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Tolerance, Trade-offs, and Small-Town Living
Jay Segredo, one of the main characters in my novel The Mud of the Place, is a gay man who grew up on Martha's Vineyard but lived off-island for two decades. Though close to his family, he's never come out to any of them, and when he moves back to the Vineyard, where everybody knows who you're related to and where your car was parked night before last, his secret overwhelms his good sense and he starts making stupid mistakes.
The Mud of the Place is set at the tail end of the last century. I'm frequently asked if this could happen on Martha's Vineyard today, a decade later. Most people clearly expect me to say no, Jay wouldn't have to worry about coming out. Things have changed since then, so the reasoning goes, like Ellen, The L Word, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, and Grace Episcopal Church has a gay minister whose partner is acknowledged in newspaper articles. Could gay and lesbian islanders possibly be hesitant to come out in 2009?
True, being out on TV and even in the pulpit isn't as big a deal as it was 10 years ago, but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to come out to people you've known all your life. Ever notice how hard it can be to say things that people don't want to hear, especially when you value their good opinion? If you're willing to risk troubling the waters, you go ahead. If you aren't, you keep quiet.
Martha's Vineyard also has a flourishing grapevine. Most of us have self-imposed restrictions on what information we're willing to pass on, but almost anything about people we don't know well or don't particularly like is fair grist for the rumor mill. If you let your cat out of the bag and the cat has legs, chances are good that pretty soon cat sightings are going to be the buzz of all six towns. Keeping the cat in the bag looks like much less hassle, at least till the bag starts to scratch and yowl.
When I moved here year-round in 1985, my cat was already running loose. I'd come from an urban women's community where you were assumed lesbian unless you came out as straight. On Martha's Vineyard I had nothing to lose. I didn't grow up here. I didn't have family or longtime friends, neighbors, priests, or teachers who might be startled, hurt, confused, or furious if I announced I was a lesbian.
You'd think being out would be easy under those circumstances, but it wasn't. When the community's default setting is "straight," I discovered, any hints that you're something else tend to become a Big Deal. Being out took day-in, day-out effort. Most days it wasn't worth it. As the years went on, I let most people think whatever they wanted to think. In the process I came to understand that in most communities, defaults aren't set by fiat: they develop from the choices made day in, day out by all the community's members. Most of us, most of the time, choose not to make waves, and for good reason. We may sail out on tempest-tossed waters to earn our daily bread, but do we want to sit down to supper every night at a table that's pitching back and forth?
Martha's Vineyard, however, is not monochromatic by any standard. Diverse it is, but it's not the kind of diversity that sends up flares to signal its existence. From the moment I set foot on the island, other lesbians and gay men recognized me, and I recognized them. Martha's Vineyard in the late 1980s didn't have a visible gay or lesbian community, but it did have a subterranean gay and lesbian network. Occasionally I would be asked by a straight person if so-and-so was gay. Almost invariably so-and-so was, and often this so-and-so acted as though no one else knew, but of course I wasn't going to tell. Instead I'd say, "Why don't you ask him?" Everyone thought I was joking. Most closets on Martha's Vineyard had glass doors, it seemed, but the illusion of opacity was maintained by the tacit agreement of people on both sides. Everyone knew there were gay men and lesbians on Martha's Vineyard. What made many of us uneasy was acknowledging it in public.
So what would I tell someone in Jay Segredo's position if he or she asked me for advice today? Something like this: If you go out on a limb, the chances are pretty good that the limb won't break and you won't be shot off it. Some people may edge away from you, some doors may not open when you knock on them, but life will go on. Here we're willing to live with considerable difference and eccentricity -- at least until something disturbs the live-and-let-live veneer and people start thinking that tolerance is a luxury we can't afford. Several teachers in the Martha's Vineyard school system have been in the news lately for various sorts of inappropriate conduct. What if there had been a gay angle to one of those incidents? I can't help thinking back to 1993, when an attempt to remove two kids' books about gay families from the Oak Bluffs School library generated some hateful, ignorant, and very public rhetoric about gay people. In the years since I've heard equally nasty invective directed at other groups. Notice how little it takes to set off anti-Brazilian diatribes these days?
When passions run high, for whatever reason, we start grabbing explanations off the shelf -- out of the uncleaned corners of our collective and individual psyches -- without looking too closely at what we're thinking, saying, or doing. Stereotypes and carefully nursed grudges spew out of the box and can't be stuffed back. When passions cool, we act as if we never said or heard the hateful words, but when hatred snarls at you from ten paces away at a public meeting, trust me, you don't forget it quickly. You can't afford to.
Being part of a close family, or a smooth-running business, or a small community means continually balancing individual inclinations with community expectations. Most of the time we make course corrections without thinking too much about it. Sometimes we thwart or defy those expectations, but more often we don't. If you're a cautious person, and you have plenty to lose if you misgauge the situation, and no way to go back in time if you guess wrong . . . ? I can think of plenty of reasons for someone in Jay's position in 2009 to be very careful about what he or she said to whom.