long long ago another aspect of history to value
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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.
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.
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.
__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.
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.
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.”
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.
__[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.
In early 1975, Northampton lesbians began to see and hear about strange men in town taking photographs and recording license plate numbers. At least one lesbian home was mysteriously broken into. Many in the Northampton lesbian community feared that the community was under scrutiny by the FBI.
Already that year, at least seven lesbian/women’s communities nationwide were being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in hand with Federal Grand Juries, ostensibly to track down Weather Underground fugitives Susan Saxe and Kathy Power. Warnings spread through alternative media, including the hand-stapled, mimeographed Lesbian Connection that had begun to be read in Northampton’s Lesbian Community. Here’s an excerpt from the May 1975 issue:
Across the country, those refusing to talk to FBI agents were often subpoenaed to appear before a Grand Jury. Anyone who continued to fail to cooperate was jailed indefinitely for “contempt.” Even after Saxe was arrested in Philadelphia in March of 1975, radical news media reported that investigations had been expanded and, nationwide, at least seven lesbians and one gay man were imprisoned for their silence.
Saxe’s letter after her arrest was circulated nationwide. It was published in Northampton in Old Maid, Lesbian Gardens’ first publication, Spring 1975.
Many feared the Government was attempting to infiltrate and destroy the Lesbian/Women’s Movement as it was doing to other progressive groups. Fear of being outed as lesbian or gay, or loss of child custody by single mothers, was being exploited in these “fishing” expeditions. According to reports in radical media, the questions being asked included details about others, not only their names and roommates but also their political and sexual activity, bars visited, meetings attended, who else was there and the content of discussions.
In this climate, a local Grand Jury Information Project was begun in May 1975 in Northampton. It was a cooperative effort housed at the Northampton Women’s Law Collective on Main Street with volunteers, as well, from the Valley Women’s Union, Springfield Women’s Union and UMass Everywoman’s Center.
Over a four month period, the Project did rumor control in the Valley and circulated printed material at events and information meetings on FBI and Grand Jury abuses and individual legal rights, including the right not to talk to investigators. As awareness spread, local lesbians and feminists began to take precautions, educating housemates and neighbors, and reporting suspicious behavior to the Project. Some feminist therapists and counselors went so far as to destroy or otherwise secure client records to further protect confidentiality.
The increasing paranoia had a humorous side. Peggy Cookson recalls that lesbians at Green Street took apart their MaBell black bakelite telephone handsets to cut out suspicious looking little green phone components thinking they were ”bugs” (recording devices). The resulting increase in static was taken as confirmation that the phone lines were indeed being tapped, rather than that the green bits were actually anti-static devices.
At the end of summer, tension was eased a bit when a Northampton Lesbian issued a letter to the community stating she had been subpoenaed and appeared before a Grand Jury in New York. She said she had refused to answer any questions and the queries seemed to be connected to her past involvement with Irish politics and not focused on lesbians. Though this investigation appeared to focus on an individual, it was only the first of several attempts by the authorities to gain information about local lesbians and the community in order to identify “subversive” elements.
__ [Raymond], Kaymarion and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. “A Herstorical Chronology of the Valley Women’s Movement 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978.
__Old Maid. Northampton. Spring 1975.
__Grand Jury Information Project. Flyer. July 16, 1975.
__”Remember Grand Juries?” Quash: Newsletter of the Grand Jury Project. May-June 1977.
__Ann McCord. Remarks to author about client records. Ann was a counselor at Everywoman’s Center and member of the Feminist Counselors’ Collective.