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3 min

‘We are BOLDly here’

Older lesbians hold third annual conference in Vancouver

POWERFUL CONFERENCE: Mel Strapper says she welcomed the chance to interact with her peers at the older lesbians conference, Sep 7-9. 'You don't see many older dykes," she says. Credit: Tallulah

While the West End noisily celebrated Davie Day, up the street a quiet revolution of sorts was brewing at the Coast Plaza Hotel on Comox St, where more than 150 women gathered for the Bold, Old(er) Lesbians & Dykes (BOLD) Westcoast Conference of Lesbians over 50.

The third annual conference drew more than 150 women from the US and Canada and while it was intended to share information regarding medical, legal and personal growth, “it’s also about providing a venue to meet other women,” points out co-organizer Pat Hogan.

And meet other women, they did. It started Fri Sep 7 with a singles breakfast at The Sylvia Hotel. East Van resident Wendy Read, 54, notes it was “a chance to get to know each other, seated at tables of four. In 20 minutes you feel connected.”

A United Church minister in New Westminster, Read came to the conference “to connect with community,” but it was the writing workshop that impacted her most. Read stopped writing after publishing a book called A Conspiracy of Love: Living Beyond Child and Sexual Abuse.

“I haven’t written for two years,” she muses. The BOLD writing workshop was a reminder.

“I’ve got to write. It got me back to myself —to what is really nurturing for me. The affirmation from the lesbian community was great to have.”

The whole experience, she says, “affirms my own identity.”

Betsy Warland, poet and one of Canada’s leading feminist writers for the past 25 years, was a co-facilitator of that workshop. The 61-year-old also gave a reading at the first BOLD author reading on Friday evening.

“As someone who swore off conferences a long time ago,” Warland laughs, “I hear the gratitude and pleasure everyone is having. This conference has a wholeness. It has a quality of thoughtfulness and love.”

Mid-conference, 47-year-old Mel Strapper smokes a cigarette on the outside patio. “I’m kinda burned out on workshops,” she explains. Strapper comes to Vancouver often because she has friends here.

She was a firefighter in San Francisco until a burning building collapsed on her in 1995 and she spent six months in hospital, four of those months in a coma, recovering from burns and severe lung damage.

Strapper was 34 at the time of the incident, which left her legally blind. Doctors said it was a miracle she survived at all.

Even without filling her conference days with workshops, Strapper finds the gathering affects her. “It’s very powerful.” She’s not 50 yet but she came to the conference because “I see that age coming.”

She welcomes the interaction with her peers. “You don’t see many older dykes. They seem to disappear into the woodwork” of society, she says.

Saturday afternoon gave the women time away from conference tables to take a guided Stanley Park stroll or to experience dragon boating on False Creek. Some took in the drumming workshop. Hogan says she wanted to give the women “someplace to be for four days where they can be themselves.”

Linda Bentley from Tacoma, Washington mentions the workshop called Never Too Old to Flirt. “I didn’t go to the workshop but I did benefit from those who went,” she laughs.

This is Bentley’s second year volunteering at the conference. This year’s Lesbian Tango workshop easily tops her list of favourites.

“If anything is going to jumpstart an aging libido it’s lesbian tango,” she laughs. “It was incredible. I was completely bowled over.”

Hogan says she hopes the conference participants “got something out of it and go home with pride in who they are. And if they’re still not comfortable with who they are then I hope they’ve moved one step further in their lives because of something they’ve experienced here.”

The first year of the conference Hogan says she was “overwhelmed by the response.” This year she worked with co-organizer Claire Robson and seven volunteers to pull it together. In four days, the participants were treated to experiences within their comfort zone and sometimes outside of it.

About 35 participants discussed the meaning of, and their reactions to, words used to describe lesbians at the Gender and Sexuality Discussion facilitated by conference Hogan and Robson.

One participant who didn’t relate to either butch or femme, made up her own label “futch.” Others discussed the relevance of labeling. Lesbian, dyke, queer, bitch, bulldyke, lipstick lesbian, high femme… Old or older, ageing or sageing, seniors or elders? The room was filled to capacity.

“Language is a very powerful tool,” Robson points out, and as distasteful as some people might find some of these words “they are out there because they were needed,” she says. “These words are history. Labels are our identities.”

The workshop was an exercise in sorting out terms, Robson says, promising to hold “some incarnation of it” again next year.

This was the first conference for 44-year-old Leala Sanders from Redmond, Washington. “I’m attracted to older women,” she confides with a chuckle.

Her favourite workshop: Adventurous Loving: An Interactive Presentation on Ways to Spice up Your Sex Life. “That taught me things I didn’t know —and some possibilities.” she grins.

“I’ve had a great time,” Sanders says, then takes a deep breath. “This conference is a confirmation for me as to who we believe ourselves to be… and we are BOLDly here.”