By Amy Lieberman
Monday, January 6, 2014
In the 1970s they tackled issues such as workplace discrimination and losing custody of their children in the courts. Today, as same-sex marriage sweeps the country, this group is focused on the unique isolation and discrimination of older lesbians.
Credit: Alix Dobkin
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-- These days, Alix Dobkin passes most of her time taking care of her three young grandchildren, picking up the two oldest from elementary school in Woodstock, N.Y., and playing with the youngest, a 4-year-old, at home.
Every once in a while, though, the 73-year-old renowned folk singer still drives down to New York City to play a concert and temporarily recreate a once thriving underground urban community of lesbians, whose bonds were cemented by folk music and softball games.
Dobkin is at the center of a network of 1970s-era lesbian feminists who still gather regularly. From patriarchy to lesbianism they have plenty to talk about. But it is hard to escape the notion of a heyday now past.
"Well, nothing is like it was, including us," Dobkin said. "We are older and we are tireder and there have also been huge changes in the environment in which we live."
From a 1996 Supreme Court ruling against workplace discrimination to a decision in June 2013 against the Defense of Marriage Act, the legal terrain has been improving in recent years for people who identify as lesbian and gay.
But for Dobkin, co-director of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, a national network with biannual forums, there are still plenty of reasons to get together. The fight for marriage equality marks a victorious, forward step in "normalizing lesbians and gays in the mainstream," she said, but it is not a key issue that has inspired her.
At meetings members discuss their experiences as older lesbians, plan events and team up with larger national groups, including SAGE, which is focused on LGBT people over the age of 60. In July, Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, which is open to lesbians over 60, will be holding a forum in Oakland, Calif., that is expected to attract several hundred women from across the United States and also abroad.
Old Lesbians Organizing for Change is the only national organization that speaks out against the unique isolation and discrimination old lesbians often encounter, said Jan Griesinger, a co-director of the group. Members of the 15 chapters of the organization walk in annual gay pride parades and tend to elicit surprise when they flash their banners displaying the word "Old."
"Ageism is primarily about one being treated like you are old and old means out of it, clueless, and you can't really remember anything," Griesinger said. "It especially affects women. People pat you on the head and call you honey and sweetie."
Old Lesbians Organizing for Change was founded in 1989, six years after the publication of "Look Me in the Eye," an influential series of essays on aging, lesbianism and feminism by the writer Barbara McDonald. It formed on the heels of a waning period of political activism among lesbian feminists, who had begun to exchange sit-ins and collectives for steady jobs and family life.
Elana Dykewomon went to her first meeting of the organization shortly after she turned 60 with her partner, eight years her senior. There she found the cohort she never realized she had been missing.
In the 1970s Dkyewomon came out as a lesbian separatist and established an organizing space called Lesbian Gardens in North Hampton, Mass. She surrounded herself with other lesbians in the center's feminist book store and coffee house, and planned sit-ins and marches such as early "Take Back the Night" demonstrations that have been raising awareness of gender-based violence ever since.
But eventually Dykewomon, an English professor at San Francisco State University, went back to school and started spending less time protesting in the streets.
At Old Lesbians Organizing for Change forums Dykewomon sometimes feels a semblance of the 1970s, a heady time of collective activism and identity formation for lesbian feminists in the United States.
"When I went to that first gathering, it was like, 'Here they are. Here are the women who still want to be activists and kick ass and change the world,'" Dykewomon said.
Griesinger, the 71-year-old co-director of the organization, said that despite a nostalgic tendency among some in her age group, the lesbian feminist movement has remained strong and vital.
"Every day, every decade from the 1970s there was activity," Griesinger said. "The movement has changed and shifted, but there are women's centers and programs and community and meetings and just many, many activities going on all the time."
Lesbian feminism of the 1970s was fertilized by the feminist movement in the late 1960s, said Leila Rupp, a professor of feminist studies at University of California, Santa Barbara. At sit-ins across the country, activists challenged injustices affecting all women. But they also flagged the special concerns of lesbians, such as workplace discrimination and court rulings that denied lesbians legal guardianship of their children.
"Lesbians were the backbone of the radical feminist movement," Rupp said. "One of the big issues is that women were losing their children in custody cases and their jobs in the workplace and that was very real. People were making choices about how they were going to be out and where they were going to be."
The women formed a scattered national underground community, with New York City as a nucleus. Regular softball games in New York offered women a chance to be physical and competitive with one another. Folk musicians performed in apartments and at bars. Larger gatherings at university grounds could draw, at their height, up to 1,000 women. Those early years were a whirlwind, a thrill a minute, as old lesbians now remember.
Trying to organize these same women decades later presents particular problems, Dykewomon has found. They tend to be more forgetful and have more health crises.
The upcoming forum, which Dykewomon is helping to stage, will include a memorial for deceased lesbians, as well as workshops and a dance show.
New members can join Old Lesbians Organizing for Change once they exit their 50s, but recruitment is an ongoing struggle.
Arden Eversmeyer, who came out as a lesbian in 1948 when she was 17 years old, is a former co-director of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. The organization has since provided funding for Eversmeyer's initiative, the Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project.
Over the past 16 years Eversmeyer has recorded and collected the oral histories of 350 lesbians. Most of these women -- the oldest one was born in 1916 -- have been closeted for much of their adult lives. Some were married to men for periods of time and had children. Eversmeyer said she is quick to accept when she gets turned down for an oral history interview request.
"That is a generational thing, you know," Eversmeyer said. "Why should they come out now? They spent their lives with this kind of protective cover, and why should they risk losing some friends, or family, or church connections when they are safe the way they are?"
Older women seem more reluctant than men to show up at gatherings focused on their sexual orientation.
The SAGE Center in Manhattan, N.Y., the first full-time LGBT senior center in the United States, offers some older lesbian and bisexual women in New York City a chance to meet other LGBT people and participate in free events like writing workshops and meditation classes. But even here, at the open, bright meeting space, far fewer women than men turn out for the evening communal dinners. The seven women who arrived for the weekly group "Our Evolving Lives" one recent Thursday were reluctant to offer their names to a visitor.
"Most of the women are out, but not all, and we have had some women just coming out, even a woman over 70," said Felicia Sobel, a 69-year-old social worker who leads two women's groups.
None of the women in this group had heard of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. The topic at hand during their two-hour session in a small classroom one floor down from SAGE's busy lobby was monogamy. "It is a very religious way to live if you just stay with one person and I don't think it is workable, frankly," said a woman who identified herself as Raquel Welch.
Some older lesbians say their lives today are not that different from decades ago. Griesinger, for instance, lives on a women's collective in Athens, Ohio, that she founded in the 1980s and said her work has never let up.
Dobkin, meanwhile, is preparing for her next concert on March 8 in Manhattan at People's Voice Cafe, in Midtown East. Dobkin has earned the admiration of such big stars as pop singer Melissa Etheridge and Bob Dylan, who once called her his "favorite female singer."
"The ways we would organize back then just aren't there now," Dobkin said. "But people still come out to my shows and I think about coming together now and what a charge it is. The charge of being connected, of belonging to such a powerful force. Of being together."
Amy Lieberman is a journalist based in New York City. She is a master of arts candidate in politics and government journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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