The summer blockbuster “Wonder Woman” opened on a glorious scene of a land populated by a village of magnificent Amazons — a woman-only utopia that was a beacon of peace and female unity.
I’m here to tell you such a place exists — well, for three days at least — just a stone’s throw away from Philadelphia. SisterSpace is a women’s festival that takes place the weekend after Labor Day. The three days are chock-full of workshops, music, sports, games, dancing and live performances from top-notch artists. Unlike some other festivals that require you to rough it, SisterSpace has cabins featuring hot showers and soft mattresses or, if you’re feeling a little more rugged, you can bring your own tent. Helping guide the multiple artists to their best performances is stage manager Polly Laurelchild-Hertig, who has volunteered her services as a labor of love for close to 15 years.
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.
PLH: I’m from the Midwest, transplanted to Boston with a brief stint in Pennsylvania. We lived in the Pittsburgh area from age 3 to about the second grade. I have fond memories of the Allegheny School System and the Pittsburgh Public Library. They had a wonderful book mobile that came around regularly. Good memories.
PGN: Were your parents involved in the arts?
PLH: On the surface, no. My dad was a university professor and my mom was a pre-school teacher, but my dad was very musical and played a number of instruments: guitar, banjo and a humorous instrument called a Zingaboom; it was made from a washtub, broom handle and wire strings. He had a lovely voice and used to sing us to sleep at night.
PGN: How many siblings?
PLH: Just one, an older brother.
PGN: I looked at your resume and you have quite the varied career!
PLH: Yes, it’s been a long and winding road with no rhyme or reason to it from the outside. I started out as a pre-school teacher, inspired by my mother who was an amazing and wonderful person. At the same time, I’d newly moved to Boston and come out and was looking for community and someone told me to checkout the Boston Women’s Music Collective. This was the early ’70s so everything was a collective. The BWMC was a group of women who put together a monthly newsletter. This was before computers so it was written on a typewriter; if you made a mistake you had to back up and use Wite-Out and wait for it to dry, then lay it out by hand, copy and staple it and put it in envelopes for mailing. It was very labor-intensive. We did interviews with musicians, we did a calendar of upcoming music events. We started getting musicians asking for help so we started organizing workshops and … not concerts, but musical events. That was my foray into the musical-production world.
PGN: Speak a little about the importance of women’s music at the time. It seems like it was really the only place to find lesbian representation before Ellen and the mainstreaming of the community.
PLH: It was very important on so many levels. It was during a rapidly growing time for the women’s movement. A lot of women were coming out and finding empowerment in their identity as women loving women and taking labels like “dyke,” which had been used to hurt us, and reclaiming them for ourselves. It was a time of building women’s institutions; in the Boston area alone, we had the Boston Women’s Health Collective, the Women’s Credit Union — where women could borrow money. We had women’s therapy collectives, books stores, three women’s bars, on and on. Women were doing a lot of conscious-raising about intersectionality — on classism and racism, imperialism, environmental trauma and, of course, feminism and lesbianism and oppression against women. Music was a very visible way of bringing women together physically and also a way to educate about the issues that was more palatable than being lectured to. [Laughs] I will say there was a lot of self-righteousness in those days; not that people weren’t right to be angry and infuriated by what was going on, but it could be a bit much. So music was a good way to get the message across to people who weren’t necessarily familiar with the content. It was also incredibly empowering to be in a room full of women and to be told that it was great to be a lesbian, instead of something to be feared or ashamed of.
PLH: It was pretty incredible. Later, a group of us from the collective started a secondary group, Allegra Production, to produce concerts in Boston. The concerts were a real organizing nexus. We had tables from different groups inviting people to participate and connect at each event. In towns all over the country, women’s music was bringing women together. I still remember my first women’s concert as if it was yesterday; it was very emotional. I was a young lesbian with a lot of self-doubt, surrounded by the energy of joy and affirmation pulsating in the room. Not to mention the sheer wonder of finding out there were so many of us!
PGN: I read you have a master’s degree in law and diplomacy. You must be going a little nuts with this current administration. It seems to not know the meaning of the D word.
PLH: No, not the meaning of the word or the law. We’re flouting a lot of international laws and they could not be doing more damage if they tried. I think a lot of it is by design from the high-level advisors, who wish to dismantle the existing institutions of government and diplomacy that have protected the environment and civil rights for years. They’re subverting whatever peace we have had and it’s a conscious strategy. The orange-faced fellow doesn’t have a clue other than feeding his ego, but the people around him are very intentional. It’s horrifying.
PGN: You were the executive director of the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, which provided assistance for people fleeing LGBT persecution in other countries. Was there one case that stood out?
PLH: They’re all moving. The people who managed to escape are fleeing unimaginable violence and homophobia. They have to leave behind everything they’ve ever known: family, friends, even children and all possessions. If they’re lucky, they may have a suitcase. If they make their way across the globe to the U.S., they receive a very hostile welcome as they try to put together a new life. The U.S. does not make it easy for asylum-seekers, even though most of them have basically been targeted for extermination in their home countries just for being who they are. Women gang-raped, men being beaten and having their homes burned down with their partners inside is typical. It’s heartbreaking and each and every one has a story to tell but I’ll tell you about the first person I dealt with where I heard the story first-hand. Let’s call her Carrie; she was from Uganda and she’d been forced to get married against her will, which happened to a lot of LGBT people, both men and women, especially if the family suspected you might be gay. On the surface she had a good life: nice home, two kids and a very responsible job with an international children’s agency. But her husband was very abusive and her life was a living hell. He discovered that she had a relationship with a woman and beat the holy crap out of her. It’s illegal to be gay in Uganda so she and her partner were arrested. We can thank U.S. evangelical missionaries for that, as they were the ones who went over there when they couldn’t find a big-enough audience for their hate here and spent a lot of time convincing officials there that homosexuality was an American scourge that no African would have indulged in on their own.
PGN: I’ve read about that. There’s one “evangelist” in particular who’s primarily responsible.
PLH: Yes, and he’s from Massachusetts but I refuse to say his name. He helped create the “Kill the Gays” bill. So anyway, Carrie and her partner were imprisoned. The guards handed out vegetables to the other women in her cell and said, “This woman is a homosexual, you need to teach her a lesson.” The women had at her and raped her in every orifice to the extent that she had to have multiple surgeries to fix what they did to her. She was also repeatedly raped by the male guards, as was her partner, then beaten and starved. To escape, she had to leave her partner and her children behind and is in agony every day over their welfare, as well as constant physical pain. Her partner has the kids and she is being hunted by her own family, as well as Carrie’s husband and family and the authorities. If they catch her, they will kill her. And yet, Carrie is kind and gentle and sweet. It’s hard to fathom what she’s endured and continues to deal with: fear for her children and partner on top of trying to navigate the extremely difficult and stressful legal and financial landscape of being an asylum-seeker in America. Asylum is enshrined in Article 14 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. is a signatory on that treaty so we have a moral and legal obligation, but Congress has made it very difficult. A huge number of people like Carrie are rejected and sent back to their countries, which is pretty much a death sentence for LGBT folks. And now it’s even worse; people who’ve managed to escape can’t even get it. They’ve overcome terrible odds just to be turned away.
PGN: Horrific. Let’s turn to something brighter: How did you get involved with SisterSpace?
PLH: Back in the day, there was a woman named Emily who was involved with Allegra. She moved to Philadelphia to study medicine and got involved with SisterSpace. In the early 2000s, they were in dire need of a stage manager and she suggested me. After some conversation — because who were these people? — I said OK and have been hooked ever since. I also run the stage at the Phreak N’ Queer Arts and Music Festival in Philly. I was really impressed by what I found at SisterSpace. Boston is still not a racially integrated city in the way you’d like. But at SisterSpace, there were women of color involved at every level, from the top to the bottom of the organizational structure. It was something unique in my experience for it to be so organically multicultural and diverse in age and all sorts of ways. I was blown away by the spirit and thoughtfulness that had gone into everything. I’ve been to MitchFest and other larger festivals, but SisterSpace is unique.
PGN: I agree, I found a much better vibe at SisterSpace than at any other festival.
PLH: And as I get older, I also appreciate the cabins with electricity and Tempur-Pedic beds, hot meals and flush toilets!
PGN: Don’t forget a heated swimming pool (clothing-optional), arts and crafts, a nightly bonfire, music, movies. I could go on!
PLH: Yes, but in the end, I don’t go there for the amenities. I go down there because of the care that goes into the event. We have a tremendous time running the stage and working with the performers, presenting live music to an audience of women, which I think is something that we still need.
PGN: Who are some of the performers this year?
PLH: Women’s music icon Holly Near will be performing. The fabulous singer-songwriter from D.C., Be Steadwell, and Heather Mae will be debuting her new song, “I am Enough,” an ode to body-positivity. There’s also Fierce, a five-piece, all-girl band based out of Lancaster, and Philadelphia’s own Ashley Phillips. There’s also going to be spoken-word with poet Sha’lfa Mami Watu and laughs with comediennes Kia McCall-Barnes and Philly’s Di Hargrove. We also have three DJs for the nightly parties.
PGN: And a few performers I’m very familiar with: the amazing singer Keisha Slaughter, radio host Debra D’Alessandro and performance artist Pandora Scooter, who have all been featured in this column! OK, impossible question: favorite act or memorable moment at SisterSpace?
PLH: Oh my, there are so many memorable moments I wouldn’t know where to begin. I love seeing the variety and the creativity and energy and the beauty that women bring to the stage. OK, here’s one: I’m not normally a hip-hop fan, but we brought a group called Kin 4 Life and they blew me away. I became a hip-hop fan because of them. Well, women’s hip-hop with a positive message. It’s always a thrill to see someone new and talented that you never heard of before.
PGN: I heard that there was one new talent that you helped launch in Boston …
PLH: Oh my goodness. Well, yes. Susan Wilson was a writer from the Boston Globe and she heard a young woman singing at a café in Harvard Square. She called me to say, “You need to go hear her.” At the time, we had a lot of shows going on and I was really busy so I sent my co-producer to check her out. She came back and said, “Yup. She’s good. You should do something with her.” Our entire concert year was already booked but I had a concert coming up at the Strand Theatre with headliner Linda Tillery. Casselberry-Dupree was the opening act so I booked the kid as the opening act for the opening act! She came out on stage and just did two songs. She didn’t say one word; she came out on stage, did her first song and the hairs went up on the back of my neck. I knew at that moment that she was going to be something big. She was so shy, she didn’t say a word except “Thank you,” but she had a huge smile that lit up the stage. The place went crazy for her. A little while later, I was traveling in Portugal and I heard them play her song on the radio, “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. She blew up quickly.
PGN: Wow! What three people would be in your dream rock band?
PLH: Joan Jett, she deserves star billing in any rock band. Aretha Franklin, and Terri Lyne Carrington as the drummer.
PGN: So why should people come to the festival?
PLH: Women’s space is really endangered. Festivals like this are hard to keep going; it’s not going to just be there by magic, people need to show up. And they’re so much fun, so much fun. It’s a chance to recharge your batteries in a unique way. And there’s something for everyone!
SisterSpace Weekend takes place Sept. 8-10 at Camp Ramblewood, 2564 Silver Road in Darlington, Md. For more information, visit http://www.sisterspace.org.