When I was growing up and explaining my family background to people, I spoke the phrase “my dad was raised by lesbians on Deer Isle” in the same tone of voice as “my mom lived in Germany for a few years as a kid.”

Both are statements of fact, a little out of the ordinary but nothing wild. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize how radical that aspect of my dad’s childhood was. Because it wasn’t just Grandma Shirley and Grandma Joanie in the woods of Deer Isle. Their house, Birchbend, became a gathering point for a community of queer women – most of them, but probably not all of them, lesbians. I know this because when my father died, among the things I inherited was a box full of old photographs depicting their lives. 

Most of these photographs are Polaroids, some loose, others organized into old scrapbooks. I’ve dated them to the 1970s using my archival training, and by “archival training,” I mean: an observation of the incredibly 1970s haircuts, fashion and home decor (homosexuality may not be an abomination unto the Lord, but some of those bellbottoms sure were); a giant Lily Tomlin poster in the back of several images; the presence of my dad in the back of various pictures, going from toddler to awkward teenager, and the few photographs that have dates scribbled onto them: 1973, 1974, 1976.

Some of the photographs have names on them: Kathy, Diana, Hester. The only photograph containing a full name is a photograph of a cat, apparently named Hatty Green, dated 1974. There are newspaper clippings from an incident in 1975; apparently my grandmothers, who were both in wheelchairs at that time, had their van stolen in Boston. Most of the language wouldn’t fly today. The women were referred to as both “crippled” and “confined,” and of course there was no mention at all of the true nature of their relationship. They were called “friends” and “companions,” even though Joanie, in one of the photographs, is wearing men’s clothing and a giant pendant of the female gender symbol. It might be the gayest image in the whole album. 

Some of the photographs are nature scenes. The beauty of Maine’s coast hasn’t changed in 50 years. Quite a few contain various animals: dogs, cats, a baby skunk – the stereotypes about lesbians having motley collections of rescue animals has roots in fact. Some are of mothers and small children, because queer families have been raising children for a long time now. And if you think that being raised by gay parents makes kids gay, know that my dad was raised in this lesbian paradise and turned out to be a steak-grilling, beer-drinking, red-blooded heterosexual American male. There are images of women playing guitars, singing and making silly faces. There are women sitting in each other’s laps, exchanging kisses and holding hands.

If you think new pronouns or unusual spellings for terminology are something new, let me tell you, I found a bunch of flyers in the box for a store in Connecticut called “Wimminswood.” That was the store’s actual name, a store that appeared to sell nothing but hand-carved pendants. (Lo and behold, many of the women in the photographs seem to have a passion for statement necklaces!)


If you think gay marriage is a new fad, I would show you the photos of Geri and Karen. Unlike the rest of the pictures, these ones are clearly professionally taken. Whoever assembled this album also taped in an invitation. It says “Please Join Us At Our Union; Jan 31, 7:00pm, Old West Church, 131 Cambridge Street, Boston. Reception Following at Sheri & Lois.” I guess the recipient of the invitation was just supposed to know who Sheri and Lois were. I wish I did. The pictures show two women in front of an altar, holding candles, holding hands, with a pastor clearly wearing a stole and reading from something. There are pictures of them cutting a cake together, two hands on one knife. The photographer has framed their hands, and rings are clearly visible on the traditional ring fingers. This is a wedding. Maybe not one recognized by a government, but one recognized by a church and by a community. It’s clearly two women swearing union to each other before their god. 

Did you know that Maine didn’t repeal its statutory laws criminalizing same-sex sexual activity until 1976? My grandmothers and their friends could have been arrested. And yet, there they were, living and loving and taking pictures of it. As we see new laws cropping up all over the country targeting gender expression, I’m beginning to understand just how brave Joan and Shirley were.  

There is a conservative backlash sweeping through America right now. Two of its targets are queer people and the study of history. The shoebox under my bed is an analog slap in the face to the forces that would erase those things. As we reach the end of Pride month, I’m honored to be carrying on the long legacy of queer Mainers. 

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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