Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Ode to Northampton

I travel a lot, but (for now) I keep my old journals, family photos and ribbon collection in Northampton. It's a cute, western Massachusetts college town just two hours west of Boston. I've lived here for almost six years, and a part of me will always live here. The part of me that feels entitled to live safely as a woman who loves women will never forget the power and permission I found in Northampton.

An enthusiastic friend once insisted, "It's the only place in the world where strangers smile at you for being a lesbian." She was exaggerating, but I will tell you this: when my partner and I visited "Noho" back in April 2002, we felt so affirmed by its saturated Sapphic visions and vibes that we jam-packed a rental truck full of our vintage clothes and garage sale belongings and had a local land line by August of the same year.

When we lived in upstate New York, we told our friends and ourselves that we were simply "not big on public displays of affection." But after just a few days of observing townies as we strolled along Northampton's Main Street, we spontaneously shifted our PDA gears. It seemed like every third pedestrian was some obvious variation of queer. Indeed, sources claim that of the city's 30,000 residents, 10,000 of them are lesbians.

Living in Northampton, my partner and I felt a kind of freedom we had never felt before. We were no longer "the only ones." Without even discussing it, we began to reach for each other's hands, smooch each other's necks and snatch each other's buns out in the open. Much to our delight, not very many people flinched. Northampton is a haven where queer is the norm. Women, wimmin and feminist grrrls and bois abound. Queer PDA is commonplace, quietly celebrated but shruggable.

Imagine a waif in wrinkled cargo pants with "SMITH COLLEGE" crawling across her sweat-shirted chest. Imagine a Venus of Willendorf-figured femme in a tight fuchsia skirt strutting arm-in-arm with her spiky-haired, tie-rocking lover. Northampton flaunts cotton candy-colored dreadlocks. Northampton munches freshly made granola in her untucked, button-down, checkered shirt and 10-year-old Birkenstocks.

There are bottle-tanned complexions and bleach-blonde tresses tucked under Red Sox baseball caps in Northampton. There are wide black jeans dragging on the pavement and silver chains dangling from thick black belts in Northampton. There are dykes pushing strollers filled with chubby brown babies. There are dykes eating ice cream and swapping gossip on the curb. There's an androgynous hottie who lets me into the local art movie house for free because she likes my poems. (Thanks again, Androgynous Hottie.)

There are dyke therapists, dyke baristas. Dykes with buns of steel who schlepp the city's recyclables behind their bikes. Dykes serving pizza. Dykes who teach karate. Dykes who teach Russian literature. Dykes standing in line at the Iron Horse Music Hall where they can hear musical dykes play good dyke music.

Imagine lesbian poet laureates, lesbian farmers, lesbian artisans and a butch tattoo artist with a bull dog and a beard. My partner was a lesbian librarian. We even have a lesbian mayor.

It's like living among the diverse characters in Alison Bechdel's comic Dykes To Watch Out For. In fact, Bechdel once lived in the apartment across the hall from mine. Heather Has Two Mommies author Leslea Newman lives here. Amelia Earhart lived here. Sojourner Truth lived here. Bitch and Animal lived here. Sonic Youth lives here. Dar Williams lived here. The Nields and Erin McKeown are also in the vicinity. Gloria Steinhem (a Smith alum) stops through every now and then. Imagine The L Word sans the high fashion (sometimes). Imagine the safety of OurChart in the flesh. Consider that the place you're imagining is real.

My wack-over-the-head nickname for Northampton is Lesbos, but First People call it "Norwottuck" or "Nonotuck" which either means "the mist of the river" or "in the midst of the river," depending on who you ask. In 1992, National Geographic dubbed it "Lesbianville, U.S.A." Tourists call it "Paradise."

I live here (sometimes), and (sometimes) I like living here. It isn't Paradise. Like Wonder Woman's famed island home of the same name, our so-called Paradise is mostly white. And, although I generally find lesbian white people to be among the easiest white people to get along with, it's pretty frustrating to be the only brown-skinned person (or one of too few) at local parties, restaurants and bars. People of color make up a mere 10% of the population.

We're a good-looking 10%, though. ;-)

I should mention that there is a significant population of male homos in town. Apparently, there was once a t-shirt or banner that read "FAGS FROM LESBIANVILLE." Some visitors are shocked to realize that straight men and women also live, breed, work and own businesses in Northampton. What can I say? For better or for worse, it's not a separatist commune.

I have to admit that I'm really moved by the alternatives to aggressive hyper-masculinity that I get to witness as a resident of Noho. It seems that a number of the male-identified people here also feel free to live, love and express outside the box. Imagine hipster trans guys with feminist leanings and women's college degrees. Imagine gamine-like metrosexuals who stride like Bowie. Imagine androgynous, hippie intellectuals stroking thick, tangled beards with painted fingernails as they bob their heads to hip hop or strum out DiFranco-like ballads on their acoustic guitars... Yeah, queered masculinity is big here...

But lesbians rule the town. Our visitor parking lot sign says "Welcome to Northampton: Where the coffee is strong and so are the women." You really ought to come visit us sometime. You know you want some.

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