“I am the first out lesbian elected and the first lesbian of colour at the provincial level,” Vancouver-Kensington MLA Mable Elmore told the audience of women gathered for the 5th annual BOLD conference for lesbians over 50. “I attribute that to the women activists who have come out over the years, confronted homophobia and created space for us.”
Elmore was one of the keynote speakers at a luncheon held at Coast Plaza Hotel, the venue for the Sep 10-13 conference. The other, Women and Gender Studies professor Ann Cvetkovich, called on the assembled elders to make sure their life experiences were passed on to the generations of women coming up.
“They are not just stories, they are raw material for building in the world,” noted Cvetkovich, who teaches at the University of Texas and is a long time worker at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. “Think about the different cultural experiences you have participated in and how that has shaped the larger world out there. We need to make sure that lesbian history is not lost,” she asserted.
Like many of the women attending the conference, 68-year-old Marlene Cust is part of that trailblazing history. “We grew up in uncharted territory,” Cust recalled, saying she realized she was different at age 12.
“I knew I was not like other women and I couldn’t fit into that mould,” Cust explained. “I had a relationship with another young girl and didn’t have an understanding of it, but being Catholic, realized it was a terrible sin that would send me straight to hell.”
The options for women who didn’t want to marry were very limited back then and at age 15, Cust entered a convent.
“I found myself falling in love with some other nuns, which ended tragically. I stayed in for 12 years and was extremely unhappy,” Cust remembered. “After I got out, it took me 10 years of mental illness and attempted suicide to find myself and start discovering who I really was. When I was 35, I was going to university and I ran across the word lesbian for the first time and I thought, ‘That’s who I am.’”
In 1985, Cust lived with her partner in Mackenzie, BC and the couple got pregnant through artificial insemination.
“It was a very redneck town and it was quite an experience to raise a child in that sort of environment; everything was a milestone,” she said. “When it was time to deliver the baby, I stayed with my partner only to be told by the nurse, ‘Sorry, visiting hours are over.’
“It was a difficult journey, but I wouldn’t change any of it,” she maintained. “I’m proud to share my story and to let young women know. Younger women need to know who their role models and heroes are.”
Nancy Rosenblum, who led a filmmaking workshop at the conference, is working to preserve lesbian stories. “That’s our history. I want to help women tell their stories any way I can,” said Rosenblum, a filmmaker, who also curated the conference’s first annual film festival. She noted how few films there were “by women of our age, for women of our age.”
One of the featured films was the Ina Dennekamp-directed An Apple Never Falls Far From The Tree. It’s a film Dennekamp made with her late partner Caroline. “We got talking about my mother’s super 8 footage, I came up with the idea of making this film as a tribute to my mother. It’s about music and coming out and our relationship. Caroline did all the technical stuff,” said Dennekamp, who first met her partner in the ’70s.
“We had a relationship in Vancouver and then she moved back to Toronto and I didn’t hear from her for 20 years.”
Then Caroline told Dennekamp that she had breast cancer and only had 18 months to live. “We had an emotional reconnection and became a couple again. That was nine years ago,” recalled Dennekamp who dedicated the screening to her partner who died in February.
“I am of an age where I have stories to tell and I am ready to tell them. That’s the legacy Caroline left me.”
For many women, the new experiences they encounter are the highlight of the weekend — whether it’s flirting at the singles table, dancing the night away, dragon boat racing or playing hooky to go get ice cream with a new friend.
American Jane Remick revelled in the joy she witnessed at the conference. She said it’s the first gay event she’s ever attended.
“I was brought up in a very strict Protestant background and had the feeling there was something wrong with me. Here I feel loved and accepted for who I am.”
Remick, 62, said she was initially intimidated about being at the conference. She ended up finding a family of women.
“I feel a great liberation, and that my life is just beginning,” she concluded.