By Brittany Lewis | Photos by Brad Kutner | The word “commune” conjures images of hippies and free love, and while the stereotype isn’t exactly wrong, today’s rural counterculture looks a little different at the US’s oldest secular commune. Known locally for their soy foods and hammocks, members of Twin Oaks Community in Louisa County are just as likely to show up to the back door of a Richmond restaurant with a delivery of extra-firm tofu as they are to come to the front door holding tickets for the latest queer music show. Because Twin Oaks was founded in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement- with an acknowledgment of patriarchy and racism as well as a mandate to oppose both, the community has been attracting social progressives “back to the land” for the last fifty years. Yet when other communal living experiments quietly closed their doors, Twin Oaks continued to build an alternative agrarian culture that welcomes home folks who find themselves on society’s sexual margins.
This article originally appeared in Virginia Pride & GayRVA Pride Guide Summer 2017, check it out HERE.
Unlike the few queer land experiments that remain–Radical Faeries and the Landyke movement come to mind, Twin Oaks is not explicitly a queer community. Founded in 1967 based on behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s utopian novel, Walden Two, Twin Oaks has expanded to a 100-person membership on 450 acres. While the community’s behaviorist foundations were discarded, a commitment to egalitarianism and income-sharing remains, and all members live collectively and work full-time in the community. In addition to shared businesses, the community boasts extensive domestic supports–a vegetable garden, a dairy herd, a community preschool, and guaranteed healthcare. Stay as long as you want and all your needs are met.
Valerie, a 49-year-old queer Canadian feminist, discovered Twin Oaks over 20 years ago.
“I was already involved in alternative activist activities,” she says, “and when I came to Twin Oaks, I realized it was the closest to the Platonic ideal of what alternative culture could look like.”
Stephan, a 33-year-old genderqueer trans-guy, moved to Twin Oaks three years ago after tiring of living paycheck-to-paycheck in West Philadelphia. For them, moving to a commune was the logical end of their coming-out process.
“I realized a crush on the same gender, realized I needed to rethink the default of heterosexuality, and then I asked myself what other defaults I needed to question. Religion, history, it’s like dominoes. Now I share income, housing, cars, everything.”
Like other Twin Oak residents, Stephan now lives in a house with ten to twenty adults, and works for “labor credits” instead of money, pocketing only about $1000 of spending money each year while the rest goes toward common expenses like food and medicine. For many of us living in the US, this level of counter-consumer sharing would be considered extreme, but for Stephan, that’s part of the appeal;
“I enjoy personally a specific definition of queer that’s related to subversive politics, going against the grain of people telling you how you should be in the world.”
The process also works in reverse: If one can question, and reject, the norms of personal bank accounts and private living spaces, what else is up for consideration? Then the answer is ‘everything’. The handbook distributed to new members encourages personal exploration, calling Twin Oaks “a safe place for playing with your definition of self.” Sometimes that exploration illuminates new sexual behaviors and identities: Stephan says they kissed men for the first time after moving to Twin Oaks, while one of their current partners came out fully as a lesbian after joining. Many new members dive into polyamory upon their arrival. But other changes are more subtle, and personal. Valerie just recently began growing her natural facial hair. As a yoga instructor in local towns, she had to grapple first with the concern of how her non-commune students would see her.
“I decided to just let my light shine, be who I am, and let people who were drawn to that be drawn,” she says. “I feel much freer to be who I am here.”
Recognition of the blurred boundaries of gender likely contributes to the cultural acceptance of queer bodies. For decades, Twin Oak residents have been using the gender-neutral pronoun “co” in their official documents, keeping bathrooms open to all, and encouraging playful dress among adults and children alike.
Adder, a 29-year-old new father, is grateful that the children of Twin Oaks see adults exploring all the options of gender presentation. Although identifying as a straight man, his relationship to that identity has shifted since he moved to the community and started wearing skirts regularly, as many straight men at Twin Oaks do. When another member threw a “Genderbender” themed party, one of the commune’s children was confused about why people were cheering a man who arrived at the party wearing a skirt and blouse. Adder explains,
“She just didn’t get it. As the kids grow older, I think the gender markers will become clear to them, but because they experience so many of their early years without feeling the need to divide the world on gender lines, they’ll be more open their whole lives.”
While part of that openness comes from a “you do you” acceptance of diversity common enough in urban centers, what commune life offers uniquely is a promise of sanctuary. As evidence of the community’s success at addressing feminist concerns of gender-based violence, members often quip that “women feel safe walking alone on the paths at night,” and any woman who learned how to walk across a dark parking lot with her keys protruding from her fist will recognize the significance of that statement. But public spaces are often unsafe in other ways for people who are visibly queer, and Stephan says that Twin Oaks gives a sense of physical safety to LGBT folks: “Knowing each other and knowing the group’s commitment to nonviolence, there’s no fear of attack when going about your daily life. You would have to have your guard up if you were in the mainstream, and at Twin Oaks you don’t. You you don’t really realize what a relief that is until you don’t have think about it all the time. It’s not a small thing.”
And the security offered by commune life is more than physical. People sometimes come to Twin Oaks from less-than-ideal domestic situations, forced by economic vulnerability to maintain unhealthy family relationships. Daniel, a 21-year-old gay man, says moving to Twin Oaks has allowed him to shift focus from survival towards self-actualization. “Before I moved here I pretty much assumed I would never have relationships that satisfied me. Because I don’t have to scramble to get my needs met, I feel like I have a lot more options for how I want to live, structure work, who I want to hang out with. I finally promised myself that I wouldn’t enter into relationships that won’t work for me, and I’m much less insecure about my sexuality in general.”
While the commune lifestyle won’t appeal to everyone, what it has in common with queer culture is a questioning of received wisdom. Which of our default beliefs nurture us, and which stifle us? When the physical, emotional, and financial constraints on our lives are removed, what versions of ourselves will unfold? Says Daniel, “The kinds of relationships you want are absolutely possible. You just have to put yourself in a place where they can flourish.” This is a lesson we can all take to heart.
Sidebar: Twin Oaks will be holding their first annual Queer Gathering August 4-6, 2017. It will be a weekend of workshops, performances, and camping for all queers and allies.