Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tribute to an Iowa Couple

This article came out over one of the internet list services I subscribe to and pays tribute to one half of a couple that I'd never heard of before. My sympathies go out to Jean on the loss of her partner, Aleta. Here's the story by Deb Price in the Detroit News (my color emphasis added)...

In high spirits because the February day was warm, Jean Mayberry honked and waved at a neighbor, a woman she knew only as "Aleta, the lesbian down the street." "She smiled at me, and I was hooked," recalls Jean, who was way too shy to introduce herself. So, she searched the Sioux City, Iowa, phonebook line by line until she spotted Aleta's address and discovered her last name: "Fenceroy." Jean threw a party to have an excuse to invite Aleta over.

By that summer of 1991, the two women, who were in their early 40s and had been resigned to spending the rest of their lives unattached, were very much a couple. Before long, even Aleta's grown kids took to calling them "The Fenceberrys." Together, these remarkable women -- one a computer programmer, the other a jewelry store employee -- performed a priceless service, knitting gay people scattered all around the globe into a community as never before. What they did for hours on end, day after day, from 1996 to 2004, sounds simple enough: They distributed via email every newspaper article they could find about anything gay -- a court ruling, a celebrity coming-out story, a syndicated column, a hate crime.

For their devoted fans, the Fenceberrys became town criers, telling us far more than we could learn from the occasional gay article in our hometown papers. Or, to put it another way, Fenceberry readers -- whether a New York City gay-rights attorney or a closeted college student -- had been like the blind men touching the elephant, each knowing little more than what was within reach. The Fenceberrys' daily dispatches were quite literally eye-opening, revealing the enormous size and growing strength of the gay-rights movement.

An Iowa man had started the invaluable, free service when email was in its infancy. When he tired, Jean and Aleta picked up the baton and ran with it. Fenceberry readers, in turn, ran with what we learned from them, using it in our work as journalists, professors, historians, or activists, and using it in our lives to gain new confidence and perspective. But I, for one, too rarely said thanks for helping me connect the dots. I've been thinking more than usual about the extraordinary good that truly devoted people can accomplish when they set their hearts to it: A recent email brought the sad news that Aleta has died at 57, after a short, brutal battle with cancer. The ripple effects from the Fenceberrys' good works will fan out forever. Aleta understood that in the race to achieve full equality for those of us who are gay, each of us can carry the baton only so long. In the early years of the Fenceberry articles, Jean did the lion's share of the work because Aleta was in grad school. But for most of the eight years, Aleta took the lead. In 2004, she decided that the Internet had matured enough for them to bow out. "It's been a pleasure and an honor," Aleta said to The Washington Blade. "Nobody told us to do this. We just kind of started doing it. … The void will be filled by someone." Now, someone is finishing the blanket that Aleta had been crocheting for her third grandbaby. Others are tilling the ground the Fenceberrys broke. But they are not forgotten. And my heart goes out to Jean, who now calls herself "forever and proudly the 'berry' half of the Fenceberry family." You can reach Deb Price at dprice@detnews.com or (202) 662-8736.

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