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Lesbians welcome at Seattle's OverForties
Lesbians welcome at Seattle's OverForties
by Kassie Koledin - Special to the SGN

What Lesbian group in Seattle has been running regularly for more than 25 years, was once described by a substitute facilitator as harder to herd than a pack of cats, and generates crowd-drawing social events such as the "You Don't Have To Have Any Talent" talent show and a Coming Out Cotillion every other year or so?

If you had guessed the Seattle OverForties Group, a social group open to Lesbians over 40 years of age, you would be correct.

OverForties meets every Tuesday evening from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and is open to all women over 40 years old who identify as Lesbians, according to Sandra Jo, OverForties facilitator.

"It's an open group, it's not exclusive," said Sandra Jo. "There's not a big commitment. We have no offices, no committees. Women can come as often or as little as they want."

Palm noted that in order to fully appreciate the other women in OverForties, potential participants should have worked on diversity issues such as classism, Transgender phobia, racism, anti-Semitism and, above all, ageism.

"It is also important to have a sense of humor," added Sandra Jo.

Format of the meetings is simple: check in, then a break for socializing, followed by the topic discussion of the evening. Sandra Jo noted that while the structure of each meeting is always the same, the topic and the members' interactions make each meeting unique.

"It's always changing," she said. "It changes dynamics according to who is in the group. Sometimes [the meetings are] very party-ish, and sometimes it's thought-provoking. I think the current group is marked by a wide range of interests." Program topics reflect this, from "Your First Kiss/Crush" to "What Would You Want to Talk about with Michelle Obama?"

No one seems to know for sure when OverForties started, but Sandra Jo believes that OverForties began at least 25 years ago at the Lesbian Resource Center (now defunct). Sandra Jo became involved with OverForties 20 years ago when she applied for an opening as the group's leader.

"I'm a group worker by profession," said Sandra Jo, who has led various women's groups for the last 40 years.

She interviewed for the position and was accepted on the condition that she would lead the group for at least one year.

"I had my doubts that I would stay that long," Sandra Jo said, "but here I am, 20 years later."

At the time that Sandra Jo started with OverForties, the group was very small because of various setbacks.

"The group was in turmoil," Sandra Jo recalled. "A lot of people had just quit. We had to rebuild the group, although a lot of those former members eventually came back."

Sandra Jo found that she loved doing the group.

"My political goal for the last 40 years was empowering women, and this group was definitely empowering women. I see this group primarily as a way to help older Lesbians work against ageism. This society values youth and so often older Lesbians feel one down when they're at a bar or at a social event."

"For a lot of women, it is a community," said Sandra Jo. "They help each other move, go with each other to the doctor's, visit each other in the hospital," she said, adding that women in the group assist each other in many different ways; physical, mental, emotional and sometimes financial.

"It's friends, people I can socialize with, do things with," noted Que Areste, a naturopathic physician who joined the group in 2007. "I've made some good friends as well as some nice acquaintances."

There are members who have been with OverForties for a long time, such as Joyce, who joined OverForties in 1993 when she came out at 50. She originally started going to one of the groups that Sandra Jo holds for women who identify as heterosexual but are involved with a woman.

"However, after three or four meetings, I decided I wanted to move over to OverForties," Joyce said. She had already had had one relationship with a woman - "a short-term, chaotic thing" - and had absolutely no doubts that she was a Lesbian. She instantly liked OverForties.

"It was very warm, very accepting. Women immediately invited me to things and went out of their way to include me," she recalled. "It wasn't long before I had another girlfriend."

Even then, there were a variety of social events and activities going on, so much that Joyce started the OverForties Calendar. She noted that there was so much going on that a calendar was started so that people could schedule their parties and events without conflicts.

One of the more famous or infamous events is the Cotillion, which is held every other year, according to Joyce. The Cotillion first started in the early 1990s as a celebration of coming out for women. Women could be debutantes at any time.

According to Joyce, the first portion of the Cotillion is devoted to honoring the debutantes. Every debutante is escorted, by a woman who has already come out, through an archway, decorated with ribbons, flowers or a rainbow banner. According to Joyce, this is followed by "extremely corny skits."

"A balance of good taste and bad taste," she said.

"It was a Sunday afternoon garden party that went on all day because we couldn't make people go home," Joyce recalled.

Joyce had experienced a happy coming out, but she understood that didn't happen for everyone.

"Some of the people when they first came out, they have a very difficult time, especially if they had strong religious backgrounds," said Joyce.

For those who participated, the Cotillion was an affirmation of who they were as well as an "official" welcome to the Lesbian community.

"The last one we did was so meaningful to the women involved, it was a kind of rite of passage," added Dawn Darington, businesswoman, author of A View From the Closet and a regular attendee at OverForties.

There have been rare disagreements among women in the group but various members stressed that the overriding concern has been to keep the group going, to not allow it to capsize from discord.

"When issues occurred, the emphasis was on not taking sides, especially when there were breakups between couples in the group," said Joyce, adding that when a relationship falls apart, it's important that both women, if they want to continue with OverForties, be able to leave their bad feelings outside the group.

Sandra Jo noted that negative attitudes or behaviors are seen as out of place or inappropriate at OverForties.

"There's a kind of culture that's developed," said Sandra Jo. "It's a place for acceptance, not a place to debate or judge others."

"OverForties is like a safe harbor," said Sandra Jo. "Some people have little residences alongside the harbor, some came and go in little boats, but it's a harbor from the harsh realities and ageism of life. It's a place where women can be secure and valued for who they are, where they can extend their friendship group - and where they can have some fun."

For more information about OverForties, call Sandra Jo at (206) 328-4895.

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