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Berkshire County’s longest-running LGBTQ+ group is taking on a new project: to Make Berkshire History Queer Again

Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition
Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition
Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition

October is LGBT History Month, and Berkshire County’s oldest LGBTQ+ non-profit organization is celebrating with a new project aimed at capturing the community’s experiences in the region. The Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition’s Queer History Project is collecting stories, artifacts, and media into a publicly accessible archive. Organizers say it’s an effort to paint a more vivid picture of a community deeply interwoven into the Berkshires, but long forced into the margins. On Sunday, the project is holding a screening of never-before-seen archival interviews with queer Berkshire locals at Hot Plate Brewing Company in Pittsfield. Andrew Fitch of Berkshire Stonewall and North Adams Pride spoke with WAMC.

FITCH: A couple of passionate board members started this project and started interviewing people, queer history makers of the Berkshires, years ago. And they started interviewing these folks, some of them on camera, some of them just in written form. They started collecting artifacts and evidence of Berkshires queer history. For example, older news articles about some of the earlier queer activities back in the 70s, actually- A group of people gathered in Pittsfield. That was collected. To my understanding, the reasoning here, or the reason that this came up, is because we didn't want to lose this history. And so, in order to curate, to record, to preserve, and also to share this history, they thought it was really important to interview as many people as possible before it was too late, before those opportunities were lost. And so, they interviewed several different- To my understanding, they focused especially on the senior members of our community and interviewed them. So, this data is being held. And in current days, aka today, right now, the focus is on getting as many people as possible to participate in this. So, not necessarily just former queer history makers, but current day and future queer history makers from all around the Berkshires,

WAMC: From the materials that you've seen or that you've collected or what have you – from the archives, or from more recent efforts – give us a scope of the range of narratives that this project is uncovering.

One of the ones that I was aware of is sharing the story of, his name is Warren Hawkes of Pittsfield. He was actually one of the founding members of what was once called Berkshire Community Gay Coalition. So, in the 1970s, he had moved from somewhere else to Pittsfield, and had got to know some other out members of the LGBTQ+ community. And they came together in Pittsfield, and he was sharing the story of how they came together – and I believe it was 1976 – and sharing the story about how nervous they were, because to their knowledge, and to my knowledge, as well, I think to all of our knowledge, there wasn't really any kind of activity that was visible to the broader community in the Berkshires at the time. So, they actually even apparently had an article written about it in the Berkshire Eagle on the front page, in 1976. So, they told a really interesting and beautiful story of that. And, to their surprise, they admitted, they had at about 85 people show up for that first meeting. So, it went better than they were expecting. There was a Williamstown resident who was sharing stories of moving to the Berkshires and how warm and receptive people were to them and to their partner. And then some of the more recent stories that I've heard as well, people talking about how there's so much opportunity here to dive in and to make an impact and how receptive people are, in spite of the fact there hasn't been a lot of visible LGBTQ+ activities or initiatives or events. There are lots now. And so, it's really, it's very exciting to be here right now- To be here, and to be queer right now.

Break down for me why this is important. What is the crux of this project? Why is it something that we should be invested in as a community?

That's a great question, and thank you for asking it. Yeah, sure. So, I didn't come to the realization that I myself was gay until I was honestly in high school, maybe even in college, I fully let myself actually admit that to me, to me and to everybody. That's the case for most of us. And you know, I'm 39 years old. To people who are older than me, they were likely closeted for longer, not able to be their true selves in society, because the society was not always ready to accept the LGBTQIA+ community. It was still very much oppressed at that time, and still today is very much oppressed in different populations- Not always in Massachusetts and the Berkshires, but there is still a stigma around it. So, because of this, back in the day, in 1976 for example, we were not able to really share our history or to fully participate visibly in society. And so that history, unless we're recording these stories, unless we're sharing these stories, unless we’re collecting the few artifacts that we have of queer activities at the time, they will truly be lost, because they were very rarely published in mainstream media, they were very rarely captured in films and interviews like this at the time. So, that's why we think it's so important- Otherwise, this history will be gone, and people will not remember that it existed because they will not have seen it or heard it.

Anything about this I've not thought to ask you that you think is important folks understand about either the upcoming event in Pittsfield or the project writ large?

We have a GoFundMe fundraiser right now. It's called Make Berkshire History Queer, exclamation mark. There's a little teaser video in there that shares the first story that we captured, and we're seeking to raise funds because we need more recording equipment for one, we need the data storage ability so that we can record and hold a large amount of data. We do not have these right now. So honestly, in order to capture more stories, we need more equipment, we need better equipment, and we also need to be able to better photograph and better present these when we are ready to have larger events in the not-too-distant future. So, folks, if you're able to pitch in at all, whether or not you're on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, we would love your support and we would love your support in helping to preserve and share this history of ours.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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