No one I know was pleased when Northampton was dubbed “Lesbianville, USA” by the National Enquirer in 1992, but as sexploitive as that coverage was, there is an element of truth to it. Over the last thirty years, lesbians have become a visible presence in the city. That there is an unusually high number of women in the town willing to openly identify as being in a same-sex partnerships was confirmed by the 1990 U.S. Census .
What the tabloid left out, of course, is the context of this lesbian visibility. No mention was made of the facts that it has happened slowly over decades as a part of nationwide social change, and that it happened here with much effort and struggle, both within a nascent community and against the resistance, sometimes-violent, of mainstream Northampton. Chic lesbians did not simply spring forth fully-grown, as from Zeus’ brow, to stroll hand-in-hand down Noho’s streets.
People have great interest in knowing why this has occurred in Northampton, but I have yet to discover a satisfactory explanation for the town’s lesbian, and more recent gay male, preponderance. Many point to the existence of Smith, the Ivy League women’s college, as a major supporting factor but no one can say why this institution started here in the first place. Leslea Newman, tongue in cheek, has posited that “it was fated in 1884, when Thomas M. Shepherd designed the official city seal, which depicts the Goddess of Knowledge holding hands with the Maiden Charity.” At best I can conjecture that the element which attracted the colonists to this place, the meandering river with its deep deposits of rich open soil, has also attracted those who resonate to some geometaphysical aura, a particular and feminine fecundity that supports creative possibilities. After all, the River has shaped the town’s eastern border into the profile of a breast.
Regardless of the reason, what I’ve found so far is not an unusual story. From initial surveys of U.S. and regional LGBTQ histories, it appears to me that Northampton’s history of the development of LGBTQ sub-cultures and later communities largely parallels that of communities across the country in the emergence of ideas, issues and new activities. Though there are some important anomalies other than the larger lesbian presence, as well as distinct differences between the three counties, the local queer history usually lags behind larger metropolitan areas outside Western Mass where new ideas and activities seem to germinate; generally occurs to lesser magnitude simply because of population size; and has been a bit ahead of the developments in even smaller towns.
While the story of lesbians is central to this Northampton history, it is also linked to that of other people who have also been stigmatized for acting outside the sexual norm. The names for these activities and the people sometimes identified with them have changed over time, leaving me to fumble for an adequate way to describe the fuzzy parameters of this history. “LGBT,” “Queer,” and “Sexual Minorities” are just a few of the most recent umbrella terms coined to describe this loosely related population. This naming process, both the imposed and self-selected, is a major thread in the story, and so throughout the blog posts you will see these descriptive names shift with the time. An effort will be made to include “all of the above” in this history blog of Northampton’s odd, by any other name, citizens.
Most of this history is still missing, especially that of the Native residents of the Nonotuck home land and the first three hundred years since the English founding of the town. Much of the oldest history to be included here is just a synopsis of what little has been uncovered so far of that early heritage, with a working outline, based on the histories of other locales, of what might be discovered by future research. The bulk of the blog posts will focus on the last thirty years, drawn from more readily available sources: remembrances of people still alive who’ve been part of this social change, and facts and accounts drawn from documents that were generated at the time.
Because of this blog’s limited focus and format, much can only be mentioned briefly. I hope to provide an overview and at least thumbnail sketches of the plethora of organizations and groups that have shaped social change here since 1970, those that were at least semi-publically “out.” And though people’s sense of this community knows no strict geographic bounds, I will generally have to focus on what’s been centered in Northampton and only indicate its connections and comparisons to the rest of the Valley.
As the posts accumulate, you are invited to amplify and/or correct these pieces of history, suggest more, and also add your stories, particularly how your life has been impacted by the events that will be retold here. Please remember that this is a public site, so “out” no one but yourself. All these caveats aside, I hope this blog will give you some perspective on an important part of Northampton’s history.
_“Strange town where men aren’t wanted.” National Enquirer.Vol. 66,No. 39, April 21, 1992:8. I only have a photocopy with handwritten date, might this have been April 21? Yes, thank you Mary McClintock for verifying pub date.
_“Household Composition (Non-traditional living arrangements): Massachusetts.” 1990 U.S. Census of Population & Housing, Summary Tape Files 4B & 4A. State Data Center/ Massachusetts Institute for Social & Economic Research. Northampton had the fourth largest number of lesbian couples in the state, after Boston, Somerville and Cambridge. The tabloid figure of 10,000 was probably taken from the total for the county.
_Leslea Newman. “Greetings from Lesbianville U.S.A.: grrrls, goddesses, and Gloria Steinem! Northampton, Mass., is the Sapphic center of America, tucked away among New England academia,” The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), 1 March 2005, /Greetings+from+Lesbianville+U.S.A.%3A+grrrls,+goddesses,+and+Gloria…-a0129710080.
_Seal of City of Northampton was copied off the town webpage. I would love a not-so-fuzzy version. Anyone got?