Old Lesbians Oral Herstory Project chronicles the lavender lives of 22 brave women.
by Joyce Gabiola
Editor’s note: Four of the oral histories from A Gift of Age
were first published in OutSmart in an article by Pokey Anderson:
Rebels & Survivors: The life stories from four of our lesbian “ancestors.”
I am just going to say it. These days it is easy to be a lesbian.
But for older pre-Internet lesbians, there was nowhere to go for information about what they were feeling. They would often simply resign themselves to live the life society expected of them—marriage, husband, children, apron, fence. (To be fair, some of them were also active in the workforce and earned advanced degrees.) How did lesbians find one another back then? How did they survive?
Arden Eversmeyer, 78, came to Houston in 1952 to visit a friend from college. She ended up staying because she met and fell in love with the woman who became her partner for the next 33 years. That woman passed away in 1985, and a few years later, Arden met Charlotte. They have been together for 22 solid years and share a home in the Heights where they sometimes host LOAF (Lesbians Over the Age of Fifty) social gatherings. In fact, the LOAF library is maintained on the second floor of their house, in a small room complete with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with materials—reference, self-help, non-fiction, comic books, and fiction—and two wooden rocking chairs for comfortable perusal of the volumes. Many Houston organizations have sprouted and wilted over the years, but LOAF is still thriving after 22 years by offering social networking and support for older lesbians.
The Old Lesbians Oral Herstory Project (OLOHP) began in 1997, the result of Arden’s desire to document the lives of her older lesbian friends. The scope of the project soon expanded as Arden and Charlotte began traveling around the country, usually in their motor home, to interview women who were willing to share their stories. Arden explains, “Essentially what I’m doing is trying to document what it was like being a lesbian in the early decades of the 20th century. We didn’t have organizations, we didn’t have vocabulary, we didn’t have any history—it was like we were non-existent at the time. How did we network? What kind of friendship groups did we make? What kind of sacrifices did we make?”
Arden’s project is now sponsored by OLOC (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change), a national organization for which Arden and Charlotte served on the steering committee for 14 years. At the 2001 OLOC conference in Minneapolis, Arden met Margaret Purcell, 58, a writer and horticulturist who lives with her partner, Mary Henry, 70, in Washington State. Arden and Margaret eventually joined forces to co-author A Gift of Age, a unique collection of stories about the lives of 22 older lesbians from diverse backgrounds [see sidebar]. The stories were selected from Eversmeyer’s OLOHP collection of about 175 interviews. The book includes each woman’s profile, written by Margaret, as well as long excerpts from Arden’s original interviews. They decided to self-publish the book in late 2009, and began distributing copies in Port Townsend, Washington, with a book signing. A Gift of Age can be ordered through the Old Lesbians Oral Herstory Project website at olohp.org
From bar brawls to self-hating struggles to run-ins with famous writers, A Gift of Age is also a gift of earnestness and good ol’ storytelling. You will find that it reads like a journal; you can almost hear the women speaking.
Arden and Margaret hope that the book will be used at universities and colleges for women’s studies or LGBT studies. “There are women in their 20s or 30s coming into being influential in society and haven’t been exposed to this [material]. It’s eye-opening,” shares Margaret. “For younger readers, I hope it’s enlightening. I think they will appreciate more the liberties and freedoms they have that might be taken for granted.”
It is true that sometimes we forget where we came from. It is also true that we often fail to remember that the opportunities we have today have been fought for, not simply handed to us as an inherent right. Arden notes that these women’s stories date way back before Stonewall. “A lot of young lesbians don’t know about Stonewall,” asserts Arden.
The entire OLOHP collection of 175 interviews is in need of a permanent archival home. The list of institutions being considered includes the June Mazer Lesbian Archives in West Hollywood, the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City, and libraries on the campuses of Stanford University, Cornell University, and Smith College. Arden and Purcell are particularly interested in Smith College because they are confident that the OLOHP documents would be well taken care of, cataloged properly, and explored, and also because the school is interested in building a lesbian archive within their general collection. Nothing is certain, but they are currently in discussions with the archivist at the well-respected Massachusetts institution.
There is a sense of urgency related to the OLOHP, for obvious reasons. Arden recently received a call informing her that one of the women who had participated in the project had died. The woman lived in Long Beach, California, and her story was not yet finished. Arden spoke with the woman’s niece, who had found the interview transcript in her aunt’s home. The niece read the transcript and, according to Arden, through tears told her, “I didn’t know my aunt. I am touched by her story.” Arden also revealed that two of the Houston women she interviewed passed away in 2008, one of them having been a very good friend. “It’s hard when this happens, but when you’re 90 years old, you’ve had a pretty good run.”
I revise my initial assertion. It has never been easy to be a lesbian and it is not now, but opportunities do exist for us that did not before. It is the older generations of women and men who have brought us here, who have formed an amazing community. And those of us who are present, for the most part, are actively contributing to our cause, which is simply life. As Arden says, “You gotta do a little bit of living to have some history.”
~Excerpts from the Book~
On Being the Only Ones in the World
We’re in the back seat, it’s pitch dark…kind of necking up a storm. All of a sudden we discover the women in the front were hanging their chins over the backs of their seats watching us. And they go, “I knew it, I knew it. I knew we weren’t the only ones.”
On Language and Terminology
During my high school years, I was trying to be so butch. I really wanted to go into the Army but my mother wouldn’t let me. My mother said, “Nothing but queers and whores in the Army.”
On Being Closeted and Coming Out
We had purges back in those days. Kids would leave campus on weekends. And on Monday morning, when everyone should be there, we’d discover all of these people who should be there were not. On the weekend, they would have been packed up, moved out and sent home. Because somebody said that somebody said… It didn’t take documentation or proof. All it took was somebody that said somebody had done something. As many as 50 women disappeared in one weekend my freshman year. You had to be so careful.
On First Awareness and First Relationships
I dated the captain of a football team from another high school, yet I knew from the time that I was seven years old that I preferred girls to boys.
On Men and Marriage
He was tall and good-looking, and since I thought I had to get married ’cause that was what all good girls did, I married him the summer after I dropped out of school. I was 20 years old, by four days, and a virgin, as he was also. He was in the Navy and we lived together for three months and then, when he went to Korea, I returned to Cleveland to live with my parents and work. It didn’t take long before I was again involved with a woman, so I filed for divorce.
On Finding Other Lesbians
As two couples, we started to do all kinds of stuff together. They had a big circle of friends, so we met people at the Cape. But we had a life in the summer that didn’t transfer back to the city until maybe a year or so later. They had a big party at their home in New Jersey and invited us. I walked into this party and I had never seen so many lesbians, you know! Not only that, but they were sitting on each other’s laps. They were hugging each other. They were kissing each other. They were talking, and my first reaction was, aaahhhh. And then, it was like, “This is where I belong.” And that began to change things.
On Getting Help to Deal with their Problem, Lesbianism
I started psychoanalysis… I went in to become heterosexual and never again be involved with a woman. I came out a feminist and a lesbian.
On Loss of a Long-term Partner
I was so angry that I was 54, a widow, and my life was over. Who the hell wants anything to do with a 54-year-old woman? That’s what society tells us to feel. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way.
On Resources/Information for Lesbians
I would go to the library and read about how I was criminally ill.
Joyce Gabiola is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.