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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.

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1 Comment

  1. victualling says:

    I remember how much damage Reagan did — transferring wealth upwards, fighting unions — but knew nothing of the anti-gay backlash then. Your research is important — and horribly relevant to the present.

    Liked by 2 people

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