Other than that, lesbians relied on sporadically sponsored women’s dances elsewhere. Lesbians also followed the women’s bands that played the straight club circuit in the Valley and later attended lesbian DJ’ed nights in straight spaces.

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the Gala Cafe. Hand-tinted photo by Sandra Leigh Russell, used by permission of the photographer.

 

It was not until 1987 that Northampton had its own LGBT bar, owned and run by lesbians: The North Star on West Street lasted eight years. Competition came from Pearl Street, a straight dance club which began to hold a gay night. In 1996, a group bought out the North Star and opened the Grotto in that space, which lasted through 2001, perhaps. I have heard mention of a Club Metro, but have no information on it. The latest and the longest surviving LGBTQ bar has been Diva’s, opened in 2001 on Pleasant Street, but is announcing its “last” events this autumn of 2016.

The historical pattern seems to suggest there is enough business to support one bar establishment in Northampton if it makes an effort to cater to the wide variety people under the queer (or not) umbrella. It also suggests that a bar is more central to queer culture and community in Northampton than any of the other physical spaces that have come and gone.

A red light was mounted on the wall behind the bar in that 1965 Texas gay club called the Country. When it flashed on and off whoever was on the dance floor scurried to switch to dancing with partners of the opposite sex or sat down. Others stopped smooching and groping as the local police came in the door and did their nightly walk-through looking for illegal behavior.

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In 1965 every newly promoted sergeant was buying a Mustang. While the military could go through any personal possessions in the barracks at a whim, a search warrant was needed to look at anything in a person’s locked vehicle.

 

Out in the parking lot, military police crunched across the gravel, writing down license plate numbers of those with the mandated military stickers. The Country was off-limits to military personnel, a fact listed outside the orderly rooms of every barracks in the area. If one could sort out the names of establishments that were just violent, this list was a de facto gay guide. Being discovered at the Country could lead to further investigation and a dishonorable discharge or coercion to inform and entrap others. Gay women in particular were disproportionately discharged for homosexuality in almost annual salacious witch hunts, which I and many of my WAC friends endured.

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Every WAC in this 1965 track team photo was investigated for being a lesbian in one witch hunt or another while I was stationed there in San Antonio.  Me, “Legs”, on the left. On the right    F. Louise “Grif” Griffin known to many as co-creator of Something Special the lesbian dining experience+ in Miami.

 

Fifty years later things may have appeared to change, but it is apparent from Pulse nightclub massacre news accounts that some of the victims and/or their families did not want it known that they were in a queer bar. While the law might now at least superficially protect them as brown and queer people, the cultural attitudes that spawned the killer did not. There was and still is a danger in being queer, out, and out with others.

This danger is also part of Northampton’s history. As lesbians found each other in the town’s bars they became the target of rape and assault. Coming far enough out of the closet to march as a community with allies en masse down Main Street brought phone stalking and threats of murder and arson. It took a concerted political struggle with Northampton’s government, police, and press to begin to change the environment.

There is no making sense of the mass murder at the queer nightclub in Orlando, but a pause has allowed me to re-see, through my anger and grief, the importance of queer cultural meeting spaces for dancing and celebration. These centers of affirmation are an essential part of the LGBTQ story past and present, including Northampton’s. Over the coming months, I will be sharing accounts in this blog of much of what has just been briefly mentioned.   Meantime keep on dancing.