M.V. Museum holds first Progress Pride Forum

LGBTQ community share their experiences. 

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Updated July 7

Pride Month this year brought significant milestones for the LGBTQ community. The first official Pride parade marched through the streets of Oak Bluffs on June 11, and the Progress Pride flag flew high on the town’s flagpole, after much contention. On the last day of Pride Month, the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard hosted the first Progress Pride Forum at Martha’s Vineyard Museum. 

The event began with a welcome and an acknowledgment of the original stewards of American lands, the indigenous people. According to education and programs manager Norah Messier, this land acknowledgment is a custom for museum events. 

“We here at the museum really wanted to begin building authentic and genuine relationships with all of the communities on this Island. We are a community museum, and we understand as an institution with power, that not everybody has always felt included in a place like this, and we are on a mission to change that,” Messier told the crowd, who also expressed hope this will be the first of annual Progress Pride Forums. 

A group of panelists from different LGBTQ generations shared their experiences having a non-straight sexual orientation in a heteronormative society. One of the panelists was Jennelle Gadowski, a key organizer of the forum. 

“There’s a lot of queer history that people don’t know, or is kind of hidden away … So, I just want everyone to be aware of how we are able to be here today, just open and proud and queer,” Gadowski said, adding that “the very existence” of the LGBTQ community is threatened, referencing precedent a slew of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have potentially set. “I just want to make sure that we’re all here together to celebrate us and have some hope and positivity.”

The discussion began with the earlier days of the LGBTQ community on Martha’s Vineyard. “Where did it all begin?” Messier asked. 

“We need Dan and Hal up here,” panelist Susanna Sturgis called out. 

Harvey (“Hal”) Garneau Jr., who is married to West Tisbury moderator Dan Waters, and recently wrote about his experience as a gay man in the op-ed “A flag of many colors” (June 1), went up onstage and told the audience he had always known he was gay. However, he hid it while growing up in Oak Bluffs.  

“This was back in the 1960s and ’70s. You didn’t want anybody to know you were gay at all. You just didn’t,” Garneau said. He said that while some people were “obvious” with their gay identity, others had to be introduced to other gay people through friends, and explore themselves. 

Garneau continued with a recollection of an ad in the Island newspapers in 1988 inviting “anybody who might be gay” to come together to create a social group, which he, Waters, and a few friends attended. The gathering attracted a group split roughly in half between men and women, which is also where Garneau met Sturgis and other friends. These get-togethers evolved to become the Island Lesbian and Gay Association. The monthly group also made a newsletter titled “Stonewalls,” which some recipients wanted to be wrapped in a covering so people they knew would remain ignorant about their sexual orientation. The association continued to grow, and over 20 of the members later marched in the Boston Pride parade in 1990. These activities culminated in the real start of the “social gayness” on the Vineyard, according to Garneau. 

Garneau said as being gay became less of a stigma, the association “sort of dissolved,” as it wasn’t really needed to the same extent as before. He said while being gay isn’t easy, each successive generation has shoulders to stand on to continue the fight, like his generation standing on the shoulders of those at the Stonewall protests.

Sturgis said she was very active in the lesbian and feminist movement in Washington, D.C. and a lot of the “weirdness” surrounding LGBTQ discourse had to do with former President Ronald Reagan’s administration. In particular, there was a lot of misinformation surrounding the AIDS epidemic. 

“I was astonished by how little it was being talked about when I got [to Martha’s Vineyard] in the mid and late ’80s,” she said. “I was working for The Martha’s Vineyard Times for a lot of this time, and I would go to public events, educational events and, swear to God, you would get the impression the only way you could get AIDS was from blood transfusions and dirty needles. People did not want to talk about sex of any kind.”

Sturgis said this and other needs, such as addiction, in the gay community on Martha’s Vineyard led to the rise of the AIDS Alliance and the Crossover Ball. These efforts were done to get the various Island services together to extend their offerings. Additionally, Sturgis said the gay community and their allies had to resist adversarial people, by writing letters to the editor in response to a “raging homophobe” on Cape Cod, protecting some of the earliest gay and lesbian children’s books at Oak Bluffs School from getting pulled off the shelves in 1993, and calling out an evangelical preacher, who is no longer on the Island, calling AIDS “the scourge of the homosexuals.” 

“That helped a lot of us realize we couldn’t be as clandestine as we really wanted to be, that we needed to be out there,” Sturgis said. “At least, so other people can find us.” 

“I’m going to flash-forward to 1992,” panelist Scott Mullin said. “I actually came out late.” 

Mullin said a part of his coming out as gay late was because it was uncomfortable on the Island. However, he met new people and came to understand himself more while in graduate school in Boston, which allowed him to be more open about his sexuality upon returning to Martha’s Vineyard and finding his own small community. 

Panelist Lydia Fischer said she was in a “lucky spot,” since “there were a lot of us” when she was a junior at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) in the 2000s. 

“We kind of found our little clique, and I think we kind of incubated ourselves in there,” Fischer said. Although nothing “terrible” happened in school, she did have some negative experiences elsewhere. “I do think we were relatively accepted, but maybe not necessarily nurtured.”

Fischer was able to “flourish” with her sense of identity in college, and like Mullin, found her community on the Island. 

After more sharing from the panelists, audience members also shared their experiences. 

Lux Kisselgof, an MVRHS student, said the high school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance felt pressure to be almost an advertising unit. She also said MVRHS is still “very heteronormative and cisnormative,” and while she acknowledged the efforts the school has put in, there is more work to be done to the culture. 

Caroline Caden, self-described as a queer historian from Athens, Ga., said preserving LGBTQ history, which runs counter to the “traditional” history of the U.S., is important. This importance is magnified “when our rights are under attack,” Caden said, mentioning anti-trans bills taking effect in Alabama. 

“We’re fighting down there. I came up here to take a breather, because it’s just a lot,” they said. “Keep recording your history, your oral history, documents, donate to the museum. By doing this, it’s an act saying to the Supreme Court, ‘No, we’ve always existed.’”

During her talk, panelist Mary Breslauer made a pitch to the audience to do outreach beyond the Cape and Islands. 

“It’s time to cross Buzzards Bay. We need to extend help to other states, other communities facing that, and we can do that by our example here,” Breslauer said. “I’m totally committed to the local LGBTQ history of Martha’s Vineyard, but man oh man, I think we’re back in the AIDS days in the sense of what’s coming at us. And for everybody in our progressive community who never cared about the makeup of the Supreme Court, I hope they’ve learned that lesson.” 

Updated with the name and preferred pronouns of Caroline Caden.