Friday, July 19, 2024

A station wagon painted with pro-gay affirmations parked in front of Christ Church, Cambridge, circa 1970. (Photo: Cambridge Historical Commission)

When I moved to Cambridge from Chicago in 2009, I found community in meetups throughout the city. I jumped at opportunities to expand my communication skills through an American Sign Language group. I connected with my inner (and outer) dork while battling Cylons and rolling 20-sided dice at MIT. I learned more about the inclinations of different personality types through a Myers-Briggs group that met in Porter Square.

And while I had an amazing time, some groups also deepened my historical understanding and helped me strengthen my politics.

Over many vegetarian and vegan meals with a feminist meetup in Central Square, I listened to others’ stories – ones of personal and cultural triumph. 

I participated in building a community from a place of integrity and radical joy. I saw how it helps honor our collective dignity and increase the quality of our lives. I saw firsthand how communities and people are better equipped to thrive when we treat one another with decency and operate with an intersectional vision of justice.

When I learned that History Cambridge was working on an LGBTQ+ History Hub, I was eager to help compile content. I scoured resources and was bowled over. I saw liberation movements convene on Cambridge Common, where George Washington gathered Continental army troops. Colleges and universities that draw people from around the world cultivated deep reflection, set standards for representation in curricula and celebrated the meaningful work of their alumnae and the broader community. There were narratives of Cantabrigians whose unions and civic contributions (such as those of Jarrett Barrios, Kenneth Reeves, E. Denise Simmons and Katherine Triantafillou) heralded possibilities for others throughout the country.

I saw the generation of potential futures, the commemoration of spaces such as The Marquee and ManRay and, when the devastating realities of our current society claimed people, I saw how beloved community members such as Chanelle Pickett and Charley Shively were memorialized for and through advocacy. 

As I mull these examples of self-determination, I remember those meetups that taught me how to show up in community. Through the lives of others from a range of identities, I learned to listen, serve and bear loving critique. I recognized the work of the Southern-Midwestern Black women who taught me how to receive people and brought it to New England.

This matters – the acknowledgments of names and pronouns, the careful consideration of each other’s needs and the tender interpersonal dynamics that help us signal that we matter to one another.

“Can somebody in a wheelchair get here? Is the space accessible by public transportation? How can we facilitate a movie screening about menstrual cycles in ways that aren’t reductive about what’s between our legs? I should list the ingredients in this meal in case of allergies. Do we have child care and eldercare available? Can folks take food home? Y’all got rides? Did you get home safe?”

I joined those meetups, hosted and fed people in my home and local spaces, facilitated deep ad shallow conversations about society (all meaningful, all necessary), and some of those attendees became friends. I opened myself up to radical and intentional community by creating, safeguarding and improving upon it.

Then those new friends became colleagues. Those meals and movie nights became coalition-building meetings for MassNOW’s former legislative task force. Academic institutions conducted inclusive restroom studies and working groups amid the landscape of menstrual equity and transgender equal access and public accommodations work. Organizational testimony and demonstrations spoke to healthy youth and anti-shackling legislation. Pay equity work affected the financial abundance of people throughout the commonwealth. The personal was also political … and it influenced culture.

Like many, I searched my moral landscape while I heard things that challenged my worldview and values (and the social circumstances I was taught to believe were normal and necessary). I lent my time, abilities and cultural insight in community to benefit my community … and we got great (albeit imperfect) work done.

We know that the past creates a foundation for our present and possible futures, and so the work continues. There are many ways to affect our communities, and preserving history and sharing stories are a couple of great ones. Our LGBTQ+ History Hub is a work in progress, and we welcome your contributions.

As we conduct interviews for our Queer History of Cambridge Oral History Project, we’re mindful of the need to interview Cantabrigians of different demographics and to create an institutional archive to be made available to researchers interested in Cambridge’s LGBTQ+ experience. This project is in partnership with The History Project and we want to hear from you. If you have any questions, please contact Marieke Van Damme, History Cambridge executive director.

If you’re interested in local Pride events, the Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site hosts a Pride Picnic (in partnership with the Cambridge LGBTQ+ Commission) and a guided 55-minute Deep Dive Tour about its Queer history on Sunday. In the event of rain, the picnic takes place July 7. Both events are free, and no reservations or registrations are required.


About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at

History Cambridge is a nonprofit organization. Our activities rely on your financial support. If you value articles like this one, give today.

Rayshauna Gray is an entrepreneur and public historian who has done extensive work with History Cambridge, Boston’s Museum of African American History, Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Race & Democracy and the National Organization for Women. She is also one of the researchers delving into Harvard’s legacy of slavery at Cambridge’s Longfellow House and George Washington Headquarters, a project led by the National Park Service and National Council on Public History.

Previous story

Watershed: An excursion in four parts