Miss Ginger Soulless (a.k.a. Paulee Mekdeki) from the Keene Pride Drag Show performs at the Bellows Falls Festival in Bellows Falls on June 11.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Miss Ginger Soulless (a.k.a. Paulee Mekdeki) from the Keene Pride Drag Show performs at the Bellows Falls Festival in Bellows Falls on June 11.

Making a rainbow visible

A diverse group comes together to bring a month of Pride Month events in Bellows Falls, a noted destination for LGBTQ people in the days of gay liberation.

BELLOWS FALLS — What started out as a few random events celebrating LGBTQ Pride month in June has snowballed into a cohesive program of more than a dozen events that have included movies, concerts, a drag show, dances, picnics, an Amtrak whistle stop, displays, a photo exhibit, and more.

“It all just fell into place,” said Susan MacNeil, a member of Keene Pride and a founding member of the Pride Planning Committee. “We began by thinking it would be nice to book four films, and then just couldn't stop brainstorming!”

MacNeil has been working on the ad hoc committee organizing the celebration with Aaron Almanza, Michael Bruno, Betsy Thurston, Elijah Zimmer, and Gail Golec.

Almanza is executive director of the LGBT National Help Center, which operates the oldest LGBT hotline in the nation, dating back to the 1970s. He lived in this area decades ago before moving to San Francisco, and he returned to the Upper Valley when the Covid pandemic started. Living in Claremont, New Hampshire, he has been working for the LGBTQ community in the region since his return.

From one film, a celebration

Almanza knew about the Classic Film Series on Wednesday evenings at the Bellows Falls Opera House, where community members and groups can sponsor screenings of specific films.

He said that recently, while in line waiting to buy tickets for a film there, he heard two women behind him making derogatory comments about LGBTQ people.

Almanza said that he found the incident upsetting and decided on the spot that the community should have a showing of the 2014 British film Pride on a Classic Film Night in June.

The film is based on true events that unfolded in 1984, when Welsh coal miners went on strike for a full year to improve working conditions and wages. A group of lesbian and gay activists in London decided to raise funds in support of the striking miners to everyone's surprise, including the miners themselves and the extended gay community.

The activists felt that the miners and the gay and lesbian communities were facing the same enemies in the Margaret Thatcher–led government and in a militarized police force that broke up pickets and protests from both groups with clubs and violence.

The gay and lesbian activists faced a backlash, at times a violent one, on two fronts: from the gay community, who felt their efforts should be directed at raising money to fight the developing AIDS epidemic, and from homophobes among the miners. Pride is a funny and at times deeply tragic telling of the story of how the two diverse groups eventually learned to appreciate each other and work together.

The LGBT Hotline sponsored the film on June 14.

At the same time, Keene Pride had also been involved in creating a Pride film event in Bellows Falls for June, booking the cult classic Priscilla, Queen of the Desert for Wednesday, June 7. When MacNeil and Almanza realized they were working on similar projects, they decided to try to add two more films and have a full month of Pride movies.

They soon had But I'm a Cheerleader booked for June 21 and the multi-award-winning film Moonlight for June 28.

A 'beautiful,' 'organic,' and 'symbiotic' process

It wasn't long before more people and more Pride Month events began to be added. “It was an incredibly beautiful, organic, symbiotic process,” MacNeil said.

Storefronts and businesses decorated their windows in Pride colors and displays. Downtown coffee shops Rockingham Roasters and the Flat Iron Cooperative have been offering cookies and cupcakes in Pride rainbow colors, and the bridge over the historic Bellows Falls canal has displayed the hues all month.

M&T Bank donated $1,000 to the Pride Planning Committee, and a 30-foot Pride-colors banner was created, hanging first at the historic Bellows Falls depot and later in The Square.

The first Bellows Falls Music Festival at the Waypoint Center on June 10 featured the Keene Pride Drag Show, which offered performances to an enthusiastic, supportive crowd.

More events “began to unfold as things fell into place,” MacNeil said.

That included local artist and community activist Charlie Hunter having a connection with seminal punk rock musician Jon Langford of the highly influential groups The Mekons and the Waco Brothers.

Langford, an activist and a Welshman, is very familiar with the 1984 miners strike and counts among his friends some from the cast of the Pride film.

Hunter got Langford to come to Bellows Falls as a special guest for the film event, where he performed a free concert at the Flat Iron Cooperative just before Pride was shown on June 14.

On June 11, Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., the first woman and openly LGBTQ person to represent Vermont in Congress, took part in the Amtrak Pride Whistlestop Tour when the Vermonter stopped in Bellows Falls on its tour of Amtrak stations all over Vermont and New Hampshire.

On June 17, the Field Center, a performance, dance, and arts education center in Rockingham, hosted a Queer T-Dance and picnic.

Early in June, the Exner Block Gallery hosted a photo exhibit - “The Cultural Cross Between Mayberry and Fire Island” - about the Andrews Inn, an historic gay bar in the village and key to the region's involvement in the gay rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

“There was nothing formal about this,” MacNeil said. “This all came out of a community interest to do this work. We had no money. People just volunteered, and we figured out how to make these things happen.”

“It all just fell into place,” she said.

Andrews Inn

In 1973, local resident John Moisis founded the Andrews Inn in the Windham Hotel building on The Square.

Andrews Inn, in business from 1973 to 1984, provided bars, discos, lodging, and food in a place where urban and rural LGBTQ people could freely gather in comparative safety and acceptance.

Gail Golec, a local archaeologist who writes and produces The Secret Life of Death, had been working on a six-part series for the podcast which would focus on exploring the complicated and controversial history of Andrews Inn.

One source for her podcast was the Andrews Inn Oral History Project, created by HB Lozito, executive director of the LGBTQ nonprofit Out In the Open in 2015. Through interviews with people involved with the Inn in its heyday, the project created an extensive oral history of the rural LGBTQ community in this area.

The Inn was eventually sold in 1979 to Thom Herman and Jeremy Youst, who operated it until it closed in 1984.

It existed at a time of unprecedented cultural change. Vermont was a center of the back-to-the-land movement, which had both a gay element and a strong feminist and lesbian contingent in the state.

Gay rights and women's rights were in the forefront of the culture, but at the same time the devastating AIDS epidemic broke onto the scene in the 1980s.

Having Andrews Inn as a space for local, rural LGBTQ people, and as a country destination for visitors from Boston and New York, was historic for that tumultuous period.

Golec will be presenting the final episode of her podcast, called “Identity,” live at the 33 Bridge listening room in Bellows Falls on Friday, June 23.

One thing became clear as more and more people talked about their experiences at Andrews Inn. While it was definitely a gay bar, it was also regularly attended by straight, cisgender locals, who describe it as a safe place to party, dance, and have a good time.

Robert McBride, one of the participants in the oral history project, said he came to Bellows Falls because of friends and their connection with Andrews Inn in the very early 1980s.

“This was long before LGBTQ language began to replace the idea of gay rights,” McBride said. “It was the climate of the late '70s and early '80s. There just weren't that many places outside of urban areas that were safe for the gay and lesbian community.”

“The Inn was a wonderful old railroad hotel,” McBride said. “Straight people would come in all the time and dance. We had straight friends come in with their whole wedding party. If you were open to having fun, it was a great place to go dancing.”

McBride would soon buy a home and other properties in the village, create the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, and become an integral part of local politics, community activism, and village redevelopment.

He said that he eventually moved permanently to Bellows Falls not because it had a gay inn, but because he “loved that it was such a great village.”

Protests and violence

Not everyone in the village was happy that it was home to a gay inn. There were protest marches against gay rights. McBride remembers that there would often be local people waiting outside the inn at night looking to cause trouble.

“The only place I've ever been beaten up is Bellows Falls,” said McBride, who was with a friend when both were attacked one night after leaving the inn. He was beaten to the ground and had his collarbone broken.

“There are always going to be haters,” McBride said. “There are always going to be people who don't want change. But I do believe we've made progress. Things and people evolve.”

With so many people exposed to LGBTQ people on television and in movies, with so many people coming to find that they have friends, family, and coworkers who are LGBTQ, he said, how can there not be change?

McBride said he holds no animosity toward the men who attacked him and his friend that night. In fact, he said he'd like to meet and talk to them now.

“Maybe they've evolved,” he said. “Maybe they own a local business now. Or maybe they are someone I interact with all the time - my mechanic, or the person who mows my lawn.”

“The important thing is for people to come together,” he said, “and not stay in your own little compound.”

To that end, the final June Pride event in Bellows Falls will be a free community dance open to all ages at the Moose Lodge on Friday, June 30 at 7 p.m.

The dance's theme?

“Love Will Keep Us Together.”

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