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
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 the 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. Sitting
in her living room surrounded by all those "wimmin-loving wimmin," as we said
back then, I knew I'd come home. And I've been a resident of "Noho," as some
in the arty crowd call it, ever since.
To get the inside scoop, visit the local book and gift shop,
Pride and Joy, which is located downtown on Crafts Avenue, right across from
the side entrance to City Hall. The door to the store is always plastered with
fliers about upcoming events, and everyone who works at Pride and Joy is extremely
helpful, especially owner Mark Carmien--who said when he heard I was writing
this article, "Don't forget to mention the fags." Would I, a tried-and-true
fag hag, forget the boys? Never! Especially the ones like Mark, who proudly
marched under a banner that read "Fags From Lesbianville" during a
gay rights march on Washington, D.C. Lesbianville welcomes boys, bois, boyz,
girls, grrrls, women, wimmin, womyn, and everyone in between.
Likewise, we are a community that offers a wide variety
of entertainment, whatever your persuasion. If you are into the arts scene,
you're sure to find a performance to suit your taste on any night of the week.
The Calvin, a performance center located on King Street, has in recent memory
hosted Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, k.d. lang, and the Indigo Girls. For the
theater crowd, Smith College produced an all-female production of Shakespeare's
King Lear. Another play, Leah Ryan's Raised by Lesbians, made
its debut (where else?) right here in Lesbianville, U.S.A, produced by our own
New Century Theatre.
It's not for nothing that our motto is "Small-town charm,
big-city excitement." There's so much going on here that Northampton was named
the top small arts town by John Villani, author of The 100 Best Small Art
Towns in America.
If visual art is your thing, there are many galleries downtown
worth your perusal. Then turn down Cracker Barrel Alley (off Main Street, right
across from the front entrance to City Hall) and feast your eyes on a 3,216-square-foot
mural titled The History of Women in Northampton From 1600 to 1980. Painted
in 1980 by the Hestia Art Collective, the mural features many local heroes,
including Sophia Smith, the founder of Smith College, and the aforementioned
Sojourner Truth. The mural was restored and updated in 2003 and now includes
portraits of Mary Ford, Northampton's first female mayor, and Mary Clare Higgins,
Northampton's first out-and-proud lesbian mayor, who presides over our fair
city to this day.
If you are of a literary nature, visit Smith College's new
Poetry Center, located on campus in Wright Hall. There, behind glass, sit before
handwritten drafts of some of Sylvia Plath's poetry--viewing them for the first
time brought tears to my eyes. The Poetry Center sponsors readings throughout
the academic year and has featured three former U.S. poets laureate: Billy Collins,
Stanley Kunitz, and Louise Gluck. (Northampton even has its own city-appointed
poet laureate: out lesbian Janet Aalfs.) You can also take a short drive over
the Coolidge Bridge into Amherst and tour the estate of lesbian literary icon
If you love the great outdoors, you'll be pleased to know
that Northampton sits on the banks of the Connecticut River and offers plenty
of opportunities for hiking, biking, kayaking, and the like. The Norwottuck
Rail Trail, located off Damon Road, follows the former Boston and Maine Railroad
right-of-way for close to 10 miles through Northampton, Hadley, and Amherst.
Since it is a paved trail, it's perfect for running, cycling, blading, and cross-country
And if you're looking for something really exciting to do
while in town, you and your sweetheart can always get married. Here in Northampton,
as in the rest of Massachusetts, marriage between two women or two men is perfectly
legal. All you have to do is get a blood test and fill out a form stating either
that you live in Massachusetts or you intend to live in Massachusetts. According
to my dictionary, the word intend means "to have in mind as something
to be done or brought about." That's rather open to interpretation, don't you
think? I, for one, intend to win a Pulitzer Prize some day, but whether
that will happen remains to be seen.
In any event, Pride and Joy has a loose-leaf notebook labeled
"The Wedding Album" that is full of info on gay marriage. JM the JP, an out
lesbian justice of the peace, would be happy to officiate at your ceremony.
The posh Hotel Northampton has been known to rent out its bridal suite to a
couple of brides. If you wish to spice up your honeymoon, head down Center Street
and visit Gazebo, a women's lingerie store with a very lesbian-friendly staff.
At Gazebo you can find everything from silk pajamas to lace teddies labeled
with petite, small, medium, large, rubenesque, voluptuous, and zaftig.
Finally, if you're looking for The perfect Northampton keepsake,
I suggest a pair of matching mugs from Pride and Joy emblazoned with the words
Northampton: Where the Coffee is Strong and So Are the Women.
Like Jenny Lind said: Paradise.
Inexpensive-Moderate: Autumn Inn (259 Elm St.;
413-584-7660; $80-$119) offers quiet country charm only one mile from downtown.
Tin Roof Bed
and Breakfast...For Women and Their Friends (located in nearby Hadley;
413-586-8665; $70) is a lesbian-owned 1909 farmhouse with three guest rooms,
shared bath, and resident cats. Just like home! Expensive:Hotel
Northampton (36 King St.; 413-584-3100; $150-$500) is a 99-room hotel
built in 1786 and located in the heart of downtown. Elegant and classy, with
a roaring fireplace in the lobby in winter and an excellent restaurant that
offers outdoor dining in summer.
Inexpensive-Moderate: Try the lesbian-owned
Vegetarian Restaurant (68 Masonic St.; 413-586-8011); Great
Wall (176 Pine St., Florence; 413-582-0399), with the best Chinese
food ever (ask for the special menu); or lesbian-owned Cuisine
Du Soleil (25 West St.; 413-586-7500) with its Mediterranean-inspired
gourmet take-out, several outdoor tables, and special picnic baskets for two.
Ray Bar & Grill(One Bridge St.; 413-586-2664) has dinner entr?es
$22-$28. The braised hazelnut duck is to die for! Circa
(57 Center St.; 413-586-2622) has French-inspired cuisine.
The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com if you have any new information.