by Naomi Ullian
Pride arrives in southern Vermont this year with a series of cultural events making visible the histories of our local queer communities.
Hosted by Green Mountain Crossroads in collaboration with Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) and Rockingham Arts & Museum Project, the festivities include the opening of the Andrew's Inn Oral History Project, Ain Gordon's Radicals in Miniature live performance, Cineslam -- Vermont’s LGBTQ shorts film festival, and an Andrew's Inn Dance Party.
The Andrew's Inn Oral History Project presents a cohesive narrative of a community space and LGBT disco located in Bellows Falls during the 1970s and 80s. Green Mountain Crossroads executive director HB Lozito will present audio and text from over 30 hours of interviews conducted in 2015 and 2016, accompanied by portraits by photographer Evie Lovett.
What's particularly important about this project, notes HB, is that queer histories are often lost, ignored, or invisibilized by dominant media and historians. While other students of history have investigated radical histories in southern Vermont, none of the information about the Andrew's Inn has been collected and made available in quite this way, not to mention celebrated by later generations through a queer historical lens.
"What we see is that queer people need to be the historians and tellers of our own stories," say HB, "Because often nobody else will do it."
Visibility, HB points out can create more structures of safety for marginalized folks, and many local folks have purposely avoided telling the stories of the Andrew's Inn and other queer aspects of local history from the 1950s through the 1980s.
HB first met Ain Gordon in January of 2015 at a day-long meeting on art and social practice in the local community hosted by VPL.
Long interested in oral histories as an accessible medium for artistic and social justice engagement, HB found they shared an emergent working style with Ain, himself a queer history researcher and performance artist, and with the support of VPL director Sara Coffey they discovered shared fertile ground and myriad ideas for incubation and inspiration -- oral histories, queer experiences, art and social practice, and the involvement of extant local communities.
Gordon's multimedia work stems from detailed archival research of hidden histories of LGBTQ communities in the United States, including a recent work at the Philadelphia Historical Society on Dr. Anonymous, the mask-wearing individual who approached the American Psychiatric Association in the 1972 in order to lobby for the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In the fall of 2015, VPL and GMC collaborated with Marlboro College in offering a class for students on radical social movements in southern Vermont from 1960s-1980s. HB and Ain to taught alongside theater and performance professor Brenda Foley and American Studies professor Kate Ratcliff in covering topical social movements -- including the local women's movement, RFD magazine, and the genesis and development of local Radical Faerie sanctuaries -- as well as instruction in the ethical and technical practices of collective oral histories.
In addition to teaching, Ain and HB conducted research trips to interview local folks who had participated in rural queer community building, experiences including not only the Andrew's Inn but also Packer's Corner, Total Loss Farm, and the Liberation New Service. They learned details including that Ann Stokes, who donated the land currently open to the public as Madame Sherri Forest, was also an investor in the Andrew’s Inn.
The story of Andrew’s Inn and contemporary resurrection of its history is a story of general waves of queer habitation and vitality in southern Vermont. "Now, I have a lot of queer friends who are older than me," notes HB, "But I know that's not true for lots of younger queer people. The intergenerational nature of this project is really special."
Something that younger queer people in this rural area may note from learning the histories of Andrew’s Inn is the current lack of spaces that prioritize queer community-- no gay bars, no brick-and-mortar community or event spaces. This dearth became especially evident after the shootings in Orlando in 2016. Although drinking establishments might not necessarily be our top priority -- it might not be true that "we don't need gay bars any more." While GMC hosts queer pop-up spaces and events by collaborating with justice-focused spaces like The Root, the executive director of GMC thinks the local community would benefit from a permanent queer-dedicated community space, a space offering safety, refuge, and home.
"We still need spaces for queer people, places like Andrew’s Inn which prioritized safety and cultural space for queer people, and really where all people could come and explore identity, examine life through a queer lens, where folks can come think about and perform gender in the ways they want to," says HB.
Andrew’s Inn itself existed as much more than a disco party and bucolic country retreat. Musicians and performance artists debuted work on the stage, co-counseling and substance abuse counseling groups ran out of the basement, and lasting friendships and community organizing were born. The queer community in southern Vermont became vibrant, not only drawing folks from far-away cities like Montreal, Boston, and New York, but also establishing and supporting strong networks for local gay and lesbian community. At certain points, this vibrancy felt sufficiently threatening to homophobic community members that Andrew’s Inn experienced broken windows, bomb threats, requests that local officials do something about "those people," and marches of folks chanting "get the faggots out of town."
This oral history project is only the first iteration of this research, and HB happily acknowledges its place in Green Mountain Crossroads’ political, social, and cultural trajectory. "This project directly expresses our mission of building community, visibility, knowledge, and power of rural LGBTQ people," they emphasize. "Collecting and creating cohesive accounts of our histories helps build collective memory and a location for our current communities to build upon, to continue to carve out space for ourselves. Queers have lived here, do live here, and movement work does and has happened here."
It's important for us to remember, they add, that queer people are not outsiders to rural community, but that we've always been here, and that being active and engaged often comes the processes of waking up, an experience catalyzed for many by moving through the world as queer.
Only six of over a dozen interviews will be presented at the upcoming opening of the Andrew’s Inn Oral History Project, and more interviews are lined up for this coming summer. HB encourages folks to get in touch if they have stories to share, acknowledging that there are so many more artifacts, stories, and lessons to convey. Audio clips will be available on the GMC website, along with Evie Lovett's portraits, and future tours of the projects at libraries and rural New England community centers are in the works.
To learn more and participate in the performances and festivities June 15-17, please visit www.greenmountaincrossroads.org