From The New York Times Magazine: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/magazine/out-of-the-woods.html?action=click&contentCollection=magazine®ion=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=4&pgtype=sectionfront
After decades of semi-secrecy, a commune for L.G.B.T.Q. nonconformists has slowly begun to join the mainstream.
By Alex Halberstadt
Aug. 6, 2015
Several years ago, David Withers, a zoologist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, was digging for crayfish in some creek beds on the edge of DeKalb County, in an area that can plausibly be described as nowhere at all, when he spotted an unmarked road. He had never noticed it and decided to see where it led; after a short drive, he found himself amid a strange encampment. Withers stepped out of his truck and looked around. Cheerful, rickety houses sprouted from the ground like unclassified fungi, or something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll, but what appealed to him most was the barn; on the side, in large yellow letters, someone had written ‘‘Welcome Home.’’ Withers walked up to a shack that appeared to be inhabited and — overtaken by curiosity — he knocked. The woman who came out looked surprised. She told him that he was on a commune for gay, lesbian and transgender people and suggested politely that he leave. Later, Withers called his friend Neal Appelbaum, the openly gay director of the arts center in neighboring Cannon County, and told him about what he saw. Appelbaum explained that Withers had stumbled into Ida, a commune for queer vegetarians; the entire region was home to maybe a dozen rural planned communities for L.G.B.T.Q. people, a kind of sexually nonconforming Amish country. He also pointed out that the fading sign on the barn didn’t say ‘‘Welcome Home.’’ The last letter was not an ‘‘e’’ but an ‘‘o.’’
If you’re younger than, say, 35, chances are you don’t remember what it was like to be a gay man between the Stonewall riots and the second season of ‘‘Will & Grace.’’ You probably don’t remember bars with names like Traxx and Rawhide, their windows smoked to deflect the accidental glances of co-workers, bars with ‘‘Elvira, Mistress of the Dark’’ playing on VHS, where everyone who came through the door was greeted with looks of longing and fear. You probably don’t remember the Herb Ritts poster of the Pennzoil-smeared Adonis hefting semi tires, or the Mr. Fire Island Leather contest, or hearing the entire godawful Barbra Streisand Christmas album played over the P.A. while waiting for the bus outside the Castro Theater, or having to take that bus for a half-hour in the first place simply to buy lubricant, which was sold as illicitly as a bong. You’ve probably never heard an otherwise-reasonable family internist wonder out loud whether your sore throat might be seroconversion illness or the tingling in your fingers a symptom of H.I.V. neuropathy. You’ve probably never had a prospective landlord explain, upon meeting you and your partner, that the vacant apartment in his building is not, as the listing said, ‘‘available immediately’’ but needs to be painted, and that the painting will take seven weeks. And if you don’t remember any of that, consider yourself fortunate.
In those days, the social lives of gay people transpired mostly in large coastal cities, primarily out of public view. The bars and restaurants, the beach resorts and borderland neighborhoods became sanctuaries where, through a tacit agreement with the surrounding world, you could socialize mostly free of scrutiny and overt discrimination. For the young men who settled in these neighborhoods, even that Streisand record functioned as a sanctuary of sorts, by providing a common cultural language with a larger community of gay men whom they were counting on to be their families, because in many cases their actual families no longer wanted to know them. But for some, this notion of sanctuary did not go far enough. For some, the modes of camouflage, code and passing were tantamount to an admission of leading a life defined and hemmed in by others. And so they began to leave the cities in search of a less compromised identity.
In 1979, a gay rights activist, communist and Angeleno named Harry Hay — a founder of a neo-pagan countercultural movement called the Radical Faeries — urged gay men to ‘‘throw off the ugly green frog skin of hetero-imitation.’’ Instead of fighting for the rights that straights had, like marriage and adoption, the faeries believed that to be gay was to possess a unique nature and a special destiny apart from straight people, and that this destiny would reach its full flowering in the wilds of rural America. So it was perhaps fitting that the faeries began to refer to their secluded outposts as sanctuaries. There are more than a dozen loosely affiliated sanctuaries across three continents today, but in the same year that Hay made his pronouncement, the mother ship of the faeries landed on Short Mountain, one of the tallest points in Middle Tennessee. It remains home to what is almost certainly the largest, oldest, best known and most visited planned community for lesbian, gay and transgender people in the country, a place that one local described to me as a veritable Gayberry, U.S.A.
With its outhouses, goats and vegetable gardens, it doesn’t appear far different from your textbook commune. Until, that is, you hear about a spot called Sex Change Ridge, a network of hiking trails called the Fruit Loop and a functionary called the Empress. Many residents are known by names of their own devising, like Jazz Hands, Fade-Dra Phey and Helvetica Demi-Oblique. Twice a year, hundreds of visitors come to the mountain for weeklong gatherings that, sartorially speaking, make Burning Man look like the annual conference of the Modern Language Association. In the decades since its founding, dozens of people not personally cut out for communal living but nonetheless drawn by Short Mountain have settled in the area, most of them men, and they tend to refer to one another as the Family and to the area as the Neighborhood or the Gayborhood. Some inhabit one of the numerous satellite communities — places with names like Breathwood, Daffodil Meadow and Ida — and others treat the area as a part-time second home, coming here as much for the privacy as the fellowship. The name of the commune is no secret and can be found online with a few keystrokes. But as with Occupy Wall Street, its residents reach decisions by consensus, and because some harbor misgivings about being the subjects of stories and other forms of publicity, many spoke to me on the condition that I don’t reveal the name of their home in print. So forthwith I will call it the Commune.
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