Friday, April 25, 2014

Out-er Limits: To be an Older, Gay Woman in a Young, Straight, Man's World

(This was a paper written for a Women's Studies Class)

I am an older gay woman. For many many years, I existed in the traditional heterosexual wife-and-mother role. That was fine to a certain extent -- especially the mother part -- but there was a constant strain on my soul, like an instrument that was warped, but playable, always just slightly out of tune, so slightly that the untrained ear could not perceive the dissonance.
When I came out six years ago, leaving a 27-year marriage behind, both family and friends in the wider spheres of my life were perplexed. “Why would she leave such a secure life? Why would she risk her reputation? Why would she do this to her children? Why upset the status quo? Why throw a wrench into our world?” Why, why, why?
Despite the fact that I live in a liberal, urban environment, I still see signs that my decision to live as an out, unapologetic, older gay woman forms ripples in the water. Somehow I represent a threat to other heterosexual people, and when I was out with my former female partner, we cause discomfort wherever we went. Disapproving stares aimed at our hands held while walking down the street, were often shot at us from heterosexual couples who are themselves exhibiting far more explicit displays of affection, they without fear of any repercussion. Passing mutterings of, “ dyke,” and such are common enough experiences. Nearly always, it is the men who stare and mutter.
Why is a small 58-year-old white-haired woman perceived as such a threat? I wonder. Gay rights activists, both male and female have been fighting an uphill battle for generations. But it is most hard on the lesbian community. Instead of being thought of as independent, self-sufficient women who choose to love other women, we are perceived to be hard, ugly, man-hating bitches who must be marginalized at best, and stamped out at worst. Some say outwardly I do not fit the stereotypical idea of what a lesbian should look like. This is partially due to my age and partially, I suppose, due simply to the fact that I do not drive a motorcycle, wear black leather or hate all men. As the mother of two grown sons and the sister of two brothers, I look at all people for who they are inside (or at least I’d like to think I do!) or as Martin Luther King stated, “for the content of their character.”
In her essay Homophobia and Sexism, author and activist Suzanne Pharr speaks in blunt terms about who the enemy really is, when it comes to the withholding of even basic civil and human rights for gay men and lesbian women, but especially for the women. Pharr, the founder of the Women’s Project and author of the book Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, writes with stridency when she says, “To be a lesbian is to be perceived as someone who has stepped out of line, who has moved out of sexual/economic dependence on a male, who is woman-identified."
Pharr may be strident, but her point is succinct and gets right to the heart of the matter. She points out that the lesbian label is trotted out by some to mean any independent woman who does not feel the need to depend on men for their sense of self-worth.

“If lesbians are established as threats to the status quo, as outcasts who must be punished, homophobia can wield its power over all women through lesbian baiting. Lesbian baiting is an attempt to control women by labeling us as lesbians because our behavior is not acceptable, that is, when we are being independent, going our own way, living whole lives, fighting for our rights, demanding equal pay, saying no to violence, being self-assertive, bonding with and loving the company of women, assuming the right to our bodies, insisting upon our own authority, making changes that include us in society’s decision-making; lesbian baiting occurs when women are called lesbians because we resist male dominance and control. And it has little to do with one’s sexuality."

For me, being older when I came out was a blessing of sorts. I was of an age where, after navigating life for many years, I no longer cared very much how I appeared to others. It was not so difficult to ignore stares and snide remarks. It was not difficult to feel comfortable displaying affection in public, despite obvious disapproval from men. Interestingly, it is most often younger men who are the most vocal in their upset. I have theorized that perhaps I pose a double threat. I not only represent loss of control and power, but I may remind them of their own mothers -- a thought they seem to find untenable.
In reality, I find myself more uncomfortable with getting old and gray, than getting bold and gay. I look in the mirror and do not recognize the wrinkled face before me. I don’t feel 58! But, damn, I sure look it! In her essay Over the Hill and Out of Sight, author Janice Keaffaber talks about women and aging and the fact that society -- again male dominated society -- dictates that only young-looking, heterosexual women are desirable and acceptable. Keaffaber is a co-founder of The Old Women’s Project, a San Diego-based organization that focuses its attention on the health and well being of older women in need of advice and assistance. The project especially serves women in prison, gay and lesbian women, and women in lower income brackets. To fellow older women she says, “we don’t talk about the true emotional challenges involved, [with aging] even with each other. We’re all too busy pretending we don’t notice the indignities that are heaped upon us as old women. Or worse yet, it seems so natural, even to us, that it doesn’t really register that we’ve become Outsiders.”
How awful! Have we become so brainwashed by our society that even we are unaware of our own predicament? These days, I am wearing a couple of odd-looking hats. The gay woman hat fits perfectly, but not everyone likes its colorful feathers. The old woman hat, a bright red one that covers a head of white also draws contempt at times. Worn together, stacked one on top of the other, they create a look I think is fabulous. And, despite the opinion of some onlookers, I have no intention of taking either of them off.

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