Whatever you plan…it happens…if you’re lucky. I have my Medicare card and as much gray hair as any women in my family ever had. So going to the July gathering of OLOC (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change) in Oakland was both unnerving and inspiring. OLOC, founded in 1989, is the only organization devoted to old lesbians and provides a network of women ranging in age from 60 to almost 100. The group helps battle ageism in the LGBT community and reduces the isolation lesbians can suffer as we age and are no longer on the club scene or the soft ball team…if you ever were!
Isolation is a chronic problem for all old people and even more so for lesbians who may be estranged from their families, have no children and have historically had lower incomes. All those things that were part of our alternative lives in our youth seem to be a liability now!
The OLOC gathering was unnerving because (like most people) I never thought about who I’d be as an old woman. Even though I was raised by old women—my great grandmother and grandmother—I never projected myself into their ages. I guess internally we imagine ourselves forever in our 20s.
But inspiration was the most remarkable aspect of the weekend. I got to see other gray haired women…and some blue…some purple…some magenta…who were part of my lesbian feminist coming of age: poets Avotcja and Chrystos, and singers Ronnie Gilbert, Alix Dobkin and Margie Adam. It was a reunion even if you didn’t know every one of the almost 300 women who attended. I’ve been to other OLOC gatherings—I celebrated my 60th birthday at one—but something made this event particularly special. Being in Oakland there was a wonderfully full representation of women of color and many people that I know personally. In addition the local OLOC chapter had a very generous response to providing subsidies for lesbians who couldn’t afford to pay full freight. This made for a wonderfully diverse group economically as well.
As the Baby Boomers come of age we represent a different way of being a lesbian than some of the earlier members of OLOC. We’ve been out and agitating for a long time, informed by feminism and AIDS activism. We are also from a very broad spectrum of the citizenry because so many more of us have been out and involved in different kinds of direct action than the generations before. It will be interesting to see how the organization evolves as we become members and influence how things are done. The digital divide is not just about who uses computers comfortably (although that is one element). It can suggest other cultural differences from how we fundraise to how we relate to transwomen. (And yes there was a transgender panel and at least one transwoman at the gathering.)
The most significant thing for me was a re-affirmation of how significant lesbian culture has been to organizing our lives and our activism and how easily that can be overlooked. There was a reason so many musical artists were present—they’d provided the soundtrack to our social activism.
The poetry reading on the opening night (organized by Elana Dykewomon and Lynn Brown) was further testament to the power of lesbian culture. It was the first literary event held at an OLOC gathering (which was a direct influence of Baby Boomers) and began with a tribute to Pat Parker—a reading of her poem “Movement in Black” by some people from the intergenerational panel including musician Vicki Randle and local poets Indira Allegra and Arisa White.
It continued with a lineup I felt privileged to be a part of: Dorothy Allison, Kitty Tsui, Avotcja Jiltonilro, Teya Schaffer, Canyon Sam, Barbara Ruth, Jeanne Cordova, Carmen de Monteflores. As soon as each writer took the mic it was clear that the fiery spirit of lesbian feminism was not dimmed by age, no matter how surprised we were to see ourselves as old. All those demonstrations we organized and attended; all those books we wrote and published; all those organizations started to help women were not in vain. We’d survived not just to see the next generations, but to keep the work going ourselves.
There was no more fierce a group of women than the lesbians at OLOC and the writers on that stage. The joking refrain repeated many times over the weekend was: “We’re old lesbians, we’re cranky!” And it was clear that ‘crankiness’ was the fuel that helped us demand social change over the past decades. I don’t know how many lesbians think they’re going to get old but in case you do there’s a place for you. Embrace your cranky.
Jewelle Gomez is featured in Beauty in Truth. She is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com