3 min

Lesbian first, senior second

First-ever conference draws 'little old ladies' from across North America

'IT FEEDS MY SOUL': 'It feels so good to meet lesbians from all over Canada and the States,' says 53-year-old Sheila Tynan (right, with partner Margaret Hobson). Credit: Robin Perelle photo

“I’ve been told for many years that once you turn 50 you have to go under the carpet and forget that you’re a lesbian, and concentrate on being a senior,” says Kathi Sansom. “But here you’ve become a totally different entity. You’ve become a lesbian first a senior second-which is a terrific feeling.”

Sansom and about 50 other women are crowded into a 35th floor conference room in the Coast Plaza Hotel to hear Lisa Davis speak at the first-ever Western Canadian gathering of lesbians aged 50 and older, held Sep 8-11 in Vancouver. Davis is hosting one morning workshop; Chris Morrissey, of the local LGTB Generations Project, is hosting another on ageism in the lesbian community.

There aren’t too many older lesbians to compare notes with in Ottawa, Sansom says. “I just wanted to connect with women outside [my] own realm. I just would like to know what they’re thinking, what they’re doing as they age as lesbians.

“I have different needs and different wants from a heterosexual senior female,” she notes. “I like the companionship of older women. I don’t get that at home.”

Across the room, Davis is wrestling with a slide projector. A 1940s photo of a lesbian in drag, decked out in a tuxedo, tails, top hat and cane, snaps into focus on screen. It’s Buddy, a well-known figure from New York’s old “transvestite clubs.”

“Back then it was really the underworld,” says Davis, “which, for those of us who remember the underworld, was actually quite fun.”

Davis has spent years recovering, collecting and preserving pre-Stonewall lesbian history. “Writing lesbian history ain’t easy,” she says, “because no one wants to talk.” But it can be done.

And it should be done, she says after the presentation. “If we don’t do it, nobody else will. Certainly, the straight world won’t, and the gay men won’t either.”

If nobody collects and preserves these stories, the lesbians will “get lost,” she warns.

It’s important to maintain a connection to our past, agrees Kathy Kiefer from Soap Lake, Washington. “It gives you a connection to something bigger.

“We have a collective wisdom here from living our lives,” she continues. That wisdom can be a beacon to young women just coming out today, she adds.

This is an amazing conference, says Davis. “I never thought [organizer Pat Hogan] could pull this off. I didn’t think people would come and pay money, but by god here they are! It takes a lot of chutzpah!

“It means you say here I am, I’m a lesbian and I’m attending this conference-and if they don’t like it they can shove it!”

There are “little old ladies” here from all over Canada and as far away as Houston, Texas, Davis adds with a laugh.

The name tags confirm Davis’ observation. In addition to numerous Vancouverites, there are women from around the Lower Mainland, the Gulf Islands, the Sunshine Coast, Victoria, Washington, Oregon, New York, and even Texas.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get together with older women,” says Donna Douglass from Gig Harbor, Washington. “Older people in general need to have ways of connecting with one another, older women need to, and older lesbians is a whole other level.”

It’s wonderful being surrounded by all these older lesbians, the 66-year-old smiles. “It’s energizing. It makes you want to smile and laugh.”

Douglass spent the morning in Morrissey’s ageism workshop, discussing topics such as lesbian health and housing. “We’re more likely to be breaking down physically,” she notes, and that means partners might have to make decisions and seek lesbian-friendly seniors homes.

Then there’s a question of money. Many older lesbians are now facing the consequences of poor financial planning and a lack of pensions, Douglass says.

After lunch, several dozen women pack an impromptu Sex After Menopause workshop.

“I really enjoy sex,” says presenter Ruth Lea Taylor, proudly sporting her Lezzie Love Lives T-shirt.

Many lesbians and women in general have been “brainwashed” to think they’re not “erotic beings,” she says. But that’s not true.

The “natural juices” may dry up, but the sex doesn’t have to. “The hormones are changing but I think that just makes our sex lives that much more interesting.”

The women eagerly compare notes on natural lubricants, the pros and cons of hormone replacement therapies, how to nurture and, at times, rekindle their sex drives, and how to stimulate the clitoris through muscle and breathing exercises.

“Any time I’m in a large group of lesbians, it feeds my soul,” says Sheila Tynan of Steveston.

“It’s kind of like going to the Pride Parade: it gives you a sense of who you are,” adds her partner, Margaret Hobson. “It’s affirming.”