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    Finding and Forging Lesbian Community

    zoeI love lesbians. I love community. So one of my favorite topics is lesbian community.

    I participate in numerous LGBT events and organizations and the experience is often a room full of men and a smattering of women. For one thing, there simply are more gay men than queer women, but also more and more women have children or are unable to afford to pay $250 for a seat at a fundraising dinner. There are a few wonderful exceptions to see us together and feel a sense of lesbian community.

    The annual Dyke March in San Francisco is certainly one of them. Women from all over the Bay Area assemble in Dolores Park and then wind their way through the Castro, led off by Dykes on Bikes. In some ways it has become a victim of its success. It is so large now you are lucky if you run into anyone you know or get to really meet anyone new in a meaningful way. The march ends on Market St. where Pink Saturday takes over and the women disappear into the greater crowd.

    Another way is to go to lesbian bars. When I was a baby dyke I was closeted in the military and tried to go to bars, but it was not safe to be out in Pensacola, FL, or Athens, GA, back then. You could go to gay bars, but the most popular gay bar was across the street from the most popular Navy pilot bar. There were often Bible school students on the street corners shouting and shaming passers by.

    We get a sense of community from music. In the 80s I was indebted to Olivia Records, which put out lesbian-identified artists like Cris Williamson, Tret Fure, and Meg Christian. I didn’t get the opportunity to see many lesbians, but I could at least listen to women sing about loving women, and it made me feel less alone.

    To find some community, I went to my first festival, the Southern Women’s Music Festival in the Georgia Mountains. This was the Ritz Carlton of women’s music festivals—cabins if you wanted them, hot showers, and a fully equipped kitchen facility. Let me be clear: this was not a spa vacation.

    Upon arrival I had to sign up for a volunteer work shift. Since all the security details were taken (go figure!) I decided to sign up for breakfast duty. I showed up at the kitchen the first day and proudly announced “I’m a Food Service Officer on an aircraft carrier, and I supervise the preparation of meals for 1,500 sailors around the clock. Perhaps you can use my experience to help manage and oversee the kitchen?” The woman stared at me, handed me an apron and a plastic pitcher and told me to report to the egg station. For the next two hours I scooped raw eggs out of a large garbage can lined with a plastic trash bag, and poured them onto a griddle while a shirtless woman (save for an apron) scrambled the eggs as they cooked. It took me five years before I could eat an egg again.

    Despite that experience, it was really quite a magical weekend. I met such a wide variety of women. I listened to some great music and attended insightful workshops (including one on the experience of being gay in the military—one of the early seeds of my activism). There was a feeling of freedom and community and belonging that I will never forget.

    The annual NCLR gala dinner and party is another fun and cool way to find yourself in a large and festive room full of women. If you haven’t been I highly recommend it. The event takes place Saturday May 2.

    Thinking of Olivia again…over that past two decades, Olivia transitioned from a record label to a travel company for women, primarily cruises. I thought a vacation with other lesbians was a cool idea, but the allure of sailing the seas had worn off a bit after years in the Navy. I didn’t think I would ever take a pleasure cruise, but then I got an offer from Olivia to come speak on their women-only Western Caribbean cruise. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

    After living in the Bay Area, we can become immune and a bit numb to the experience of much of the rest of the country, and take for granted our relative freedom and acceptance. What I found on this Olivia cruise was a community of women who look forward to this trip all year. There were women from the Midwest for whom this cruise is their only opportunity to be themselves. Women who had met on earlier cruises get together for reunions every year on a new cruise—some women had been on over a dozen Olivia cruises! For them, this was not only a vacation but also a life-affirming experience.

    Finally, I recently attended the Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco at the Castro Theater. Over 1200 lesbian, bisexual and transgender women and their allies came to San Francisco from all over the world. It was powerful to walk around the Castro and see the majority of folks on the sidewalks were queer women, dressed in everything from t-shirts shirts and jeans to dresses and stilettos. It was one of the best personal and professional networking events I have attended. You don’t have to be a coder to participate. It included all kinds of professions from high tech software engineers to creative types to consultants like myself that provide services to the high tech industry. If you missed the Summit, the group holds monthly happy hours and I highly recommend them. Bring your business card!

    What are you doing to create and find lesbian community? I hope you find ways to connect and feel a part of it. There are many opportunities available, and if none of them interest you, I encourage you to create your own. See you out there!

    Zoe Dunning is a retired Navy Commander and was a lead activist in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. She currently serves as the 1st Vice Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, as a San Francisco Library Commissioner, and as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club.