Queer visibility, female empowerment, the sharing of ideas and a desire for good old-fashioned fun brought 150 women together at the seventh annual Bold Old(er) Lesbian and Dyke Conference (BOLD) in Vancouver, Sept 8 to 11.
“I just created something that I wanted and hopefully others wanted,” says conference organizer Pat Hogan, explaining why she began the increasingly popular BOLD conference, which attracted participants from Australia, the US (including Alaska) and Canada this year.
“I think that as women and as lesbians and as older we are triply disenfranchised,” conference co-organizer Claire Robson observes, adding that older lesbians face special challenges, including financial instability.
“Ageism is rampant in society in general, and in the lesbian community we have our own internalized ageism,” Hogan, now 72, adds. “We need to speak honestly about it, and it’s painful. We define each other by our exterior to a certain extent. It is true with men and women in the gay community and society at large.”
The conference enables older women to realize their importance in the queer social spectrum, she says.
Hogan and Robson say issues particular to the aging lesbian community are explored throughout the three-day conference’s many educational workshops, entertainment and social networking events. This year the conference boasted seminars on everything from fitness and photography to exploring lesbian history and feminism in the 21st century.
While the gathering is open to all interested participants, organizers say events are tailored to senior dykes. “Any lesbian can enjoy it and get something out of it, but I personally don’t want to lose the focus that we are here for older women,” Hogan says.
The event also has a light side that dovetails with its strong queer political focus.
“There’s a lot of humour involved,” Robson notes. “We have a great deal of fun at this conference.”
“I like to think of it as a North American lesbian adventure,” Hogan adds with a laugh. She hopes participants leave the conference with “a new lease on life.”
“People have come here and said, ‘This has changed my life,'” Hogan continues. “We’ve had relationships start here and break up, [and] we’ve had marriages. We’re having a wedding this weekend,” she reveals.
Deborah Benton, 52, and her partner, 55-year-old Nelson (who uses only one name) say they decided to acquire a marriage licence, along with their BOLD conference experience.
The Anchorage, Alaska, couple had been dating for six years when they decided that the conference would be a fitting venue to tie the knot.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Nelson says of BOLD. “We should do something like this in Anchorage.” She says the gathering is a liberating reminder of how far society has come — and still has to go — regarding the queer and feminist movement.
“Younger people don’t always understand the struggles that older people have gone through,” Nelson says. “People in their 20s just don’t realize how easy it is for them. They can come out in high school now,” she notes, adding that when she was a teenager coming out in high school was a “death sentence.”
“There’s a long way that we have to go, but we’ve come so far,” Vancouver Councillor Ellen Woodsworth agrees. Woodsworth, known for her human rights activism, was honoured as this year’s BOLD Woman of the Year.
In accepting her award at the conference opening ceremony, Woodsworth commended her contemporaries for the unique and difficult challenges they have faced as queer baby boomers. “You’re alive today because you’ve fought,” she told participants. “It’s a powerful time we’re in, but we have survived so much. We need to come together on occasions like this and acknowledge each other and remember the work we’ve done and remember the incredible fun we’ve had,” Woodsworth added. “We did stand up and we continue to stand up.”
Organizers say they hope the conference educated, empowered and titillated participants and gave a clear message to the rest of society. “Don’t make any assumptions. Just because someone looks older, don’t think they’re not an active, thriving, interesting human being,” Hogan concludes.