Gay on MV

Me at Gay & Lesbian Pride Day celebration, P Street Beach, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jim Marks)

Me at Gay & Lesbian Pride Day celebration, P Street Beach, Washington, D.C., early 1980s (Photo by Jim Marks; T-shirt design by Sudie Rakusin)

I started this post last fall, after the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce blogged about “LGBT MV.” I’ve been poking and prodding it ever since. What used to be called Gay Pride, then Gay and Lesbian Pride, then LGBT Pride, and now often just Pride Day — or Week, or Month — has rolled around again, so I figured this was a good time to fish or cut bait.

Martha’s Vineyard, said the Chamber of Commerce, “is a welcoming, safe, and fun place for members of the LGBT community — plus, the Island has lots to offer LGBT travelers!”

Apparently the first public gay pride event on Martha’s Vineyard was held last summer at The Yard, the seasonal dance colony up in Chilmark. Wow. I didn’t hear about it through the usual channels, which is to say Facebook, word-of-mouth, or the bulletin board at up-island Cronig’s.

But word travels in circuitous ways on Martha’s Vineyard, especially in the summer. And there’s a strange barrier between the summer island and the year-round island. It’s porous enough to see through, but it garbles communication. It seems we can hear the summer people loud and clear, but whatever we say comes through with static if it comes through at all.

This ILGA T-shirt could be worn almost anywhere on MV because hardly anyone on MV in the early 1990s knew what the pink triangle meant.

This ILGA T-shirt could be worn almost anywhere on MV because hardly anyone on MV in the early 1990s knew what the pink triangle meant.

Were the organizers and participants of this event aware that Martha’s Vineyard has its own gay and lesbian history? Or, put a little differently, that some gay and lesbian history has taken place on Martha’s Vineyard?

On Changeover Weekend in 1985 I moved to Martha’s Vineyard from the lesbian-feminist community of Washington, D.C., where I’d been active for eight years. People kept asking if I’d ever been married and whether I had kids. I’d never been asked these questions before. (This was before the lesbian baby boom.)

In D.C. I’d been lulled into the belief that “lesbian” and “feminist” were practically synonymous.

Ha ha ha. Wrong. To my urban eyes, half the women on Martha’s Vineyard looked like dykes: they were sturdy and strong; they wore jeans, flannel shirts, and comfortable shoes. These did not mean the same thing on small-town Martha’s Vineyard that they had in big-city D.C.

Very few of the lesbians I met had heard of Adrienne Rich or Judy Grahn or Audre Lorde or Cris Williamson or Pat Parker. The ones who had were all straight feminists. They were the ones I wound up hanging with. Most of them were divorced, or the men in their lives stayed at a safe distance. When we hung out together, we were all single women with no men in sight.

The lesbian thing did, however, matter. I was recognized and recruited PDQ into island theater by the late Mary Payne (1932–1996). Island theater was like theater in most other places: a veritable hotbed of misfits and nonconformists, gay, lesbian, straight, both/and, and neither/nor. My people. Whew.

The word “lesbian” was never said out loud, even by lesbians. Especially by lesbians: why would anyone say “lesbian” out loud unless they were one?

Instead we said “the L-word,” long before there was a TV show of that name. Or used the ASL sign for L. And gods help us all, some people really did use “Lebanese” as a synonym for “lesbian.”

Having been active and visible in a lesbian community for eight years, four of them working in a feminist bookstore, I had little experience of “the closet.” I was fascinated by closet dynamics. As Mary Payne had recognized me almost at once, I had recognized her — and quite a few other sisters and brothers. I had recognized them right off the bat — or should I say “boat”? — but many of them seemed to think they were “in the closet.”

Even stranger, straight women would occasionally ask me if so-and-so (usually a man they had some romantic interest in) was gay. Invariably he was, but my stock reply was “I don’t know — why don’t you ask him?” This was unthinkable then and barely thinkable today, so they probably thought I was either very cheeky or downright rude.

Finally it dawned on me that when people asked me whether so-and-so was gay, they were actually acknowledging that they knew I was a lesbian and that was OK with them.

In the late 1980s and very early ’90s, Martha’s Vineyard began to discover AIDS. That story deserves its own book, but suffice it to say I often felt as though I’d fallen through Alice’s looking-glass. I was working for the Martha’s Vineyard Times in those days, so I attended various educational events that I wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. From these I got the impression that one could only get HIV from dirty needles or blood transfusions.

At the same time it was clear that for some AIDS was synonymous with homosexuality and that all “homosexuals” were men. When someone ranted that AIDS was God’s scourge of the homosexuals, some of us pointed out that lesbians had a much lower incidence of AIDS than straight people, so maybe God was on our side?

In the very early years of the AIDS Quilt, 1987 or 1988, the late Nancy Luedeman (1920–2010) made a quilt panel for four Vineyard men who had died of AIDS. Things being as they were in those days, two were identified by first name and last initial, and two by initials only.

Amid the general climate of ignorance and hostility, the Martha’s Vineyard Times published a few nasty homophobic letters from a fellow on the Cape. Partly in response, some 26 of us brave souls gathered at the Wooden Tent in 1991 (IIRC) to form the Island Lesbian and Gay Association. The attendees were pretty evenly divided between men and women. As we went around the circle introducing ourselves (first names only), it seemed that half the women were named Kathy. When Lansing Bailey introduced himself as Kathy, everyone cracked up. No one present will ever forget it.

For several years ILGA held regular potluck gatherings. Some members marched in Boston’s Gay and Lesbian Pride parade behind an ILGA banner made (I believe) by ally Tom Hodgson. For the first time ever, island residents and visitors could find lesbian and gay contact info in the almanac section of The Island Book. Dan Waters and Hal Garneau put out a classy newsletter called, appropriately enough, Stone Walls. They were also responsible for the two ILGA T-shirts shown in this post.

In late 1993, two fathers attempted to get two kids’ books about gay families pulled from the Oak Bluffs School library. Over the next several months this spawned several contentious meetings and letters to the editor. In January 1994 I helped organize a Banned Books reading that packed Wintertide Coffeehouse. Using the list of banned and challenged books published annually by the American Library Association, about 20 of us read from our favorites. The late Ken Miner, minister of Trinity United Methodist Church in the Campground, read the David and Jonathan story from the Bible. The Oak Bluffs school committee eventually decided to keep the books on the shelves.

That spring, the short-play festival at the Vineyard Playhouse included Susan Miller’s “It’s Our Town Too,” a poignant riff on Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town in which the parents of the young people who grow up to marry are a gay couple and a lesbian couple.

In the years following, the Vineyard’s year-round demographics changed enough that for many all of the above may seem like ancient history. My novel The Mud of the Place is set in the late 1990s, but its roots are earlier in the decade. One character refers to the attempted book banning. The closet plays a key role in the plot. Readers sometimes ask me for reassurance: “That couldn’t happen today, could it?”

To which I reply: “Probably not in the same way, but there are always things we don’t dare discuss in public, and the fear of being thrown out of family or community never goes completely away.”

No man is an Island Lesbian

One of the cleverest T-shirt slogans ever — “No man is an Island Lesbian (& Gay Association of Martha’s Vineyard)” — but back in the day I only wore it off-island.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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14 Responses to Gay on MV

  1. Helen Green says:

    ps. I had that tee shirt for a long long time. Hated giving it up. Didn’t Janet and Dan print it at the Tisbury Printer?


  2. Susan Robinson says:

    Thanks for this, Susanna.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Helen Green says:

    Susanna-it’s funny that you posted this. Just the other day I was telling a couple of women that I golf with about the time when those crazy fathers in OB wanted Heather has Two Moms out of the school Library. Why I was telling them this story was because they had talked about Jan Buhrman’s catering service and I was telling them I would never forget her because she was the School Librarian at the time and she strongly stood up for the book to remain in the Library. She held a meeting with everyone, that Kate and I attended and I figured the Town would cave and I remember every person that stood up in favor of the books. I remember Jason Lew and Ron Mechur in particular. I never forget people who have been supportive when they didn’t have to be but they did. It’s taken a lot of straight people to help us.
    I like your last sentence:” It never goes away.” I couldn’t agree more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me too! I never hear Jan’s name or see her without thinking of that time. You know who else I’ve never forgotten? Jay Borselle. He was the student rep on the school committee, and very poised and eloquent in his defense of keeping the books in the library. Now he’s a journalist based in Boston — and one of my friends on Facebook.

      Another thing I’ve never forgotten is that the MV Library Association was the only island organization that came out in favor of the books (and us). In the years following I’d mention that from time to time and be told, “Oh, no one took them seriously, that’s why no one spoke out.” To which I’d think, Yeah, right — you didn’t have to sit in the same room with these people spewing hateful, ignorant rhetoric in your direction. I already loved librarians from my bookselling days in D.C., but this just put them over the top.


      • Helen Green says:

        I kind of remember Jay. That took courage as a teen to do that.
        Remember we use to go to Marge Harris’s class and discuss racism, sexism and homophobia? You me, Robert and Bob Tankard. I thought Marge was so hip and brave.
        I do remember the meeting at the Wooden Tent, ILGA pot lucks, the float at the Gay Pride parade. …all of it. I never would have predicted this wave of support and near acceptance.
        Not in my life time. With all of though you have to put up with the rants and raves of the people who hate us.
        I could go on and on about all of this.
        Anyway thanks for writing it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Lesli says:

    Love the t-shirt, Susanna!


  5. frenchc1955 says:

    Hi, I wanted to let you know that I nominated your for a Reader’s Challenge. Here is the link:


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