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    This Is What an Old Lesbian Looks Like

    By Jewelle Gomez–

    The title of this piece is emblazoned on t-shirts of the members of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC). When I wear it, the shirt gets many stares and doubletakes as if “old lesbian” is an oxymoron that barely computes. I’ve been out since the 1970s so I believe that qualifies me as an “old lesbian,” one of those birds rarely sighted in the wild or in captivity. This year, two events changed that.

    To grasp that, we at first need to go back in time, to 1975. That year, athlete Diana Nyad broke the record for swimming around Manhattan Island (7 hours, 57 minutes). I’d recently moved from Boston to New York City, and I watched the news waiting to hear the outcome, not especially interested in records but anxious for the word that she’d survived. Maybe there used to be a secret lesbian gaydar, so somehow, I “knew” Nyad was a lesbian. I felt she carried the banner for all of us even though I was about as athletic as the quilt on my bed.

    Fast forward to 2023 and the film Nyad has already made a splash—not only because Jodie Foster finally plays a lesbian (as Nyad’s former lover and trainer), but also because Annette Bening brilliantly embodies the spiky, determined swimmer I remember from the news clips. At aged 64, for example, Nyad swam the 110 miles between Cuba and Florida. The film recreates her four grueling attempts that were halted by stings from jellyfish and man-of-war, pushy currents, and storms. The triumph of Nyad staggering onto the Florida beach in 2013 after 53 hours in the water is joyous.

    Still, some “officials” have tried to disavow her accomplishment with retroactively enacted rules. Nyad, the athlete and author, remains a revered figure in sports and is one of the most determined and courageous old lesbians ever. The film Nyad is a glorious testimonial to the excruciating and exhilarating regimen she embraced to reach her goals.

    Another old lesbian celebration was held recently in Berkeley when photographer Irene Young launched her new book, Something About the Women. It is a collection of pictures of musicians, artists, and activists Young has taken over the past fifty years. She created the photos for more than 600 CD covers and has taken professional photos of such artists as Judy Collins, Kate Clinton, and Laura Nyro.

    The musical celebration launching Young’s book (reveal: it includes a photo of me and my spouse) was a cornucopia of old lesbians who came to burn the house down—figuratively speaking! Most of the white-haired audience had come of age listening to the more than thirty performers for over forty years. Many of the musicians are now legends, yet the event felt like a private concert for old friends.

    From Rhiannon to Mary Watkins to Holly Near, each woman brought that long distance energy that I associate with lesbian success. We have to take the long view and embrace endurance to avoid despair. It was inspiring to again rock to the singing of the Washington Sisters (twins Sharon and Sandra) as if it was still the 1980s, their voices just as strong and determined as ever. And yes, there was some dancing in the side aisles and a lot of singing along.

    Linda Tillery (75), leading her band from a wheelchair, was fiercer than any teen star I’ve ever heard. Her singing has a powerful blues thread that enlivens all of her music along with a sly sense of humor that’s only deepened over the past decades.

    And the sweetest moment for me was Ferron singing the songs that saved the lives of many a lesbian who thought she was alone with her broken heart. Her poetic lyrics wrapped around us again, reminding us we’d survived. Seeing Ferron (71) strumming the guitar, her new glasses slipping down her nose, was like a call to arms.

    The coda that Holly Near (74) delivered was a reminder that the music, the artists, and the activism should not be seen as nostalgia. The spirit these old lesbians—musicians and audience—brought into the room is something we still need today.

    Jewelle Gomez is a lesbian/feminist activist, novelist, poet, and playwright. She’s written for “The Advocate,” “Ms. Magazine,” “Black Scholar,” “The San Francisco Chronicle,” “The New York Times,” and “The Village Voice.” Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @VampyreVamp

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    Published on December 7, 2023