Monday, 20 February 2012

The conference circuit

I’m very lucky in that I’ve always enjoyed speaking to an audience; so communicating my research is a pleasure, rather than the ordeal I know it can be for some. A few weeks ago I took my old lesbians to a conference in Australia – Melbourne, to be exact. The conference, ‘After Homosexual,’ was arranged to mark both the fortieth anniversary of the book Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (an ur-text in the early Gay Liberation movement) and the imminent retirement of its author, Denis Altman. I spoke there about the legacy of feminism – because, looking back over those forty years, it seemed to me that the history of gay liberation cannot be told without also talking about the effects of the Women’s Movement. Feminism is one of the main ways in which lesbians have experienced the last half-century differently from gay men. Interestingly, most of the other speakers on my panel (all women) seemed to agree: the session formed a kind of feminist oasis in the programme.

There’s still an active population of radical lesbian feminists in Melbourne, I found, who are organised, loud and proud. I was given a friendly and generous welcome by several women in Melbourne and Castlemaine, and I thank them for their hospitality. I marched with some of them (a group of older women circus performers called, appropriately, POW!) at Victoria’s Pride, the day after the conference.

There was just time to get over the jetlag before I was off to give another version of the same paper at the nineteenth ‘Lesbian Lives’ conference in Dublin – another hospitable place with good food and good company. Presenting to a LGBT audience is a very different business from presenting at a ‘mainstream’ conference. In some ways it’s easier (they ‘get’ what I’m saying, there’s less need for
laborious explanation); but in others it’s more challenging (‘Am I actually saying anything they don’t already know?’).

At Dublin, following two papers on the lives and experiences of older lesbians, one of the questions that arose in discussion was, ‘How we can make our work more visible outside the LGBT community?’ This made me realise that, although it may be pleasant and reinforcing to spend time with my own tribe, it’s probably more important to get out into the mainstream of Cultural Studies
and Gerontology, and help make the silenced voices heard. In this spirit I am looking forward – even though with some apprehension – to the British Society of Gerontology’s Annual Conference in July, where I’ll be taking part in the first LGBT symposium in the conference’s 41-year history. That’s a bit scary, but it must be good!

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Back to work: Women's Lib and after

It's  a good way into the new year and I no longer have any of the excuses for not working that I had before Christmas (death of computer; organising a conference); or over Christmas (visitors, family, bad cold) or even since Christmas (visitors, family, celebrating birthday; having the builders in).  Well, the builders are still here, actually, but that's not really a good excuse. So back to work today, trying to put together a paper about the legacy of feminism, for the 'After Homosexual' conference in Melbourne in about three week' time.

The topic sprang from the data in my questionnaire survey. While most polls put the number of women who would call themselves feminists at about 25 - 30% of the general population, my survey of lesbians over 60 shows that almost 8 out of 10 - 78.2% to be exact - would claim that name. It's one of the most striking findings so far, and I'm trying to unpick it. Is it about being over 60? Probably, since second wave feminism / Women's Lib hit my generation at a particularly formative moment. Or is it about being a lesbian? Or is it impossible, as Bonnie Zimmerman found, to unpick the two?  

I've spent the day hacking away at the rockface of the quantitative data, and reached the happy conclusion that mere statistics won't explain it. So now I can go back to the life-stories and the transcripts of the interviews, and listen to the voices of the women for whom feminism has been important. Usually in a good way. But not always. That's another interesting thing. Watch this space

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Better off?

Thought for the day! I'm reading Raymond Berger (one of the earliest American scholars to look at LGB ageing). He thinks that being gay is an advantage in growing old:

‘The advantage for gays and lesbians is that they have learned to cope with a stigmatised identity very early in life. Most gays and lesbians are able to insulate themselves from the worst effects of societal stigmas by developing self-affirming attitudes and by seeking support from others. Can it be that these skills and attitudes are also useful in adapting to the stigmatised status of being an elderly person?
A closely related idea is that gay people also experience a ‘crisis of independence’ in early adulthood. As their heterosexual peers make the comfortable transition from family of origin to family of procreation, gay people cannot take family and other social supports for granted. They learn self-reliance skills that become crucial in old age as friends and lovers die and as social roles become restricted.’

Agree? or disagree? 

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

It can be done…

In the summer of 2010, I had just started looking for older lesbians to take part in my research. At Brighton Pride that year, I crossed and re-crossed the park, accosting every grey-haired woman I saw - and a few others J  giving them postcards with details of the research and asking them to pass the word on. It was striking how many of these women responded by asking me whether I was going to investigate ‘where we can live when we are old?’
One of the things that my survey is now showing is the fierce resistance among many older lesbians to the idea of spending their last days in residential care, which they believe to be an oppressively hetero-sexist environment. (Other researchers have found the same attitudes in older gay men.)
So the ‘Lesbian Retirement Home’ has become a fantasy dear to our collective hearts – we often talk about it, we know it already happens in America, and I've come across several people who have made beginnings on actually bringing  it about in the UK.  
While such places don’t yet exist, the important task is to bring about better provision for LGBT old people in ALL services for the elderly.
Meanwhile, here are two inspiring examples to cheer us all up:
The Older Women’s Co-housing Project in London (with its fab acronym, OWCH) is not exclusively lesbian, but is the only instance I know of older ‘sisters doing it for themselves,’ and it’s amazing and wonderful - see
Then  this morning – thank you, Barbary! – I was alerted to this awesome project in Victoria,  Australia:
Does anyone know of any others?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Getting the word out

The first appearance in print of my older lesbian research will be a chapter I’ve just written for a forthcoming book. It is called LGBT Lives: Ageing and the Life Course, edited by Richard Ward, Ian Rivers and Mike Sutherland, and it’s due to be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2012.
I’m really pleased that there has suddenly been such an upsurge of interest in the existence and needs of older LGBT people. (The Stonewall report, out this week, is a good example.) We do need to think about the needs of EVERY member of our ageing population, and to help practitioners in health and social care, and particularly in service for the elderly, to understand the particular needs of LGBT elders.
We also need to make sure that older people, LGBT or not, are represented in other ways too – or we are in danger of seeing them only as a helpless burden  on society, and not as the varied, interesting and valuable people they also are….
Have been re-reading those fierce old American radical feminists (Macdonald, Rich, Copper) who wrote about women's ageing back in the late 1980s. Here’s Baba Copper in full cry:

 'One of the primary definitions of patriarchy is the absence of old women of power. Simmering in the psyche of the Father are his ancient fears of the old matriarch and her potential use of power … The accumulated experience of old women has always been a part of what Adrienne Rich called “the enormous potential counterforce (to patriarchy) which is having to be restrained”.’   

One of the ways we restrain that power is to push old women into the stereotypes of powerlessness, ugliness and servant-hood that are ready to hand. Current practice is to describe old women as ‘grannies’.  And when we say ‘granny’ do we mean an interesting older woman with her own life, talents, creativity, friends and lover(s), who just happens also to be a mother and grandmother ? We do not. Grannies are lovable only if they no longer compete for their own place in the world.  Kindly, self-sacrificing, no longer even trying to be attractive, their usefulness to society is to use up their waning physical strength looking after people younger than themselves. Oh, and to knit teabags. ‘Grannies’ are lovable, but always potentially ludicrous. Even those of us who were never mothers or grandmothers - or even heterosexual - can be made into 'grannies.' 

So what to do with the ones who refuse to be stereotyped, invisiblised? (I remember my aunt: a grandmother, yes, among other things – but also radical, dynamic, political, angry. She had friends younger than herself; she espoused animal rights; she challenged speech or behaviour she found unacceptable; she spoke to strangers in the street.) Not a ‘granny’? There are plenty of other stereotypes, handy cages into which these people can be shut so that they don’t do any harm. 'Eccentric' is a useful one. (‘A bit Bohemian’ is the middle-class, arty version of the same thing.) It indicates that someone need not be taken seriously, because they are outside the norm, and therefore slightly ludicrous. With affectionate ridicule we  draw the sting – and the power – of such interesting old women.

Yet more inflammatory stuff of this ilk arrived yesterday, in the form of second-hand books from Amazon - but I was out, so they took them to the post office in the next village. Today I put on my back-pack and walked the three-mile round trip to collect my parcels, watching how passers-by look at me, and wondering what box they put me into as I pass.  
Old Woman of Power?
Mad Old Bat, more likely. J 

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Read all about it!

When I began my research into the lives and experiences of older lesbians in the UK, it never crossed my mind that so many other people would become involved in it. One of the warnings given to everyone starting on a PhD is, 'This is a lonely journey. Don't imagine that anyone else will be all that interested in your research. By the time you've finished you will know more about your chosen subject  than anyone else, but no-one else will care a damn about it.' In my case, none of these things are turning out to be true.  Some days it feels as if the entire older lesbian community is helping! I was overwhelmed by the response to my initial request for help, and in particular by the many messages of encouragement and interest which filled up my inbox and my letter-box in those first few months.  Many of these people asked to be kept in touch with the progress of the research, and this blog is a belated attempt to do just that.

So where have I got to so far? I spent most of 2009-10 planning the project. If Older Lesbians are the most invisible minority, how was I to find them? In the end it didn’t prove terribly difficult – I discovered that, while we don’t want to be personally ‘outed’ to all and sundry, we are, as a community, more than ready to make our voices heard.  Literally hundreds of women got in touch - if we ever needed proof of the existence of a lesbian network, this was it. Enquiries and completed questionnaires came from all over Britain, and encouraging messages from as far away as Holland, Canada and  Australia. 
But making contact was a big step for some women.  One correspondent (90 years old) simply signed herself ‘A Well-Wisher.’ I shall never know who she is, but I thank her for her courage. The questionnaire itself was completely anonymous, and that helped a lot, I think. Nearly 400 people accessed it online, and another  40 or so asked for paper copies to be posted to them. In the end there were about 380 completed questionnaires – three or four times as many as I’d originally hoped! Unsurprisingly, the very large majority of women who responded to the survey are in their sixties. However 45 of them are aged 70 or over, and 9 are over 80.
I’ve spent the second year collecting all those responses, and interviewing many wonderful women, aged from 60 to 91, about their lesbian lives. Some of those, who were too far away to meet, very kindly wrote or recorded their stories themselves. I now have about 40 life-stories. The next stage is to finish getting all the interviews transcribed (typed out) so I can send a copy to each of the interviewees.
And then begins the huge task of analysing all this data and seeing what it reveals about us. (And of course at some point I have to write the DPhil thesis, which is the official reason for doing this research J. But I’m already looking beyond that, because I do so want to write a book afterwards which can be read by all the people who have contributed.) 
Meanwhile, I will post on here little nuggets of knowledge / fascinating facts, as they emerge. Also questions and requests for your opinions. So please keep coming to look, and let your friends - especially the older lesbian ones) know about it too.