Lesbian communities 

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Diana Rivers chose the Arkansas Ozarks for the beauty of the land. She and other women like her looking to form a community sought land that was cheap, plentiful, had a long growing season, and little to no building codes. The isolated and largely untouched Ozarks supplied all these things in abundance. She had grown up in New Jersey. Then, turning 17 years old, she moved on to the "anonymous" New York City. She tried her hand at college, though she did not last long at New York's Cooper Union. She quit after her first year when she rationalized her politics would have gotten her thrown out anyway. Afterwards, Rivers tried other communes across the country, moving from her native New Jersey to the Stoneybrook commune in upstate New York. Though it was a successful commune, a bad marriage drove Rivers cross-country, first to various communes in rural Oregon, then, as she came to realize her sexuality, to the Hog Farm, a growing lesbian commune in New Mexico. She had heard of communities in Arkansas and traveled there in the spring of 1970 to see them for herself. She made her way to the Sassafras, a feminist commune in rural Newton County in the lower Ozarks.

Rivers remembers Sassafras being in a constant state of turmoil, people coming and going, few wishing to stay on permanently. "It wasn't pretty." She recalls that the women there "were in a time of being very, very angry." Those at Sassafras, according to Rivers, were caught up in "very angry feminism as they became aware of how oppressed women could be." The commune would fail as most women there either came out of the closet and left Sassafras, or left and later came out. The Sassafras land was abandoned.

Communes proved unsuccessful for various reasons, mainly due to the close proximity to others in which members found themselves. Communes asked their residents to live in the same building, eat together and share finances, providing a much closer living situation than many had bargained for. An alternative to the commune for those interested in an intentional society was the construction of the community.

Though much like a commune in that it depended on attracting those with shared ideas and social politics, there is one important difference between a planned commune and a planned community. A commune offered kindred spirits the sharing of land and ideals but hardly anything else. Communities offered separate homes and enough private space for separate lives. Diana Rivers saw this as a crucial distinction when she went on to form her own community. On land not too far from the failed Sassafras, still in the Ozarks and up the tremendously beautiful White River Valley towards Fayetteville, Rivers and other lesbians formed the Ozark Land Holders Association (OLHA), a name made deliberately ambiguous to keep locals in the dark as to their intentions.

It was nearly a decade between the closing of Sassafras and the forming of the OLHA. Money, as in all planned communes and communities, proved to be the most important issue for those involved, but Rivers had this worked out. She had 140 acres not 20 miles from Fayetteville, and a seller not bothered that the buyers were lesbian separatists. Using money from a family inheritance, Rivers made the $30,000 down payment toward the total price of $100,000.

Twenty women including Rivers bought in on the OLHA, at a membership fee of $5,000. With the membership, women were given a parcel of five acres of undeveloped land on which to build their home and otherwise do with as they saw fit. They also could host whomever they wanted, regardless of sex. The lesbian women were mainly professionals, school teachers, doctors and nurses who wished to live in a community close to Fayetteville where they might continue their professional employment. To completely separate would cost too much, financially and perhaps physically. Working with a more flexible idea of separatism, the OLHA found a successful formula for separatist living: private plots within private land where inhabitants could sustain themselves financially with outside employment.

To finance the building of her home and to back the community at large, Rivers found modest commercial success writing lesbian separatist fantasy, "wild women stories" she called them, which proved to be popular in the growing field of queer fiction. In the pages of her five novels, Rivers blended personal fantasy while advancing larger separatist politics. Through the series, Rivers tells the tale of the Hadra, women with strange powers, chief among them the ability to read the minds of other women. The Hadra, driven out of their villages and ostracized by their families, created separate communities far away from the larger, poisonous "patriarchal" society. Out of the pages pour stories of women communicating with each other without words, sharing land and labor, and depending on each other for their basic needs for survival and for comfort and companionship. In Rivers' lesbian fantasies, the message was clear: any woman facing exclusion from a larger society had a fantastic option in separatism. Rivers' narrative and her extraordinary solution, helping finance a separatist community through writing lesbian fantasies, employ the unique tactics and sheer determination to form space and identity.

The name, the Ozark Land Holders Association, offered them a bit more privacy, though locals quickly figured them out. Still, the women were surprised by the lack of grief they encountered as word spread. The mountain folk they encountered, who themselves often felt queered by the larger urban society, proved to be gracious, helpful neighbors.

Editor's note: A handful of women remain on the OLHA property.


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