Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier
Every so often I’m asked to come and talk somewhere about my memoir, You’re Not From Around Here Are You? A Lesbian in Small-Town America, which is the story of meeting my partner, Connie, & our decision to become pregnant by alternative insemination, which resulted in our daughter, Zoe, all while living in a very small, very rural, very – conservative – town in north central PA. Though the book was published in 2001, it really describes the experience of the 90s, especially the early 90s, culminating in the birth of my daughter in 1995. Sometimes when I’m asked to speak now, so many years later, especially to students and people a lot younger than I am, I wonder if there’s anything in this book that might still be relevant. Maybe the culture of the country has changed so much that my experience doesn’t even matter anymore.
When I began teaching at Mansfield University in 1989, just putting the classroom chairs in a circle was a radical act. Even more radical was the fact that I refused to put them back into rows when class was over, because I felt that lectures and rows were an outmoded concept, and if the next professor wanted his (usually his) chairs in rows, he should do it himself. This battle continues today on our campus, though I am no longer alone in the fight.
When I began teaching at Mansfield, there was one stoplight, one bar, and one grocery store. There was one creative writing class. There were no classes in lesbian and gay literature – people were busy preserving the canon with all the fervor of religious conviction. Even writers of color were suspect. Women’s Studies and African-American Studies were still a couple years down the road.
So this is where & when I came of age as a grown-up – got my first tenure track teaching job, fell in love, decided to have a child. And it’s where & when I came out: as a lesbian.
I’ve never managed to do anything easily, at any point in my life.
Pretty much everybody I knew told me one of two things. Either: stay quiet. Or: move to a city. But it’s not part of my nature to stay quiet – I come from a long line of recalcitrant individuals. And as far as moving to a city – I kind of liked my small town.
I wanted to stay where I was. And be an out lesbian.
As it happened, I became a really out lesbian, because the local paper decided to do a front page spread on alternative families (i.e. on us) in the Sunday Paper, and we were the talk of the town for months. Letters to the editor called us sodomites, said they were sickened by the reports of us drinking our morning coffee and brushing our teeth. They said they wouldn’t tolerate us in their town, and questioned why the newspaper didn’t cover a story about “a Christian family for a change.” A local doctor cautioned that “diversity” shouldn’t become “Satan’s Playground,” while down at the county commissioners monthly meeting, one resident stood to express his concern that Tioga County would become “the San Francisco of the East.”
That was really pushing it.
Once we had Zoe, I somehow thought that things would change. Who would harass two women pushing a stroller through the park? But nothing changed. The presence of a baby did nothing to stop high school kids from throwing beer cans at our house, shouting epithets at us as they drove past, exhorting us to “go home,” even as we stood on the front steps of what we had thought was our home. And it didn’t stop them from stealing Zoe’s sandbox and all her toys out of the backyard one night, and when I saw her face when she ran outside to play that day, I knew we had to move. It might be possible to live as lesbians in God’s Country, if you could deal with the occasional harassment, but it wasn’t possible to raise a child there, not a child who hadn’t asked for any of this.
So we moved across the border to New York State, and things got better. My book came out, and people only celebrated it. No one has ever bothered us. Is this because of the difference in geography, or time? I suspect that people’s experiences are different now, even though a mere 10 to 15 years have passed. Everything is changing, all around us – same sex marriage in CT, MASS, IOWA, and now VT, where a 12 year old girl, the child of 2 lesbians, has changed everything. My students come out in classes regularly; they no longer seek me out for solace. I’m not sure they need it any more. There are classes in gay and lesbian film, & literature, and they’re not all taught by me.
Perhaps my book has become archival. Maybe it’s a historical record. This is what used to happen. Perhaps it will go the way of lesbian pulp fiction. I don’t know. Maybe you can tell me.