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

Article excerpt

In 1851 the famed diva Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale, sang at the Academy of Music opera house in Northampton, Mass. Lind was so taken with the quaint New England town that she called it the Paradise of America. In 1992-141 years after Lind's visit--The National Enquirer published an article about Northampton, dubbing it "Lesbianville, U.S.A." Both pronouncements mean pretty much the same thing. While the Enquirer's claim that "10,000 cuddling, kissing lesbians" call it home sweet home is a slight exaggeration, my adopted hometown of just under 30,000--located in the western part of Massachusetts about three hours north of Manhattan and two hours west of Boston--is indeed chock-full of dykes. Take a walk up Main Street and you're bound to see two women holding hands or a female couple pushing a baby carriage. Cars parked in the John E. Gare parking garage (a.k.a. the "gay-rage," the best place to park downtown) are decorated with rainbow decals and bumper stickers that proclaim "My Other Car Is a Broom," "Hate Is Not a Family Value," and "Back Off: I'm a Goddess."Just how lesbian-friendly is this town? My hairdresser, therapist, doctor, dentist, veterinarian, and landlady were 'all lesbians until this year, when I switched hairdressers and my therapist switched teams.

So how did Northampton become Lesbianville, U.S.A.? No one knows for sure. Perhaps 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. (And quite a fetching couple they make!) Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the town is home to Smith College, the nation's largest liberal arts college for women. In addition to being the site of the very first women's basketball game (in 1892), Smith College claims many pioneering feminists in its roster of alumnae, including Betty Friedan, class of '42, author of The Feminine Mystique, and Gloria Steinem, class of '56, founder of Ms. magazine. Perhaps "Hamp," as the townies call it, became the lesbian capital of the Eastern Seaboard because so many amazing women have lived here: aviator Amelia Earhart, antislavery and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth, and author of Dykes to Watch Out For Alison Bechdel. Or perhaps the fact that so many lesbians choose to settle here is just a happy coincidence.

And how did I, a nice Jewish dyke from Brooklyn, wind up in the town formerly known as Norwottuck (a Native American word meaning "in the midst of the river")? That's another happy coincidence. In fall 1982 I was living in New York City and quickly realizing that being a starving writer is much more romantic in theory than in practice. I knew I had to move when I got home from work and found my cat batting around a water bug the size of a hockey puck. But where would I go? In desperation I wrote to several friends to see if they would take me in. The only one who responded lived in a small city I had never heard of." Northampton. She called and said, "Come. I think you'll love it here." Did she know something I didn't? Maybe. (Though she was straight at the time--as was I--she'd recently had her first affair with a woman and told me that though it was the best sex she'd ever had, she was going back to men. Hey, whatever floats your boat.)

Shortly after arriving in town, I was waiting at a bus stop when a short-haired woman wearing a double-bladed ax pendant around her neck said to me, "That man is bothering me. Can you pretend we're together?" Being a good feminist, I said sure, and we began a conversation that ended with my new friend inviting me to a party file following night. (When I think back on this incident, I still don't know if my pal was really being hassled or if she was trying to pick me up.) I went to the party, and lo and behold, 'all the guests were lesbians! That night I came out, though not in the way that you think. Sadly, my hostess and I never became girlfriends, but it didn't matter. …