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Herstory Maker

Arden Eversmeyer’s project records and honors the lives of hundreds of older lesbians.

Arden Eversmeyer (photo by Alex Rosa for OutSmart magazine)

You don’t have to climb Mount Everest to be interesting, Arden Eversmeyer says. “Everyone has an amazing story.” With that philosophy in mind, Eversmeyer founded The Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project (OLOHP) in 1988 to document and honor the lives of hundreds of older lesbians.

Today, OLOHP is international, and the project’s dozen or more active interviewers have completed documenting almost 800 histories. And as the 89-year-old vice president of OLOHP, Eversmeyer is still going strong as well.   

Becoming a Historian

Indeed, Eversmeyer’s story is an amazing one. She was in her 60s when she founded OLOHP, and the years leading up to that milestone are just as remarkable.

Eversmeyer was born in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, in 1931. She later moved to Texas to attend Texas Woman’s University in Denton, where she earned a degree in health, recreation, and physical education.    

In 1951, Eversmeyer settled in Pampa, Texas, where she was hired to set up the first driver’s education program at a local high school. She met her first partner, Tommie Russum, at a softball game in Houston in 1952, and moved to Space City to be with her.

Eversmeyer taught driver’s education and physical education in the Pasadena Independent School District before transferring to the Houston Independent School District and becoming a student counselor.

In 1963, Eversmeyer earned her master’s degree in counseling from Sam Houston State College. “I just liked junior-high kids,” she says. “They could come to me and vent. At that point, they are not kids and not yet adults.” She counseled middle schoolers until her retirement in 1981.

Then in 1985, her golden years took a tragic turn when Russum, her partner of 33 years, died. Although Eversmeyer had a large group of friends, they were all in relationships, so she had few opportunities to meet single women.

Feeling like there was no place for midlife women like her in Houston, Eversmeyer packed her bags and went to the West Coast to look for organizations that included older LGBTQ singles. She came up short when she found that those kind of groups were mostly for gay men.    

Eversmeyer decided if she couldn’t find a suitable organization, then she would make one. She returned to Houston to develop a local organization for older lesbians. Six women showed up at the first meeting in 1987, and the group adopted the name LOAF—Lesbians Over Age Fifty.

LOAF has evolved since its modest launch, and now has about 150 members who meet on the third Sunday of every month. The group is the only lesbian organization of its kind in the country. Although Eversmeyer is no longer an active leader, she has a courtesy seat on the group’s executive board. 

In 1987, Eversmeyer began a relationship with Charlotte Avery. The two had been a married couple for 10 years when Avery passed away in 2018.   

Arden Eversmeyer (r) and her late partner Charlotte Avery began their relationship in 1987. Together, they conducted many oral histories of older lesbian stories.

The Birth of OLOHP

Although LOAF continued to grow every year after its inception, Eversmeyer quickly realized how many members were dealing with serious illnesses. Their stories and challenges weighed heavily on Eversmeyer as she traveled to Minnesota to attend the Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC) national conference in 1988. At the conference, she met a woman who was working with the lesbian archive in West Hollywood. She showed Eversmeyer how to conduct oral histories and encouraged her to record the life stories of older lesbians. 

Concerned that the stories of the LOAF members who were ill would be lost, Eversmeyer convinced them to let her record oral histories of their lives.

Eversmeyer and Avery continued to attend the biannual OLOC conferences in cities with large lesbian populations. They would map a course to each conference that allowed them to stop and conduct oral histories of lesbians who lived along the way. Sometimes Eversmeyer would even conduct oral-history interviews at the conferences.

On top of the oral histories, Eversmeyer collected photos and other documentation, copying and placing them with the history transcripts.

Eversmeyer conducted all of the oral histories for the first 10 years. As interest in her work increased, she set up a display at OLOC conferences and began to conduct workshops about oral history at meetings, colleges, and bookstores.

So far, over 40 women have conducted interviews in partnership with OLOHP. Several of these interviews were conducted in Japan, Australia, Costa Rica, and Cuba.   

Although she is currently the vice president of OLOHP, she credits the president, Margaret Purcell, with doing “all the rest of the work.” After interviews have been held, Purcell copies documentation and photos, handles the transcription editing process, and produces the books that feature the oral histories of many older lesbians. 

OLOHP currently publishes a quarterly newsletter with the latest information on upcoming projects. In 2009, the book A Gift of Age, was published using some of OLOHP’s oral histories. This happened again in 2012 with the publication of Without Apology, which is available at goodreads.com.   

The oral history project conducted by Eversmeyer and Avery blossomed into two books—A Gift of Age and Without Apology.

OLOHP’s Future and Importance

OLOHP is approaching its 33rd anniversary with an archive of over 750 completed histories.

While only a few stories are featured in the books, the completed oral histories are housed at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The archive is open to researchers, and some are already being used in classes at Smith.   

Eversmeyer’s LOAF archives are also stored at the University of Houston’s LGBT History Research Collection. Similarly, about six years ago, Eversmeyer gave the LOAF library, her lesbian conference papers, and other activist documents to Texas A&M University. After her donation, the college expressed interest in OLOHP and is currently preparing to duplicate all of OLOHP’s histories for their growing LGBT collection.   

Eversmeyer says the project has always been important because many women have had to be secretive about their lives as lesbians and are still unwilling to talk about what that life was like. OLOHP has pulled back the curtains and revealed what many women did to survive those days. 

“So many women think they haven’t done anything,” Eversmeyer says. “They are always surprised when they see the completed book, and are so glad they have something to leave for their families.”            

There are no special requirements to appear in an OLOHP publication, although it is currently limited to lesbians who are 70 years and older. “It’s open to anyone over 70 who is interested and willing,” Eversmeyer says.

Looking back, Eversmeyer realizes what a unique and fortunate life she has had. In addition to founding two prominent organizations for older lesbians, she has been fighting four different kinds of cancers since 2001. Amazingly, her doctors now say that there are no further signs of cancer in her body.

“It’s been a good ride, and I am blessed and exceedingly grateful,” she says, looking back on her two loving partners and a wide circle of friends. 

To learn more about OLOHP, visit olohp.org.

This article appears in the March 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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