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March/April 2005 | Northampton

March/April 2005 | Northampton

Greetings From Lesbianville, U.S.A.

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 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 Emily Dickinson.

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 skiing.

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 Bela 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. Expensive:Del 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.


Divas (492 Pleasant St.; 413-586-8161) is where the girls are! Calvin Theatre and Performing Arts Center (19 King St.; 413-586-8686) features nationally known performers. Iron Horse Music Hall (20 Center St.; 413-584-0610) invites you to eat dinner and enjoy live music--jazz, pop, folk, and more.

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 if you have any new information.
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