Image and Growing Up Gay in an Affluent Town

North Andover, Massachusetts: Old Town Center (source)

Most people had never heard of sleepy rich suburb North Andover, 27.6 miles North of Boston. It flew well under the radar until September 13th, 2018 when dozens of gas explosions burst out that afternoon — igniting a series of random house fires, choppers circling in the smoky brume that had become the sky, and gridlock of evacuated vehicles littering its neatly paved streets.

House Fire caused by the 2018 Colobumia Gas Explosion on Herrick Road in North Andover, Mass. (source)

The town worked quickly to bounce back from the damage — reconciling its fractured image of a safe and prosperous town. A town that been hollowed out by ravenous flames, billows of smoke stretching out clean paned windows. There is nothing more haunting than thick fire hoses snaked around a groomed lawn and littered with oxygen tanks. Once lush and green, flooded out with liquid ash. All the neatly trimmed hedges dressing the skirt of a large home bent over and burnt away. Debris pouring out the sides of empty windows, spilling onto a charred roof. Grand white pillars guarding a front door — smoked with soot. Silk curtains drawn as if no one ever left, but the driveway vacant to tell differently.

North Andover mothers logged onto Facebook to offer people places to stay in as clothing and food drives formed. Helping those people who had lost their homes and businesses was a top priority over the next few months. Reconstructing the community was at the forefront.

Though, what image we construct as a community runs deep at heart to a lot of North Andover citizens.

Months before the gas explosions in 2018, I attended a special town meeting to vote on the placement of a marijuana cultivation plant in a large abandoned warehouse in town. It would provide 1,100 jobs and millions in tax revenue.

After a long debate, North Andover voted no.

The leading argument was set by Rosemary Connolley-Smedile, Board of Selectman. She reminded the meeting of what North Andover was

“We are a community that builds ball fields and parks. We are patriots, Memorial park, we are MacEvoy Park, we are Carl Thomas. We have hiking trails, little league parades. We are Sheep Shearing, Fourth of July on the common. We run road races to raise money for our seniors. We teach our kids to swim at Stevens pond. We love apple picking, hayrides…”*

Ultimately maintaining a pure and pristine image of North Andover was prioritized.

Living in North Andover, everything had to take its place for people to feel at ease. Anything that was out of line with traditional family values, was acknowledged and meet with a smile. At school, I felt dismissed, as though I might have been the only lesbian that didn’t fall into what this town constructed around people like me — not straight. Along with those not white, not wealthy — from families of broken marriages, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

One girl I went on a date with from a similar white suburban background stated that “There were kids who were straight and those who were strictly gay, their only recognizable identity was being gay. No one could exist in between.” This was something that felt very true to North Andover.

Coming out in North Andover you were seen as gay in a fixed image — quirky, abstract, troubled — you probably had dyed hair, nose piercings and wore rainbow patches on all articles of clothing.

Or you weren’t gay at all.

I never dyed my hair — I kept it long and wavy. I never got a piercing and never owned anything with a rainbow on it. I never quite landed in the confines of North Andover’s rigid construct of LGBTQ+ students. What it had decided what LGBTQ+ was, remained easily digestible and easily dismissive. It was easy to assign what to expect from someone, regardless of agreeing with it or not. It was harder to palate anything outside of that fixed image. I never felt like I was believable enough. Being gay was never purposely mentioned, never encouraged. Amongst my friends, I felt safe and welcomed. In the greater context of my school, I didn’t want people knowing I was gay out of fear of being either categorized as one of those gay kids — being paired with whitewashed surface-level stereotypes popularly held by the community — or… completely invalidated.

In a town that upholding an image was necessary, it was okay to make a ripple in the pond as long as the pond was large enough to not be disturbed. As long as it could bounce back and present as smooth as glass.

*quotation take from this source: of North Andover Special Town Meeting on January 30th 2018

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