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A Place to Call Home : A Small Massachusetts College Town Has Become a Haven for Women, Especially Lesbians

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were in love, they were planning to be married, and they wanted the world to know about it.

But Karen Bellavance and Beth Grace never dreamed that by placing their engagement announcement in the local newspaper this fall, they were setting some sort of precedent.

“In a community like this, it seemed unlikely that we would be the first,” Bellavance said.

That’s because this community--Northampton and the bucolic Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts--has come to be known as a social, cultural and professional haven for women, especially lesbians. Women here point to a remarkable sense of openness that allows them to express their sexuality. They say the community welcomes them as homeowners and as business owners. And they repeatedly use the word safe to describe how they feel about living in this town of 30,000.

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Here, women walk hand-in-hand down Main Street or dance together alongside straight couples at a local club. The town’s lingerie store abandoned its annual Gentlemen’s Night in favor of Lesbians’ Night. And the newly elected mayor is described by some residents as a woman “married to a man.”

“Nobody looked at the town and said, ‘Here’s a great environment for women.’ But that’s what happened,” said Judith Fine, president of the city’s Downtown Business Assn. “The economics of urban renewal and the politics of the women’s movement happened to converge” to a point where today, nearly half of Northampton’s 246 businesses are owned by women.

“This area just seems to incubate strong women,” said Fine.

That image has drawn many women to Northampton--and encouraged others to remain here after they graduated from Smith, Mt. Holyoke or the area’s three other, co-ed, colleges.

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The number of lesbians in the Pioneer Valley is estimated at about 10,000, one-eighth of the population. Some residents call Northampton a kind of lesbian Ellis Island. “All lesbians pass through here at least once,” the common wisdom holds.

“I’ve heard it called Lesbianville,” said Grace, a 29-year-old Smith graduate. “I think that’s kind of nice.”

It was breakfast time, and Bellavance and Grace were holding hands and sipping coffee. They wore matching earrings, their birthstones, which they gave each other on the day they proposed.

Amid the photographs of brides in veils and grooms in cutaways, the announcement of their engagement ran on the Living page of the 200-year-old Daily Hampshire Gazette, along with a description of the paper’s new policy of publishing same-sex announcements.

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“People expect that we would have made this decision a long time ago, given the nature of this community,” Gazette Editor Jim Foudy said. But, he added, the paper had never addressed the matter before because no one had asked.

Same-sex engagement and wedding notices were a logical progression of sorts, he said, since “we have for a number of years been running birth announcements by lesbian couples.”

This kind of open-mindedness is common throughout the community. Nestled in the shadow of the Berkshire Mountains, the Northampton area has long basked in a tradition of political progressivism, dating back to the American Revolution. Peace organizations with names that were familiar in the 1960s--Another Mother for Peace and SANE--continue to flourish. Several Eastern religions--Zen Buddhism and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness among them--have strong local followings. Artists and musicians often stop off to perform in Northampton on the way to New York; in the summer, the Boston Symphony Orchestra relocates to Tanglewood, less than half an hour away.

Five nearby colleges--Smith, Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst--provide a strong intellectual fulcrum and also ensure a steady flow of scholarly visitors. Spirited discussions of politics or abstract academic topics can be heard at all hours at many of Northampton’s 37 restaurants, whose varied menus have earned the town the nickname of “NoHo,” a play on SoHo, New York City’s gourmet gulch.

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“This is a very nice cultural area. It’s a very livable place,” said Victoria Safford, the Unitarian minister in Northampton. Safford lived here in the early 1980s, left, then returned in 1987. Since then, she said, the number of women asking her to officiate at lesbian “services of union” has increased steadily. Mayor David B. Musante Jr., who will leave office in January after 12 years, traces a change in the town’s image to the late 1970s, when urban gentrification began in earnest. A handful of investors, some of them professors at the nearby colleges, bought and refurbished faded red-brick buildings from the Victorian era. Almost overnight, Musante said, “downtown Northampton became fashionable.”

In 1976, Richard Pini, a professor of French literature at Amherst College, opened Northampton’s Pleasant Street Theatre.

“It was a very different place then,” Pini said. “There was only one jewelry store in town. There was an old Sears, Roebuck store on the main corner. We didn’t have Sacher tortes or croissants. We didn’t have 700 lawyers, real estate developers, therapists and so forth.”

The arrival of Pini’s cozy little movie house, featuring foreign films and titles that often might not play in first-run theaters, coincided with an expansion of faculty and students at the University of Massachusetts in nearby Amherst, as well as a growing sense of consortium among the area’s colleges. This was also the era, Pini noted, when the region’s schools began to expand programs such as women’s studies.

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“Suddenly, a lot of young women professors were arriving, with a lot of talent and energy,” Pini said.

A women-only restaurant--since closed--opened about this time. So did a women’s theater group, martial arts program and a women’s bookstore. What distinguished these new businesses was not only that they catered to women, but that they were owned by them as well.

“Women were never excluded in the revitalization of Northampton. We were part of it,” said Fine, who came to Northampton from Richmond, Va., 15 years ago and opened Gazebo, a lingerie store.

The presence of two all-female colleges undoubtedly has been a magnet drawing women to this area. Smith College and Mt. Holyoke College, down the road in South Hadley, are among the 100 or so women-only colleges that remain in the United States.

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Both are small, elite schools, with student bodies of well under 3,000. Both tout proud heritages, impressive faculties and distinguished alumnae. Smith, for example, may be known as the alma mater of Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, but it is equally quick to list Betty Friedan, Julia Child and Gloria Steinem among its graduates.

So accommodating is the atmosphere that many Smith graduates--such as Grace--choose either to remain here or return several years later.

“I came to Smith and I just loved it. There is just something magical here,” Grace said. For two years after she graduated in 1985, Grace worked in human resources in Hartford, Conn. But she quickly returned to Northampton because “I needed a place to live where I could feel like it was my home.”

Smith’s “reputation for lesbianism,” as school President Mary Maples Dunn called it in an official “statement on lesbianism” (see accompanying story) probably has some connection to Northampton’s image.

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“I can’t tell you if it’s because the city of Northampton is here and has an impact on Smith, or whether Smith has an impact on the community, but obviously they feed off one another,” said Smith Student Government Assn. President Joyce Chiang), a 20-year-old government major from Chatsworth.

Although “it has begun to change a bit in the last 10 years, it is true that, in general, lesbians are much more hidden than gay men,” says Lillian Faderman, acting chair of the women’s studies department at Cal State Fresno and author of “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers,” a recent book about lesbian life in 20th-Century America.

Lesbians have often chosen to keep quiet about their sexuality because it is “threatening,” Faderman said. “It means that women can be self-sufficient in all ways.”

As a consequence, said Faderman, “as far as lesbians are concerned, it’s so affirming, so nurturing to be in a community where you don’t have to hide” that a place like Northampton “is a kind of utopia.”

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But even paradise is not without problems. Some lesbians here report occasional verbal harassment. Some who work in mainstream jobs are loath to reveal their sexual identities.

There are also tensions within the homosexual community itself. For a time, organizers of the town’s annual gay and lesbian parade were uncomfortable about including bisexuals among their ranks. Separatism also runs strong in certain quarters. The Chronicle, a lesbian newspaper, only recently began accepting advertising from businesses that were not owned by lesbians. And, Faderman said, Northampton’s Lunaria, a women’s bookstore, was the only one in all her nationwide readings that said men were not welcome during her talk.

But in general, a prevailing live-and-let-live attitude seems to overshadow most major disagreements. “This has always been a very understanding community, where people and their differences are respected,” said the mayor.

“We perhaps don’t like to be known as the ‘capital’ of anything,” added Musante, a former state trooper. “But if we are known as a lesbian town, so what?” He said he had no idea what percentage of his town might be lesbian, “and furthermore, I don’t care.” He shrugged, and then smiled. “Some of my best friends are lesbians,” he said earnestly.

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Many women--both heterosexuals and lesbians--said it is easy to find a circle of friends here, that the level of support from other women would be difficult to match anywhere else.

“My grandmother died, and she was about the most important person in my life,” said Leslea Newman, a writer. “I got on the phone and called one woman. Within an hour, there were 13 women, sitting in my living room, saying kaddish.”

Newman moved here from New York City nine years ago. Four months after she arrived, she came out as a lesbian.

“I think the word here would have to be tolerance , not open-minded acceptance and certainly not pride,” said Newman. “I think people here have gotten used to lesbians--but they still wouldn’t want their daughters to be one.”

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