June is Pride Month, but Barbara Novick and Leslie Kanes Weisman should be proud all year long.

Last year, spectators at the inaugural North Fork Pride parade in Greenport no doubt saw a group of women, all different ages and backgrounds, march triumphantly along Main and Front streets behind a “North Fork Women” banner. North Fork Women is a long-running nonprofit organization that helps queer women from Riverhead to Orient and Shelter Island, not only assisting with health care and financial issues, but also providing them with a community and safe space.

Ms. Novick, the group’s current president, and Ms. Weisman, a founding member and former president, certainly have a lot to be proud of. North Fork Women was founded in 1992, long before any small, rural East End towns had any official LGBTQ+ events or holidays. To hear them tell North Fork Women’s evolution is to hear a story that is equal parts moving, challenging and triumphant.

The group’s mission statement, according to its website, is to provide “health advocacy and education” to lesbian women across the East End. “We develop activities and programs that foster the social and community life of lesbians on the North Fork of Long Island, New York.”


A group is nothing without its members.

“Membership is free and open to any self-identified lesbian who resides full-time or part-time on the North Fork, between Riverhead and Orient [as well as] Shelter Island,” said Ms. Novick. “North Fork Women is an outgrowth of a core of women from back in the ’80s who became aware of the need to support each other.”

In 1992, Ms. Weisman recalls, she and her close-knit group of friends lost a loved one, which galvanized them to act.

“A dear friend of ours died of breast cancer,” Ms. Weisman said. “[Founding members] Lucille Goodman and Beva Eastman decided that it was time to make sure that no lesbian died of cancer because they couldn’t afford a mammogram.”

The women, along with the group’s eventual first president, Jan Swanson, received an anonymous donation to provide 12 lesbians with mammograms.

“The epicenter of this organization’s beginning was the idea that women’s health, particularly lesbian health care, was not well understood and certainly not well-funded,” Ms. Weisman said. “We needed to form an organization that was founded, financed and run by lesbians for lesbians, dedicated to taking care of each other’s health.”

But “health” is a very broad term. “Early on, we defined health in a very different way,” Ms. Weisman explained. “Jan Swanson felt that health was dependent upon one’s physical condition, but there were those of us who argued — and I was among them — that a sense of wellbeing, and belongingness, a sense of community, contributes to a prosperous and healthy life.”

For North Fork Women, that meant making sure the local lesbian population felt like they belonged. Over the years, North Fork Women has hosted countless social events, from parties to sports nights to arts programs. Ms. Novick, an educator with a background in and passion for music, is particularly proud of a currently inactive choir group whose performances filled Poquatuck Hall in Orient.

“There used to be a group called the Narrow River Singers,” Ms. Novick recalls fondly. The group, spearheaded by Margaret Cowden, was filled with North Fork Women members, both those who were musicians and singers and those who were simply enthusiastic.

“We had standing room only,” recalls Ms. Weisman, who was part of the choir. “We did challenging classical music in addition to show tunes. That built a sense of community, also … we rehearsed all the time.”

As president, Ms. Novick hopes to bring back some of North Fork Women’s arts programs, as well as other activities, including hiking and kayaking groups. So there’s plenty to do as a member, including “First Fridays” social gatherings. The purpose of these events, Ms. Novick says, is “to bring out people who have [no community] or they’ve lost a partner — whatever the reason, it’s to negate isolation. It’s to bring people into the fold, to welcome and embrace. There is a great need and that is a part of health. Socialization is core.”

While most of the group consists of volunteers, Ms. Novick points to a woman who has been invaluable to the group as an employee, and became its first hired staff member in 2013.

“An article about North Fork Women would not be complete without mention of our amazing admin, Barb Pfanz,” Ms. Novick said. “She is often referred to as the backbone of the organization, whose multitude and diversity of skills keep us strong and moving forward as an ever-growing organization. Barb is a most welcoming ambassador for North Fork Women, as well as a beloved long-standing member of the community.”


North Fork Women has a host of financial programs and services, including multiple grants, and scholarships for high school students. These run the gamut from health care grants that help women with out-of-pocket medical expenses, non-medical grants that assist with other needs, such as home and vehicle repair, and grants to help offset the cost of medical alert devices.

There’s also HelpHer, which was founded by Anne Wyden and the late Peggy Heller, to assist women with smaller but no-less-important needs: groceries, getting to a doctor’s appointment, even getting their plants watered while they are away.

“HelpHer came about because we realized women needed stuff that wasn’t necessarily money to pay for a doctor bill,” Ms. Weisman said. “Maybe they were having cataract surgery and couldn’t drive home, things like that are not related specifically to money.”

In exchange for these grants and services — all of which are confidentially distributed — North Fork Women asks that recipients try to pay it forward, often simply by volunteering for the group in some way.


In 2000, North Fork Women held a Gay Pride dance at Borghese Vineyard in Cutchogue that was a huge success. And in 2001, The Suffolk Times published the first article about the organization, “North Fork Women Step Forward,” for which Ms. Weisman and two members were interviewed.

“We came out, basically!” Ms. Weisman said. “I wasn’t scared. I had some concerns. But you just don’t know. One does not necessarily bring the subject up unless it’s pertinent. You bring it up in context with something.”

Ms. Weisman recalls the warm reception from the article.

“One of the most remarkable things happened,” she said. “There was an ex-Marine who was living diagonally across the street and I thought, ‘Oh god, this guy’s gonna hate this, he’s never going to speak to me again.’ He came over with his wife to say how proud they were of having me as a neighbor. I still get choked up about it. Those kinds of moments make honesty not only viable but essential. If we are not who we are as human beings, if we can’t embrace our full identity as ourselves, we are simply living untruthful lives. We learned a long time ago that that is not a healthy way to live.”

Ms. Novick echoes the sentiment. “It is a very personal thing,” said Ms. Novick. “As an educator, I had to do that with my school community. I had to be selective about who I shared this information with, and it was always met very positively. People feel honored that you take them into your confidence. There’s a poster I saw recently of a door with a rainbow painted on it and a welcome mat on the bottom and it said, ‘People don’t come out. They let you in.’” The group continues to evolve. Today, North Fork Women often works closely with Queerli, another local nonprofit for LGBTQ+ folks. One of Queerli’s founders, Michelle Demetillo, serves on North Fork Women’s board.

At an annual advisory board meeting, the group went around introducing themselves. Ms. Novick went into her background and said that in the past, “For me, being gay was my secret.”

Demetillo responded, “Being gay is my superpower.”

“That’s where we’ve evolved,” said Ms. Weisman.

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