4 min

Elder lesbians gather for annual conference

Women come together from across North America

Credit: Jonathan Lee photo

They speed dated, learned the dos and don’ts of adventurous sex, dragon boated off Granville Island and felt the effects the next day, celebrated and rued the state of lesbian writing, waxed nostalgic about the music that was, and still is, the soundtrack of their lives and experiences, cracked up at you-know-you’re-old-when jokes, and became just a tad more sober when discussing the challenges of aging.

They also wondered often and loud whether Stephen Harper can do what he said he will do: turn back the legislative clock on same-sex marriage.

Notwithstanding the still widely misunderstood Notwithstanding Clause, over her dead body, says barbara findlay, summing up the general, but barely muted atmosphere of revolt and entitlement among the women who attended her lesbian legal potluck. The women were invited at findlay’s session to ask any questions they had on their minds. They asked about prenuptial agreements, the death and dying issues and decisions that can often be especially problematic when queer relationships are involved, and how to stop Harper in his tracks.

Findlay’s Q&A presentation and defiant words were part of a marathon weekend of workshopping, forging and renewing friendships, networking and partying for some 200 women at the second installment of the Westcoast Gathering and Conference of Lesbians 50 Years and Older held Sep 7-10 at the West End’s Coast Plaza Hotel.

For some women, attending, even presenting their work and expertise at such a conference was a first-time experience.

Betsy Warland, whose career as one of Canada’s leading feminist writers spans 25 years, says it’s bizarre that “this is the first time I’ve read at a lesbian conference… and I’m almost 60 years old.”

Warland was part of a panel of writers including event co-organizer Claire Robson, Arleen Pare and Janine Fuller, manager of Little Sister’s Book and Art and Emporium, who read their work and spoke to some of the history, business and politics governing the State of Lesbian Writing.

“This kind of thing [gatherings] happened all the time when I was a young feminist. It doesn’t hardly happen anymore. [So] at some level, even though I’m very much out in the world, there’s always a part of me that feels like a freak,” says Warland.

One of the more challenging questions for lesbian writers, according to Warland, is defining what is unique about that identity other than “our desire and the specific erotic ground we occupy.”

Perhaps Fuller came up with the best answer, invoking author Jane Rule’s Supreme Court testimony in Little Sister’s first trial against Canada Customs over censorship of gay and lesbian literature, testimony which reads in part:

“We have writers who are writing erotica and so we should. I celebrate that. But we are not a community churning out sex tracts. We are a community speaking with our passion, our humanity in a world that is so homophobic that it sees us as nothing but sexual creatures instead of good Canadian citizens, fine artists, and brave people trying to make Canada a better place to speak freely and honestly about who we are.”

First-time conference attendee, Judy Brotherton up from Washington, says her “Canadian experience” was all about that and well worth the trip. The forthright, fun-loving Brotherton told her sisters at findlay’s workshop that she wants a partner, wants to get married, and wants to know the Canadian secret to getting the legislation on the books.

“This was for me the most important thing. How do we [Americans] manage to have this become part of our lives. And I understand there are different procedures [in the US and Canada], but the information gathering is important, these workshops on relationships and the legal environment.”

But Brotherton clearly knows how to find balance between the politics and pop of sexuality. On her experience at the Adventurous Sex workshop, Brotherton waxed enthusiastic.

“Wonderful! Seeing the ways you can be more creative, I do know this: those two presenters have a lot more fun than I do.”

With a hearty laugh and more than one twinkle in her eye, she adds, “I’ve got to get busy, don’t I?”

Second-time participant Lori Thomas certainly appreciates the joie-de-vivre and the ever-present humour that pervaded the conference, even in the midst of what she calls the trials and tribulations of the aging process and the challenging social and professional situations many lesbians confronted in their younger years.

“I came out in the ’70s,” says Thomas, now 54, ” and I was in academia then, an archaeologist, sharing tents with other women, and afterwards living in a small town of 250 people, all loggers. There were the typical stereotypes, you know, ‘how could you be a lesbian’ and dealing with obscene phone calls. But I have to say, I’m proud of us, I’m proud to be Canadian and to see how far we’ve come legislatively and grateful to the people, the women who worked so hard to bring along the rights we have today. It’s freeing, but there is still work to do. I look at what’s happening in many parts of the world… I am privileged to be born here.”

Friend Carolyn Anderson, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year and went through chemotherapy, says the most important thing about the conference was to establish community and make connections, a major issue, she says, when you are in the 50-plus phase of life. It’s why she took it upon herself to coordinate the singles breakfast which proved to be a big hit.

“As a single person, it’s difficult to [connect] when you live in a coupled world, which is what people’s expectations of the norm are. The idea is to redefine what single is and to show that people can have very exciting and vibrant lives when you are single. I’m from Alberta and when I came [to the conference] for the first time, I didn’t know anybody. This year, I wanted to provide an opportunity for singles here to feel connected, and to learn how to do that.”

One area in which participants feel deeper and broader connections need to be made is with queer communities of colour including lesbians, trans women, and women with disabilities. Several participants spoke of the absence of women of colour as a loss.

“Where are they? Where is the diversity? How can we make it happen?” asks Brotherton.

In a debriefing session at the end of the conference, suggestions ranged from inviting keynote speakers and workshop facilitators of colour, expanding the range of entertainment options to include performers and artistes from traditionally marginalized communities, and developing workshop options that would attract a broader, more diverse community of women to the conference.

Conference co-chair Claire Robson, who says she is aware that some conference participants who attended the evening entertainment segments felt uncomfortable that so few women of colour were in the crowd, and had “an amicable word with me about that,” says efforts to find out where women are organizing and making contact with them is something she and fellow organizer Pat Hogan will be looking into for next year’s conference.