My friend Roslyn Garfield of Provincetown, Mass., was a pioneer. Now that she has died at age 91, I can call her that. She wouldn’t hear of it when she was alive. And forget calling her a role model. When she said, “Do not call me an R.M.,” it was like a slap upside the head.
Roslyn grew up in Providence, R.I., graduated high school and moved to New York to get a bachelor’s from NYU, and a master’s from Columbia. She lived in Greenwich Village and was known as Danny. On her way to classes, she would stop at the gay bar run by the mafia and put her dollar down for their happy hour drink special on her way home.
The men who ran the place took a shine to her and would take her aside to warn her about women they saw her flirt with — “That one is trouble.” When they heard she was having trouble paying her electric bill, someone went over to her walk-up, rigged the box and she never received another bill.
After graduation, she taught health at a girl’s school in North Carolina and left just before they fired her for being a lesbian. She took all her money and moved to Paris. After a year, when her money ran out, she returned to New York and in 1956 on a whim one night took a ride with a friend to Provincetown. They arrived before sunrise and slept in the dunes. She fell in love with the town.
In Ptown, Roslyn had many careers. She was a guidance counselor and field hockey coach at a local high school. During the summers she worked packing fish in the ice-house. She was an antiques dealer, shop owner and successful Realtor. She was also a successful butch with great stories of the minister’s wife, summer visitors and martini afternoons in her Boston Whaler.
Phyllis Temple, a gorgeous femme from New York, visited Ptown in 1968, and Roslyn went into serious wooing mode. Phyllis left Manhattan and moved to be with Roslyn. Eventually Phyllis took over the real estate business and encouraged Roslyn at age 50 to get a law degree. Phyllis, an avid reader, never got a library card because she said she didn’t want the commitment. Nonetheless, they were together for 40 years.
Roslyn began practicing law in 1977 and though she was known for her hours of pro bono work during the AIDS epidemic in Ptown, she preferred to tell another story. She once convinced a judge that her client, arrested for jerking off in the dunes, had just finished peeing and was merely shaking off the last drop.
For nearly 60 years she navigated the changes in small-town politics and civil society. She was involved in the arts, the film festival and coastal studies. For 18 years she was Town Moderator and wielded a deft gavel during contentious annual town meetings. She loved her community.
Roslyn was also a l’chaim poster girl. She was a gourmet cook, rare books collector, bonsai grower, Red Sox fanatic, tennis player, world traveler, jazz lover and devoted partner. Late in life she took up the cello. She said she loved how it felt between her legs. She built a harpsichord for Phyllis. She took up drawing, “mostly the figure classes,” she’d say and nudge-nudge, wink-wink me. Until two months before she died, she drove her beloved Mercedes Benz down Commercial Street. All the locals knew to dive for the bushes.
In this summer season of celebration of the courageous Edie Windsor and her lioness-hearted stand against DOMA at the Supreme Court, I celebrate Roslyn Garfield and the many courageous old lesbians, especially the butches, who came out and made a difference in their communities and in the world.