Senior citizens are often mistakenly brushed aside as homogenous representatives of a bygone era with little to offer in the way of queer narrative, or any discussion of sexuality at all. But the fact that words like gay and lesbian weren’t household terms in 1957 doesn’t mean that queer experience existed outside history.
Members of the Queer Imaging and Riting Kollective for Elders (Quirk-e) have been working since 2006 to turn conventional wisdom on its head, shedding light on queer seniors’ experiences through a variety of creative practices.
Quirk-e’s latest project broke new ground at the Vancouver Public Library on June 4, when the group staged the city’s first-ever Human Library.
The Human Library is a global event whose goal is to break barriers and build understanding by bringing people together in a library-style salon. Event attendees, or “readers,” take out human “books” from the library to engage in personal storytelling sessions.
Sharing stories and writing about life is empowering and validating, says Quirk-e artistic director Claire Robson.
“As queer individuals, we exist within dominant cultural narratives. Foucault and many people say it’s almost impossible to escape them: that we cannot think outside our social norms, that we are enculturated to such an extent that there is no agency,” Robson says. “Writing memoir is an important source of agency.”
So, too, is sharing oral history. The young attendees at Quirk-e’s Human Library could be heard sharing laughter and seeking advice from the storytellers, who came of age when queers had no civil rights.
Margaret, who used a pseudonym, was married to a man and lived the family-centric life expected of 1950s women. A feminist conference in 1976 reminded her of a one-year relationship she had with a woman in 1957, at age 21.
“The ’50s was a dark era… homosexuals were lumped in with communists, and they were all considered great risks. Once you were outed, you lost your job,” she recalls. “My parents threw me out of the house, and my friends turned against me. It was the most demoralizing experience in my life.”
After the breakup, Margaret hid from society until she married three years later. She came out in her 40s. Now, at 75, she finally feels like herself.
Christine Waymark, who turns 71 in mid-June, recounted a similar tale of marriage, children and limited options for women of the 1950s and ’60s. “I didn’t even come out to myself until I was 40,” she says.
Waymark celebrated her 30th anniversary with the woman she came out to in April this year. Her activism, through the United Church of Canada and Quirk-e, has helped her and others put a name to a generation bereft of queer role models.
“We call ourselves the Bridge Generation,” she says. “We were the last generation that didn’t have anybody in our personal lives to look to as queer.”
VPL librarian Fernando Estes helped facilitate the Quirk-e Human Library. “Being queer myself, I value tremendously their work,” he says of seniors who are queer.
“Their struggle has been able to bring about a society that is more just and equal,” he says. “I see nothing but joy in this process.”