BackCAST Cape Ann: LGBTQ Community on Cape Ann
Episode 1: Wendy Fitting
This transcript was edited for clarity and length.
Photo credit: Gloucester Writers Center
Listen to the full episode: Episode 1: Wendy Fitting
The stories you hear as part of BackCAST Cape Ann’s series on the LBGTQ community highlights their contribution, care, and activism. It’s a look back at experiences, significant moments, and persistent memories.
For this episode in our series on the LBGTQ community, I speak with the Reverend Wendy Fitting, minister emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Gloucester. She retired in 2013 having spent 24 years as pastor at the church. Wendy graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1989. She’s a Gloucester resident.
Wendy Fitting (WF): I graduated from a private girls school in 1967, and I was desperate to be in New York City. I went to New York University, Washington Square College. For my entire life, I’ve been drawn to women, usually teachers, mentors, people I respected, but really drawn to them. I had boyfriends when I went to NYU, but I was very much attached to my roommate in college. I began to feel that there was something wrong with me, but I had no language for it. I can’t ever remember hearing the word gay or lesbian. It’s interesting to think about that now because it’s part of who I am, part of our culture, and it’s not a hidden any more.
I went through some pretty rocky places. I moved to Boston with my boyfriend after leaving NYU. Luckily, my school chum from NYU said to me, “You have got to read Jill Johnston’s column in The Village Voice.” And of course The Village Voice was something I read when I was in New York. I was living in Brighton, and down the street from me was a corner shop that sold it. I read Jill Johnston every week because she came out and was writing a blog about being gay. I was probably 23 at the time. I still had a boyfriend. I broke up with him. I went to the Cambridge Women’s Center and got connected with gay women, lesbians, whatever you want to call them and that was amazing.
Maureen Aylward (MA): Tell me about how you made your way to Cape Ann.
WF: Before I came to Cape Ann I was connected with the Cambridge Women’s Center and was very involved in the lesbian community, the lesbian feminist community. I want to say something about that because it was very constricting. I jumped into that world.
MA: What time frame are we talking about?
WF: This was the early 1970s. I characterize it as all of us on the same bus, all these lesbians, and we all had to have the same haircuts and the same clothes. We all had freedom names and there was a lot of pressure to say the right thing and not say the wrong thing and it just rubbed against my sense of me as an individual. I did that for a number of years. I listened to a lot of bad lesbian music and pretended to like it.
MA: What is bad lesbian music?
WF: It was all like, “Any woman can be a lesbian. Every woman basically is a lesbian.” It was like, “Lesbian Nation.” The political agenda in the lyrics ruined the music. I pretended to like this stuff because I wanted to fit in. Eventually I just broke out of there.
When I came out, I was working for a private detective agency in Boston and meeting all kinds of amazing people. Pretty edgy job. I was feeling like busting out of whatever camp I was in, whether it was the Heart Church School for Girls or the bus of the lesbian feminists. I was at a point in my life where I was drawing from a tremendous source of being free and really finding out who I was. It was liberating. I didn’t want to be contained. As part of this being released, being out on my own journey, I examined my dream of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. I wanted to do this from the time I was a junior in high school. I was madly in love with Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was very committed to this idea. It just felt right.
One of the most liberating experiences that I had, and one that put me on the path toward ministry, was working at the Fernald State School in Waltham, MA, which is the oldest institution in the Western Hemisphere for people labeled mentally disabled. I went there to redeem myself from the detective agency, which was pretty edgy. I worked at Fernald as a ward attendant, and I learned more about humanity at Fernald than I ever learned out in the world.
I had dropped out at NYU, so to move forward in my job in the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, I got a degree from the Antioch Program in Cambridge. After working there for 12 years, I wanted to get out of that field. I moved to Cape Ann to get out of the city, and hadn’t realized that I had ancestors buried here. My great grandmother and her brother came from Sweden, lived in Pigeon Cove, and we visited a few times. I always loved Cape Ann.
MA: So you lived in Rockport when you moved up here? And was there a gay community here back in the ’70s?
WF: Yes, there was. When I moved here I did not know a lot of people. I had to go away for a weekend and had a cat and my upstairs neighbor recommended a woman to take care of my cat. When I got back, Jill, the cat sitter, had perused my book and record collection that probably had some of that old bad lesbian music. When I got back, she very, very tentatively said, “I’m giving you the gay discount.” I was like, “Oh great.” I got to know her and her partner and they were great friends. It happened initially that I connected with people who were gay, women mostly, and that made living up here even better. I didn’t need a lot of convincing because I wanted to be here and I was still working and commuting to Boston, and then I quit.
I applied to Harvard Divinity School. I thought, “This is the time.” I got in and didn’t have money, but it was the kind of opportunity that very few people have to realize their dream of what they want. I was attracted to parish ministry, but the thing that I wanted was to be on Cape Ann. When I was just about finished with my degree, I was asked to check out a job at the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist church. I didn’t even know it existed. The Gloucester church was on its way out. There was a sign on the front door of that unbelievably beautiful building that said, “No trespassing, police take notice.” So they were on the edge of even closing.
I applied for a job that was partially funded by the Unitarian Universalist Association specifically to revive a failing, dying church. There was no question in my mind that if I got hired I would do it. Here was the opportunity to do the thing that I really loved doing, living in a place that I loved, and finding a job right next door.
The woman who represented the Unitarian Universalist Association met with the board at the Gloucester church, most of whom were elderly people who’d grown up there and whose parents grew up there. During her conversation with the church board, she told them that I was gay. They had only met me briefly, but it threw them for a loop. I mean, they took a while to catch their breath, and I waited for them to do that. I felt strongly that I wanted the hiring committee to know me as a person and not have the gay label affix itself to me and obscure everything else that I was: my eye color, my height, my philosophy, my humor, everything that I am. I was worried that these people who may not be familiar with gay people and are perhaps scared of them, that being gay would be all that they would see.
So, I didn’t get mad. I wasn’t mad at all. I thought it was a bonehead move on the part of this woman from the UUA who was actually a friend. The hiring committee hired me. I knew that the way that we were going to save the church and bring people in was that first we had to establish trust. I recognized that this was their sacred place. So I didn’t come in with an agenda to change everything and make it friendly to young people or gay people; we just needed to build trust.
MA: So this was a Cape Ann first. You were a woman…
WF: And short and gay…
MA: You’re a woman, you’re short, and you’re gay. This was a significant moment for a church on Cape Ann, especially a church with such an incredible history of firsts. They go ahead and hire you.
WF: It really was a leap of faith. If I had gone after them with a complaint or some sort of homophobic blah blah, it would never have worked. It’s all about building trust in relationships and acknowledging that the original group of people who hired me, mostly women, very powerful women, had devoted tremendous time and love and energy into that church. I appreciated that. I guess there’s a certain amount of courage that goes into this. I didn’t feel afraid. I knew who I was. I knew that if they got to know me that we would be okay, and we were.
MA: So you took the church forward in so many different ways and I would love for you to tell a story about a marriage, a special marriage that happened in 1994.
WF: Long before gay marriage was legal in Massachusetts, I met Peter Stickle and John Bumstead through my work in the gay community; it was a great love story. John is a cellist and Peter is a violinist. They started the New England String Ensemble and fell in love and came to me and said, “We want to get married.” I said, “Great.” I knew that there was work to be done and some hand-holding and questions answered to make it happen at the church. We met and planned; they wanted to be married a year later in June to involve their families, and they knew an event like this would take time.
I started to figure out some good political tools. I knew that I had to get the support of the pillar of the church who was, at the time, the chair of the board. Virginia Toomey was also the head of the Women’s Guild. She was very powerful, the most powerful person in the church. I went to her house and I said, “I would like to have your support for a gay marriage. I’m not going to ask permission because I would not do that with a straight couple, but I’d like the board’s support because this is different.” And she said, “Who else knows about this?” and I said, “I’m coming to you first.” I told her about John and Peter. She agreed. At the next board meeting, she said, “Wendy wants to ask us for her support on this issue.” I explained the marriage to the board. There were pale faces, silence, and Becky Parnell, who had been a Universalist forever, said, “It would be against our principles to not support this.”
The wedding was great, but I think that the behind-the-scenes process was remarkable and wonderful. Some of the board were getting nervous as we were coming up to the wedding, so we meet again at Virginia Toomey’s house. I wanted them to have the opportunity to ask me anything because I knew the perceptions about gay people were so sexualized, and this was a barrier. It’s unfortunate, and it still is, in a way, and that’s a problem. I think meeting with them made a difference.
It was a very formal wedding. The flutist from the BSO did all the music. Everybody came: the community and all the people from the board went to this wonderful reception. Everyone was welcome. They were proud of what we had done. I was proud.
About a week later, there was a fire in the church. It was set in one of the wells by one of the outside windows, the windows to the basement. It didn’t amount to anything, thank god. Thank you Gloucester Fire Department. A few days later I was on the lawn of the church and a car drove by on Church Street and someone yelled, “Next time we’ll burn it down.” So I would say that the fire was somewhat an intimidation attempt. I didn’t report it to the police or anything. I love Gloucester. Gloucester is full of all kinds of different kinds of people. There are people who are our eccentrics. Gloucester is a welcoming community in a very different way than the gay community in the city, the bus mentality that I talked about earlier.
MA: And what’s the difference that you see?
WF: I would say that it’s much more integrated here, but the safety issue is important to understand. When I was at NYU, I lived in the West Village and I was coming home from school, it was dark, it was night. I walked right through two nights of the Stonewall riots and demonstrations. It was dangerous to be out and gay, very dangerous. It still is, I think, in places. So gay people tend to retreat and be with their own people. This makes sense for safety and for relationships and support and to celebrate your culture.
People on Cape Ann tend to come to settle. Gloucester is a community where you can have a place, even if you’re an eccentric. There’s much less of a stigma. The people who come, the gay people who live here, they’re not in a mode of in-your-face gay. It’s not a sexualized thing. Not any community would be a place where you can be a neighbor who’s gay, who’s married or partnered, and your neighbors invite you over for supper and you invite them over for supper. It’s a context that I think most people take for granted. In Gloucester, there was a realized possibility of integration. Gay people don’t want to be isolated, we want to be in a real place with a root system.
MA: What are you seeing today as you experience gay equality? Gay marriage is legal and certainly there’s a much more open society. Young people seem to be moving that forward and it’s fantastic to see. What are some of your feelings as the gay community comes into its own? Is that the right thing to say?
WF: Yeah, I think so. You can’t have a good relationship in a vacuum. Gloucester has provided those contexts. My basic feeling about this exploration with gender identity and transgender is that is it’s akin to what we know about the universe, that it’s expanding. That’s the way I always approached the church: we open the doors wider and wider because it takes courage, and that’s what the universe is doing. We’d better get with the program.
MA: What is something that you’d like to say to young people today who are finding their way just like you did when you were 23?
WF: Well, I think the first thing that I would say is be careful but trust, be brave. If possible don’t isolate yourself in gay enclaves. Make sure to build yourself a trustworthy support system so that you can, when you need to, take a step back to a safe place. The most important thing is your happiness. Be who you are. To me, happiness is the greatest value, and it’s not the kind of happiness that you get from getting a new car; it’s the happiness that you get from wonderful things that happen by surprise, like being in a relationship and your mom or dad says, “I get it.” Whether it’s transgender or gay or bi or whatever, there’s a whole alphabet of ways that we can be.
Make it about love and not sex. We had to get in people’s faces about sex, and it freaked people out. Being gay is an affectional orientation. First of all, it’s being true to yourself, but we have tended to alienate people with getting in their faces as legitimately angry and enraged. I don’t think that makes us happy. I don’t think that builds relationships. There needs to be safe places for anger, for joy, but happiness is expanding.
MA: It really is all about love, isn’t it?
WF: It is and that’s how people change.
MA: Wendy Fitting thank you so much for being on the podcast.
WF: You’re welcome. Thank you. Thanks very much.
BackCAST Cape Ann is a production of 1623 Studios. This show was produced by Maureen Aylward with technical assistance from Becky Tober.