One weekend during high school, my mother, grandmother, a friend of mine, and I drove to Northampton, Massachusetts. Northampton is about 45 minutes from where I grew up, and yet until that weekend, I’d never been there, and was only marginally aware that it even existed. When I returned to school that Monday and reported my weekend adventures to a friend, she said, shocked, “Isn’t that where all the gay people live?”
I have no idea what my response was. I didn’t remember thinking Northampton seemed particulary anything, except for lovely and idyllic, an impression I would keep and return to when it came to choosing a college three years later. This visit happened before I’d really begun to think about sexuality in any deep way, but not before I had an understanding of feminism and began to use the word to characterize myself and my politics. I didn’t associate allyship with feminism, or with anything, really. I didn’t have the word, I only knew that this new town felt safe and inspiring, and that I had been looking for a place like it without being aware of it.
Years later, I still return to Northampton. It’s where my friends live, and the place that made me who I am, or created the space, at the very least, for me to start to become her. I think of that question often, though:“Isn’t that where all the gay people live?” In some ways, it was that question that started so many things going in my brain, including, what kind of question was that? So what if gay people lived there? (My friend seemed to not understand that there were gay people in our high school and also in our group of friends.) How was I supposed to feel about that? Did other people think I was gay if I went there? Should I be fearful of that? Why? What did it mean that I wasn’t?
I’ve been thinking a lot about allyship lately-namely that a lack of fear and the presence of ambivalence (“I don’t care what those people do,”) does not an ally make. What’s hard about the concept of allyship is the fact that it requires putting oneself in an uncomfortable position and why would you ever do that when you could remain safely ensconced in the world created and maintained by your own privilege? The answer is different for everyone, of course, who chooses to be an ally. The story of the town I’ve come to think of as mine, as the beginning of myself, is only the start of understanding my motivations. Without knowing the story, and without telling it, maintaining the momentum to work for justice is much harder.