Her Island History: 100 Years of Tenacious Island Women

Playwright Carolyn Gage discusses her latest project, the Lesbian History Trail of MDI, and her career writing and producing lesbian historical theatre.


Oral History Transcription:

Carolyn Gage
Southwest Harbor

Interviewed by Eloise Schultz

ES: I loved looking at the Lesbian History trail website, and I’d love to learn more about your experience creating it.

CG: It was really fun! Sadly, Yourcenar is really the only one where you can visit with a docent and all of that. And then, several of them — like the Hamilton one — it’s down the road with seven thousand trespassing signs. Same with Jane Adams. I went, and I thought, I think I’ll bring a pizza, and just act like I’m lost, y’know… two of them, you couldn’t even do a drive-by without feeling quite paranoid.

ES: Did you get in touch with anyone about the particular history of their home?

CG: Well, the Mount Desert Island Historical Society’s facebook page, I asked some questions there… there’s a lot of false information out there about where Jane Adams’ house was—it’s on Lookout Point—and there are a lot of people who have information about that. It’s been torn down, now. So it’s a little bit sad, in that respect, that all of them are gone. Natalie Barney’s house, Shell Place, I think it either burned down or was taken down. But it was very meaningful to me, to do that.

ES: How did you decide to start it?

CG: My whole mission is to recover the lives of dead lesbians. I put them on the stage. I was poor, so I didn’t have access to writing for film or television. So I did a lot of theatre stuff, and I found them really inspiring. Particularly butch history — butch history is [poofing noise]. In some ways, I feel like that’s what I was born to do in this life. I have a huge community of dead lesbians around me. When I go someplace, I’m always interested in who was here. If you read the lives of those wealthier lesbians, everybody made it up here, for something. But who actually lived here? Who bought property here? I was really astounded that there were seven extremely famous couples that were here. Some of them did the work that put them on the map [while living here]. Hamilton’s book was written here… and a lot of Yourcenar’s work was written here.

ES: Thinking about lesbianism in history, I feel like so many relationships are couched as “companions” — as you recover these stories, what’s been your sense of how those histories are represented, or unrepresented as it were?

CG: It’s constant—it never stops. Now, the term “lesbian”… starting a few years ago, because I toured the universities — all the boys were gay, but all of the women were bisexual, polyamorous, nonbinary, but they were never “lesbian.” And that for me was really heartbreaking. It still is. Well, I mean — it’s a testimony to how deeply antipatriarchial the identity is. Even if you’re a right-wing Republican, if you make women primary in your life, you’re subversive. The patriarchy… it’s very similar to in the 1920s, when the UK was passing legislation against homosexual men, and they got to the women and it was kind of like, “We can’t really admit that women prefer women without taking a hit.” It was really a problem. They had to deny the existence of lesbians. They said, “We really find that the best way to deal with it is to ignore them completely. And they destroy themselves.”

ES: I saw that in your Butch Visibility Project video. The “self-exterminating” language.

CG: Exactly. And looking now, I fired a director last year, because she took work over to mine over to Ireland, and it’s deeply lesbian, it’s about two lesbian survivors in the bedroom. It’s really deep lesbianism. And she made it all about “queer,” and she wouldn’t use the word “lesbian” in any of her press. And then I found out that she rewrote it. The only reason that I found out is that it was reviewed in the Irish papers, in detail. And I didn’t write that. It burned so bad, you know? But she was young, and scared, and she’s catering to her base — she’s not going to get a lot of points for directing a Carolyn Gage play. In my generation, everyone was closeted. But now it’s okay to be out — but there’s a new way to be closeting lesbians. When I told her, “I’m firing you for closeting my work,” the word “closet” hit her real hard. Because hating lesbians is really a part of her culture — it’s cool, and it’s hip, because lesbians are bigots and awful and… to see it framed as, “you are afraid and ashamed to be associated with lesbian work, and that’s unacceptable to me” — I could see that it was breaking all the teeth off her gears, mentally. She couldn’t… like, “no, it’s hip and cool!” and I was like, “not in my world.” It doesn’t look any different than it did in 1930. It is the exact same. You don’t think it is, but that is what it is. Gay men are not under the same pressure. And so, it was very annoying to me. But yes, the constant erasure and misrepresentation of our work… I think it will not go away until patriarchy goes away. It’s just too dangerous.

But it’s lovely that these women all found refuge here. Did you watch my slideshow on LaRue?

ES: I did!

CG: Wasn’t that moving?

ES: It was so moving, and they were so brave.

CG: Oh my god! They’re already blacklisted, they’re homosexual, and they’re like: “Let’s go stand up for a Black family.” I’m like, stack your oppressions! And that’s just who they were. But when they got here, they never talked about it and they didn’t live together. And I feel like, I’ve been terrorized. Part of you goes: in my younger days, I would have stood up for that—and then you’re like, I can’t do that anymore. They didn’t come up here and talk about civil rights. I appreciate that — they fought for the environment — you don’t get killed for the environment, you don’t get blown up for the environment, back then, anyway. That’s really validating to me, because I’m not as courageous as I used to be — because I have been terrorized. You think twice. When you’re young, it’s like “What are you gonna do?” and then later it’s like, “Oh, that’s what you’re gonna do. Got it.” So that’s a little bit sad, but their activism found another outlet. Everybody knew they were a couple—nobody talks about them like they were friends. Maybe the fact that they didn’t live together made that more comfortable for them, in some way. Maybe people who were homophobic felt like they weren’t putting it in their faces. They seemed to be able to heal and they really belonged to a community again, and my experience is that when you’ve seen that kind of witch hunting, it’s very difficult to belong to a community again. You’ve seen the underbelly of belonging. And they knew. They knew: if we came up here, all civil rights and Black Panther, it would be the same thing. They knew that. But they still seemed to forgive the community for that; they closeted their history, and they really — she did the newspaper… but I think, probably, because she quit doing editorials — my guess is that she tried to run a civil rights editorial. She and the publisher came to loggerheads, and she was just like “fuck this.”

ES: She had been the editor, right?

CG: For two or three years, she was the editor, and I think she was always at cross-purposes with the publisher. Finally there was some kind of episode where she was like, “That’s it, I’m going to freelance write again.” I’m guessing it was editorial stuff, I’m guessing it was because she was pushing the paper in a direction that was more to her taste, which was social justice. She had opinions! [Laughs.] God help her. I’m sure that Bar Harbor was already kind of touristy and looking to be a paper that wouldn’t stir up anybody.

I loved her story; I wish I had known her. She seemed like really a pistol. And then, I can’t find anything, I couldn’t even find a picture of her partner. I suppose if I comb through the League of Women Voters… assiduously, I might find her. She apparently worked with them.

ES: Well, the information that you were able to comb through was pretty assiduous.

CG: It was already done for me by Elizabeth Redhead. I think it would have been lost completely if she hadn’t done that. I’m assuming [the rest of the material] is in a Louisville archive somewhere—I was unable to find any of it. And I was desperately trying to find her book, which might be relevant today, because it was a historical novel, a fictionalized biography. There was no such thing in her day. I couldn’t find it. And I talked to the biographer of Anne Braden, and she did not know where any of LaRue’s papers were. But there’s obviously a trove of the civil rights stuff out there, I can’t imagine that she would destroy it. It’s just sad that she didn’t feel safe leaving that here. But it’s not in the archives of the Wade House bombing, and it should have been… so that was distressing. I think that manuscript would have been there. I feel like she did something really special with that archive, and now nobody knows where it is, or it’s maybe even been destroyed.

ES: It sounds like she and Louise moved here to start a new life, a quieter one. I imagine that they wanted to continue their work — it would have been hard when they found it wasn’t welcome.

CG: Well, there’s very few Black people here. If there were, she would have signed up for every eviction, every firing… they may have thought that it wouldn’t be an issue in Maine, because there’s not the same population. I think that was the choice. One thing that moved me deeply was that the woman who was her best friend had had no idea. She was very suspicious about my project, and sat forward during my whole presentation. After the presentation, she said, “I believe LaRue would have liked your presentation.” She once sat next to LaRue in some town meeting, and there was something going on that was just not sitting right with LaRue. You could tell, she got really agitated. And then she said that LaRue began to shake all over. She was shaking all over but she still stood up and said her piece, and sat back down —and to me that was just amazing. Obviously, her PTSD was through the roof. You can tell from her story. Having that level of PTSD, I wouldn’t even go to a town hall meeting! But she continually put herself out there, and to stand up in a courtroom type of thing… and say an unpopular thing — that level of fear, literally in the body. “This needs to be said, I’m gonna say it.” I have so much respect for that. And how she coped with it. Another guy said, she had dogs and dogs — no pictures of Louise! — thousands of dogs. This guy said, he came to fix something her house, and he had to sit in his truck because the dogs were barking and barking. They were attack-type dogs. And again, I thought… LaRue had to come out and lock them in a room before he could get out of his truck. And I thought, yep. PTSD was part of her life. She came to heal, but I think what she went through was extreme, and horrifying, and left its mark. But I was really moved by what people remembered about her, and the dog thing suddenly made perfect sense.

ES: How did you get interested in her?

CG: It was your article — I saw the pictuer of her! I saw the picture, and hindsight, I thought, “Well, that’s a fuckin’ dyke.” [Laughs.] Look at that picture! She’s in high school, and the self-possession — it was just clear. This woman travels to her own drum. So I wasn’t too surprised, reading down, that she was a lesbian. She was born too early, man. She would have loved the 70s and 80s. She would have been at ever women’s music festival. She would have opened a bookstore. And run a women’s press. Absolutely. Bless her heart.