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Backstory: Most Interesting Conflict That Didn’t Make It Into the Story

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James Buck - COURTESY OF JAMES BUCK
  • Courtesy Of James Buck
  • James Buck

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.


Huntington Open Women's Land, or HOWL, was established in 1985 as a women's community — a refuge from men, machismo and phallocentrism in all its forms. Until about six years ago, trans women were only tentatively considered in the collective's definition of "women"; more recently, HOWL has been grappling with the inclusion of people who identify as nonbinary, or neither strictly male nor female. On rare occasions, HOWL will host all-gender gatherings to which members can invite male partners, friends and children over the age of 10, but the categorical rule is that men aren't allowed on the premises.

Apparently, the no-men rule also applies to photographers. When Seven Days' James Buck found out he had been assigned to shoot my November 27 cover story on HOWL, he emailed the group to arrange a visit. A few days later, Buck received a response from HOWL treasurer Lani Ravin: "As you know, HOWL is women's land, one of a very few places that exists for women to create something different from our everyday life," she wrote. "Having a male photographer would not accurately reflect the reality of HOWL. We respectfully request that Seven Days send a woman photographer."

Buck, 41, goes by a male name and uses male pronouns, but before he transitioned 12 years ago, he lived for three decades as a woman; at 17, he came out as a lesbian. His preferred community was, and still is, female-centric; hanging out with cisgender men makes him uneasy. When he saw Ravin's response, he wasn't upset — having spent much of his life seeking out precisely the kind of environment that HOWL aims to create, he understood the intent. Rather than force the issue, Seven Days obliged and sent a "woman photographer," Karen Pike, and the story might have ended there. 

But for Buck, Ravin's email offered a reflection of himself that had already started to feel less and less coherent, a manifestation of the dissonance at the heart of the story I had written: How can a place like HOWL adapt to a gender-fluid zeitgeist while maintaining its separateness from the male universe? And if notions of maleness and femaleness have become increasingly fungible, can there be any reliable metric for determining who belongs and who doesn't?

"I'm probably the exact person who is kind of shut out by the thing they're doing," Buck told me the day he got Ravin's email. "I've been going through a period of realizing how much I lost when I transitioned in terms of my lesbian community and my female community ... and identifying more with my female history and past and body ... So lately I've been realizing that I actually want to be part of both worlds, and I have to be really careful about that, because not everyone accepts you."

Buck had no desire to challenge the collective's wishes, but he suggested that it would be interesting, and probably cathartic, for him to share his perspective with the group. So one day in early December, Buck and I got on the phone with HOWL board members Ravin, Michele Grimm, Cindy Feltch and Stephie Smith, plus resident caretaker Meg Mass, to delve into the interstices of Buck's identity. 

During the call, which lasted more than an hour and a half, Ravin said that the group had a lengthy discussion about whether to request a woman photographer. One of their considerations was that a male-presenting photographer would change the dynamic among the people being photographed, particularly for those with a history of trauma. In the end, the collective members decided that they wanted HOWL portrayed the way they experienced it — as a respite from the male gaze. 

But the larger, thornier question of whether Buck himself would be welcome at HOWL loomed over our conversation. At times, it felt like the dialogue had run aground — most egregiously, when one of the collective members asked Buck whether he had a penis — but the tenor was never combative or intentionally disrespectful. 

"What's the cutoff for being male?" Buck asked at one point. "It's not a beard; it's a word. And it's uncomfortable to identify as something other than male or female, because that makes you more vulnerable in the world. But nobody gives your socialization any weight. It's like, 'Do you want one word?' Fine, I can give you one word. Or do you want to sit and talk for a few minutes?"

In the end, Ravin and Mass said that they would be happy to continue the conversation with Buck in person — just not at HOWL.