by Margaret Purcell -
Courtesy of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change
'It used to be when I referred to myself in concerts as a Lesbian, some of the people in the audience would gasp,' said singer-songwriter Alix Dobkin, now 72 years old, when she visited the Seattle and Tacoma area in early April. 'Times have changed. When I refer to myself as an old Lesbian, people barely react to 'Lesbian,' but they are shocked that I say 'old.' Alix is part of OLOC, Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, a national organization that is devoted to improving the lives of old Lesbians by challenging ageism and other isms that impact Lesbians 60 years of age and older.
Nearly five years ago, a local chapter of OLOC formed, based in the Tacoma/Gig Harbor area, but reaching widely into the greater Puget Sound region. With their feet well under them, Puget Sound (PS) OLOC agreed to take on planning a regional conference for old Lesbians, to be held in Tacoma, July 28-31. At one of their early visits to the hotel that will be the site of the conference, the planners were introduced to a regional manager for the hotel chain. When asked about their group, they volunteered that they were a chapter of OLOC, and they had a different reaction than Alix had described. Mary Henry, part of the PS OLOC leadership, said, 'When we said 'old' to the hotel managers, they were OK. When we said 'Lesbian,' they still seemed OK. But when we said 'organizing for change,' you could tell what word made them a bit nervous! It was 'change.'
A demand for change, especially when it comes from a group of old women, can be a scary prospect. Just what 'change' are these women trying to effect? The first big step locally was to begin to organize their own community. According to Gloria, another of the PS OLOC leadership team, 'There are hundreds of old Lesbians living in the Puget Sound area, but many of them live very quiet lives. Worse, some are truly isolated. Even though we are living in an age where Gay and Lesbian characters pop up on television, are out as musicians, or even hold public offices, there is that part of us that can't help but be cautious. For much of our early lives, letting anyone know you were a Lesbian put your job at risk. A lot of us married and had children, and coming out risked losing homes and families.'
Organizing the community, finding the women, and then providing ways to stay connected is a top priority for PS OLOC. That alone is a significant change. But it doesn't end there. One of the first challenges is to get women to buy into using the term 'old' instead of 'older,' or another euphemism. 'Older' doesn't mean anything unless it's used in comparison. And even then, it's often useless. If you were told that Sophia is older than Chris, you still don't know much of anything about Sophia's age. She could be 5 and Chris 4, for all you know. But if you were told Sophia and Chris were old, you'd know a lot more about them. OLOC believes we need to reclaim the word 'old' just as a younger generation worked hard to reclaim the word 'Queer.' Modern culture may be obsessed with all things young and corporations work tirelessly to sell you a zillion products and procedures that will keep you from looking old, but that doesn't mean you have to buy into it.
OLOC has also taken on another almost impossible mission: they're trying to stop everyone from addressing them as 'you guys.' 'You can't go anywhere in public without being addressed as 'you guys,' said Mary. 'My partner and I stepped into a car dealership last week. The man who opened the door asked, 'What can we do for you guys today?' Not one minute later, another man asked, 'Can I get you guys some coffee?' When it was gently pointed out that we weren't guys, we were treated to that condescending chuckle that just pushes our buttons.'
'My partner asked, 'What if the two of you came into our business and we said, 'Can we get you gals some coffee?' You can bet they wouldn't have taken that as a compliment! 'You guys' is not gender-neutral, as some would have you think, so PS OLOCers now keep a change jar on the table at all events that says 'You say it, you pay it!' We do our best to point it out whenever we can - but, being raised women, we tend to be too polite about it! But we're trying.'
The upcoming three-day conference for old Lesbians in Tacoma demonstrates just how seriously PS OLOC takes the challenge of working to improve the lives of women in their own community. Gloria Stancich, who will be 76 in a few weeks, said, 'Gathering together with 100 or more of your contemporaries is a powerful and unique experience. I've been to several of them over the last decade, laughing, learning, and forming friendships. I always come back home both exhausted and energized.'
Gloria has taken the lead in developing the program for this summer's regional gathering. 'I'd heard award-winning Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman speak at an LGBT conference in Tacoma over a decade ago, and she was immediately my first choice for keynote speaker for our gathering this summer. We were absolutely thrilled that she agreed to speak.' The conference will be a mix of opportunities to learn, share, and play, and includes a dance on Friday night and a concert by French-Canadian singer-songwriter Lucie Blue Tremblay on Saturday evening. (For more information, visit www.oloc.org.)
Women of all ages are invited to attend the concert and dance, but the conference itself is limited to women who identify as old Lesbians. 'A big part of the magic of the OLOC gatherings is that you spend those days with Lesbians of your own age, women who know what you're talking about when you refer to the purges at colleges in the '50s or talk about the Daughters of Bilitis or even mention a Burma Shave sign!'
Each chapter of OLOC is encouraged to develop its own style and focus. For the Puget Sound chapter, one of their major projects is to help gather and document the life stories of Lesbians at least 70 years of age. The stories are done as recorded oral interviews that are then transcribed and put together with support documents to form a book. The support documents are usually photos and copies of certificates, newspaper articles, writings, and such.
'Doing the herstory work is a blast!' said Mary, part of the local herstory team. 'We encourage the women sharing their stories to tell us anything they want about their lives. Of course, we'd love to have them tell about the Lesbian aspects of their life - how they found other Lesbians when they were young, how being a Lesbian affected their jobs and families - but it doesn't have to be just about their Lesbian life. In fact, we encourage them to tell about their family of origin, about going to school as a kid, about any religious upbringing - and on the other end of the spectrum, about their hopes for the future and if they have a 'bucket list.' Some people may think there isn't much yet to come for a woman who has passed her 70-year mark, but they'd be amazed. Just listening to what some of these women are up to can wear you out!'
PS OLOC is collecting local herstories as part of a national effort, the Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project. The OLOHP has been gathering stories since 1997, focusing on women born early in the 1900s. Of course, now that it's 2011, women just turning 70 were born in 1941! The OLOHP (www.olohp.org) collection is being archived in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Locally, PS OLOC is also contributing a copy of each Pacific Northwest herstory to the Pacific Northwest Lesbian Archive (www.pnwlesbianarchives.org), which is housed at the Washington State History Society (www.wshs.org).
'We've been lucky enough to have the Pride Foundation jump in as supporters of our efforts,' said Gloria. 'I know we've even raised their consciousness a bit. When we were referred to as 'old' during a grant review committee meeting, several members seemed to be offended on our behalf, suggesting they use the word 'older' instead. Jeff, who was presenting our information, straightened them out on that one!' Not everyone in PS OLOC is totally immersed in the organization, but its structure is such that you can simply lurk and read posts on their Yahoo! list and get their newsletter, and some only participate in the social events, while others dive in headfirst, interviewing, transcribing, marching, networking, and more.
If you're an old Lesbian and would like to get in on the action, give them a holler at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you're not an old Lesbian, but you see them out and about, stop and tell them you appreciate what they're doing & just don't slip up and call them 'older' or 'you guys,' or you might get a lot more than a friendly 'Thank you!'
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