A Town Like No Other

Country-music fans gravitate to the Grand Ole Opry, painters dream of Provence and ski bums settle in Aspen. Lesbians have a mecca too. It's Northampton, Mass. a.k.a. Lesbianville, U.S.A. in a profile of the town las year, the National Enquire claimed that "10,000 cuddling, kissing lesbians call it home sweet home." While n one really knows how many o Northampton's 30,000 residents are homosexual women (the best guess is one in 10 women), lesbians are clearly an important and somewhat controversial presence. "It's more an issue of visibility than numbers," says Mayor Mary L. Ford, who is straight but has many lesbian supporters.

Every Monday night, the towes cable station telecasts "Out & About," a lesbian talk show. Lesbian tourists stay at bed and breakfasts just for women. Local bookstores sell lesbian erotica. There are five colleges nearby (including all female Smith and Mount Holyoke); lesbians and academics are the towes major cultural influences. Lesbians run a summer festival that draws thousands of women from around the country. All year long, there are regular performances by lesbian singers and comics. "If you're looking for lesbians, they're everywhere," says Diane Morgan, codirector of the festival.

Northampton has been a lesbian haven since the late 1970s. Many of the pioneers were Smith and Mount Holyoke alumnae attracted by cheap living and a tolerant community. Friends followed, revitalizing the aging downtown with cafes and hip clubs. "I came because I wanted to meet other women like me," says Aliza Ansell, 34. In the early '80s, says Ansell, a codirector of the arts festival, the Zeitgeist was different: it was a "pretty radical, scary community." The politically correct uniform was flannel shirts and work boots.

That intensity survives in some parts of Northampton. One women's bookstore, Lunaria, still won't carry any books by men. But many lesbians say that there are so many of their own in Northampton that they now feel relaxed enough to dress any way they want and read anything they want. "in this town, you don't have to wear your sexuality like a flag," says Morgan, who wears her hair in a blond bob and uses lipstick. "You don't need the uniform to be able to spot each other in a crowd."

Motherhood was once taboo, but now, more and more Northampton lesbians are having babies, usually through artificial insemination. There are parenting classes and a day-care center for children of lesbian mothers. One of the more famous residents, Leslea Newman, wrote "Heather Has Two Mommies," the book that was used to bring down New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez. Newman got the idea after a lesbian mother stopped her as she was walking past and asked her to write a book she could read to her daughters. "Only in Northampton," says Newman, "would a woman know who I was on the street and ask me a question like that."

Media 'hype': At Smith, the lesbian "invasion" has been a public-relations minefield. Although she supports the college's own lesbian community, Smith president Mary Maples Dunn has criticized the media for overemphasizing the lesbian presence on campus and in town. There have been numerous complaints from alumnae about more lurid stories, such as the Enquirer's, but Smith officials say contributions are down only slightly. They deny the drop is related to publicity about lesbians. At the same time, they say, applications are at a record high.

Some residents say lesbians have become too visible. "You can see them making love almost anyplace," says Caroline Brandt, 71, registrar of the local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. "I was walking down the street the other day and I saw an open parked car. Two of them were going to town in there."

Northampton isn't utopia for all lesbians, either. It's mostly a white community, with few minorities. "I'm waiting to go to Berkeley or New York," says one black Amherst College student who wears her hair in dreadlocks and is studying to be a percussionist in an Afrofunk band,

But most of Northampton's lesbian residents feel at home and accepted by their neighbors. "It is a good minority of the population, but it doesn't bother me," says Mark Brumberg, owner of The Globe, Northampton's main literary bookstore. "This is an open community." At the North Star, a restaurant and nightclub owned by lesbians, gays dance next to straight couples. "After living here for a couple of years," says Diane Morgan, "you begin to forget what it's like in the real world." But she's sure of one thing: the real world is nothing like Northampton.