The “Progress Pride” flag was raised on a Oak Bluffs town flag pole in Ocean Park last Wednesday, to kick off the island’s Pride Month celebrations. There is a hell of a lot to unpack in that sentence, starting with the many, sometimes contentious meetings that led to its happening and the between-the-lines truth that the effort was led (spearheaded?) by the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP and the Oak Bluffs Association, an organization of Oak Bluffs business owners, and the younger members of both. Maybe in another post?
The Martha’s Vineyard Times has a good story about the event. As far as I know, the Vineyard Gazette hasn’t covered it, although one of their photographer-writers was there.
I was asked to say a few words at the flag raising, partly because I’m a lesbian and a member of the NAACP but mostly because I’m familiar with some of the island’s lesbian and gay history going back to the mid-1980s, when I landed here as a year-round resident. I wrote out a speech then proceeded to ignore it when I spoke, though I think I made most of the main points. Here, slightly edited, is the written version. It covers some of the same ground as a post I made here almost exactly seven years ago: “Gay on MV“.
At this moment I’m seeing the Pride flag through the eyes of someone who just walked off the boat, or maybe through the eyes of someone passing by who’s thinking they might be, well, different, and is still working out “Now what do I do?”
They may not have seen this particular flag before, but the original rainbow flag as been around for a while and they’ll probably recognize it. It means “You are seen. You are welcome here.” If the flag is hanging on a church or a library, the people inside might have some ideas about where you might find sisters and brothers and allies.
In early 1977, I was living, not happily, in my hometown. It was not unlike the Vineyard in some ways: large enough that not everybody knew everybody else, but small enough that word spread fast to people whether you knew them or not. I did not want to come out there. I moved back to D.C., where I’d lived as a college student. Finding a women’s community was very much on my mind.
There were no lesbian flags flying in D.C., but I knew how to find the lesbians: through Lammas, the feminist bookstore, and the Washington Area Women’s Center. (I wasn’t then and never have been a bar person.) Before long I was a regular customer of the bookstore and a member of the women’s center collective, where I met my first girlfriend. I was writing for off our backs and the Blade (the gay newspaper, which eventually became the Washington Blade and which still exists). I was part of a network that had connections all over the country and even around the world.
When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985 — for a year, mind you, just for a year — it was a different story. Where were the lesbians? I read every poster on every bulletin board and telephone pole and skimmed every story in both newspapers, looking for signs of lesbian, gay, and/or feminist activity. Nothing. Most startling was that no one seemed to be talking about AIDS, which by 1985 was a huge issue in D.C.
I did find something else I was looking for: a 12-step program for adult children of alcoholics. This was easy: both newspapers carried an extensive list of 12-step programs, complete with meeting times and places. Imagine my surprise when my ACA 12-step group turned out to be my gateway into lesbian, gay, feminist, and pagan activities on Martha’s Vineyard. The connection was the late Mary Payne, who instantly recognized me as one of the sisterhood.
You know how the right wing likes to accuse us — gay men in particular — of “recruiting”? Mary was a recruiter, but what she was recruiting for wasn’t some nefarious gay or lesbian “lifestyle.” She was recruiting for island theater, specifically Island Theatre Workshop, of which she was the founder and director.
The island’s theater scene and Wintertide Coffeehouse became my island homes. On the Vineyard, as elsewhere, if you go where the creative and/or artistic people are, you’ll almost certainly find gay men, lesbians, other idiosyncratic types, and a high level of acceptance for all kinds of diversity.
Mary’s partner, Nancy Luedeman, made a Vineyard panel for the AIDS Quilt. It memorialized four Vineyard men who’d died of AIDS, two by first name and last initial, two by initials only. I saw it before it left the island, and again when it was displayed with over eight thousand others on the Ellipse in October of 1988.
In those days if you said the word “lesbian” in public everyone would turn to stare at you. Who would possibly say “lesbian” in public if they weren’t one?? So we often said “the L-word” instead — this was long before the TV show of that name — or, gods save us, “Lebanese.”
The silence in those days was, to coin a cliché, deafening. By the very late 1980s, the island had begun to discover AIDS. At the public “educational” events I attended — I was working for the Martha’s Vineyard Times at the time — I often got the impression that one could only contract HIV/AIDS through dirty needles or blood transfusions.
The silence sometimes had tragic consequences. The four men memorialized on Nancy’s AIDS Quilt panel had all died off-island. Their names weren’t included because they had family here. A Vineyard man who was dealing with both addiction and HIV struggled to get services within a health care system whose component parts didn’t speak to each other and sometimes seemed unaware of each other’s existence. He found his most dedicated supporters and advocates in the Vineyard’s 12-step community.
His struggle, followed by his accidental death in a house fire, led to the formation of the AIDS Alliance, which pulled together health-care providers, advocates, community activists, and others dedicated to both educating the public about HIV/AIDS and to making it easier for those with HIV/AIDS to access services. The AIDS Alliance was in turn a beneficiary of the Crossover Ball, a very popular gender-bending New Year’s Eve event that was held several times between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s.
It also helped spur the organization of ILGA, the Island Lesbian & Gay Association, whose first meeting attracted about 26 people, about half of them men and half women, in the big room at the Wooden Tent. ILGA’s main activities were potlucks at members’ homes and a newsletter called, of course, Stone Walls, but it also led to the first-ever participation by Vineyard gay men and lesbians in the Pride parade in Boston, I think in 1994.
Robert Cropper and I were listed in the “island organizations” section of the island phone book as ILGA contacts. For the first time you could find the words “lesbian” and “gay” in the phone book, with phone numbers to call for more information.
The island’s gay and lesbian community, such as it was, was beginning to have a public presence. We grew more visible, and discovered we had allies, when in 1993 two Oak Bluffs town fathers tried to have two of the first kids’ books about gay and lesbian families — Heather Has Two Mommies and How Would You Feel If Your Dad Was Gay? — pulled from the Oak Bluffs School library. We showed up at meetings where the town fathers and their supporters told us that AIDS was God’s scourge of the homosexuals, and worse. But the school librarian stood firm, the student member of the school committee was eloquent in defense of the books, and the books stayed in the library.
In response to all this, I helped organize a Banned Books reading at Wintertide Coffeehouse in January 1994. More than 20 Vineyarders picked a short passage to read from their favorite banned book. It was spectacularly successful, and I think it proved to all of us that we had supporters, we were not alone.
The person coming off the boat or walking by and seeing the Progress Pride flag flying in Ocean Park isn’t going to know any of this history. It all happened a whole generation ago. But it helps explain why that flag is flying here today, and why it matters.