Being in Corning for over 8 years has given me a general idea of the pros and cons of small-town living. I’ve run into people I’d rather avoid, but I’ve also made friends I’d never meet in larger cities. I always felt like Corning has been open and receptive to me as an “outsider,” however, my perspective comes as a white, straight male. That’s why we asked Connie Sullivan-Blum, Executive Director at The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes, to share her story; to provide a fresh perspective of small-town living as a lesbian. Here is her story:
When I first moved to Corning, whenever the landline in my new home rang, my heart would begin to pound. My hand would hover over the phone for a moment before I could gather the courage to pick it up.
We moved to Corning fifteen years ago from northern Pennsylvania. Our former home was in a picturesque town where my partner, Louise, and I had purchased our first home and decided to raise a family. This was 1993, and same-sex marriage was still the dream of hardworking activists. We had a “commitment ceremony,” and invited friends and family (some of which attended). We went through the process of legally changing our last names so that we would share the same name as our child. We researched sperm banks, chose a donor, and Louise got pregnant. In the midst of all this, almost on a lark, we sent a wedding announcement to the Elmira Star Gazette. The Star Gazette did not publish our wedding announcement. Instead, they did a full-length feature article on us.
That turned out to be a big problem for the people in that small town. We began to be harassed frequently. Kids would drive by, shouting slurs and telling us to “go home.” This while we were standing on the front porch of our home. A man, or perhaps a boy, called daily for nearly two years, panting on the phone or saying “pussy, pussy, pussy” over and over again. We tried everything we could think of, even keeping a whistle by the phone to blow into the receiver. Nothing stopped him.
When Louise had our daughter, I thought things would ease up. I thought that people would reserve their vitriol in the presence of an infant. One summer night, teenagers came into our backyard and stole our daughter’s sandbox, and still I thought this might pass. Not long afterwards, as I walked through a park with my daughter in a stroller, young men drove by, slowed down, rolled down their windows and shouted slurs at us. And I knew this was never going to change.
This is when Louise and I decided to move to Corning. Even fifteen years ago, Corning had a reputation for tolerance. Despite its small size, Corning was a more metropolitan town than any other in the region.
Shortly after moving here, the Corning Leader ran an article on the publication of Louise’s memoir, You’re Not from Around Here, Are You? A Lesbian in Small-Town America. The article was small, but it had a photo. I was terrified. A few days after the article ran, Louise, our daughter and I were standing in line at the Hokey Pokey to get ice cream. A man, his wife and two daughters stood behind us. The man said, “Didn’t I see you in the paper?” We turned toward him. I felt like I was moving under water. My heart began to pound. He said, “I just want to say welcome to town!”
To me, Corning is a refuge. We’ve lived openly as a family and have been politically active, and by and large our neighbors have been warm and welcoming. We hung our rainbow flag on the house, and nothing has ever happened to it or to us. Our daughter went to school here, and while she dealt with some ignorance, no one tried to hurt her because her parents were lesbian. In 2011, we were legally married in Denison Park by a local Justice of the Peace. We weren’t even the first gay couple in town to get married!
I do not want to claim that Corning is perfect. I believe it is our job as citizens to continually work to improve the civic and social structures of the places we live. I don’t think that whitewashing problems is a good strategy for keeping a community vibrant. But for me, Corning has been a place of healing. I am proud that this small city is a diverse and open place to live.
– Connie Sullivan-Blum
When my friends and family from Buffalo ask what it’s like to live in a small city, I often tell them that Corning is not like most small cities. I’m proud to know that Connie and her family also feel that it’s a place with diversity and openness, and we are all thankful to be able to hear her story. For a more detailed account, you can order Louise’s book on Amazon or from University of Wisconsin Press. Thank you again to Connie, Louise, and Zoe for this perspective.