Older lesbians deserve recognition as feminist pioneers and sisters

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Lesbian feminism has a lot to offer us. It’s a mine of largely untapped potential for understanding and building connections between women. Part of the reluctance to explore those possibilities comes from the fear of acknowledging anything lesbian could be of universal relevance. The mainstream movement shies away from lesbian feminisms, which tend to be radical in nature and therefore incompatible with any feminism that prioritizes the individual with the collective, equality within existing power structures over the freedom to create something new. And, after all, lesbians are still caricatured as the worst case scenario of what a woman can become if she embraces feminism.

 

That anti-lesbianism, and the misogyny behind discouraging women from connecting with one another, only ever stands to benefit patriarchy. It teaches women to be afraid of learning the full extent to which we can sustain and support ourselves, warns us off discovering that a life not centered around men can, in fact, be full of joy. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we must be bold and look behind the curtain – to see the world not as men say we should, but as it actually is. Lesbian feminism contains a great many lessons, and without beginning to explore them I would never have begun to discover the truths that now give my life texture. The most obvious of those truths, and therefore the most obscured within mainstream society, is that older lesbians are pretty much the best people on the planet.

Anti-lesbianism, and the misogyny behind discouraging women from connecting with one another, only ever stands to benefit patriarchy.

Older lesbians have given so much to feminist and gay organizing that their erasure as the pioneers of both communities feels nothing short of criminal. And yet, much like mainstream society, so much of queer culture centers youth and masculinity that it is fundamentally unequipped to acknowledge the significance of older lesbians within the community – or to recognize the qualities which make older lesbians such a positive presence in our world. It’s unbearable that women who fought as lesbian feminists to challenge injustice now have their sexuality redefined as queer in any celebration of their accomplishments, or airbrushed completely out of the narrative.

Older lesbians have given so much to feminist and gay organizing that their erasure as the pioneers of both communities feels nothing short of criminal. And yet, much like mainstream society, so much of queer culture centers youth and masculinity that it is fundamentally unequipped to acknowledge the significance of older lesbians within the community.

Society is altogether too ready to write lesbians out of the account that receives sufficient legitimacy to be considered history, a phenomenon that we try to resist through feminist documentation. Older lesbians exist inside that Bermuda Triangle of being older, female, and off limits to men – therefore prime targets for erasure. And so I’m going to share with you the importance of older lesbians in my own life – both because these details are worth preserving, and in the hope that you will feel extra appreciation for the older lesbians in your life.

Older lesbians exist inside that Bermuda Triangle of being older, female, and off limits to men – therefore prime targets for erasure.

When I started volunteering at Glasgow Women’s Library, I had little to no confidence in myself or belief in my own worth. There is an amazing community of women at the Library, including some extraordinary older lesbians. When I spoke, they listened to me as though the words coming out of my mouth were important. They directed me towards books by Black women, encouraged my creative interests, and always had a kind word for me. They helped me grow into myself.

For the first feminist conference I ever spoke at, I had traveled to an unfamiliar city where I had didn’t know anybody. Nerves defined a lot of that experience. But, at the one event focussed on lesbian lives, I had the good fortune to meet an older lesbian whose enthusiasm for documentation matched my own. She had been partly responsible for curating the Lesbian Archive, housed at the Women’s Library where I volunteered. Throughout that whole conference, it was only in her company that I felt able to let my guard down and be myself. She held space for me, and that kindness was a precious gift.

When I went to London for the inaugural Bare Lit, Britain’s first literary festival entirely about writers of colour, An older lesbian from Twitter offered to meet me at the launch party, so I ‘knew’ someone there, which I gladly accepted (we had mutual friends IRL – don’t forget stranger danger, even when planning lesbian meet-ups). She was charming in a real sort of way, and we hit it off being book nerds together. It was the start of a lasting friendship. She later confessed to suggesting this meet up because I was giving off anxious vibes.

During a particularly rough point in my life, an older lesbian I didn’t know was generous enough to say that I could come along to her 70th birthday party with a mutual friend. I don’t usually do that well at parties, but there were all of my favorite things there: lesbians, food, vodka, cake, and music. It was the drunkest and the happiest I had been for a very long time.

The first time I met Scotland’s Poet Makar, Jackie Kay, she hugged me out of sheer delight that there was another Black lesbian feminist on the local scene. Her enthusiasm and friendliness made me feel like the best version of myself. Her writing has been central to how I find a sense of place in Scotland, connect to Scottish culture, and understand Black Scottish identity – so that moment of recognition is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. She wrote about what how much meant for her to meet her Black lesbian feminist foremother Audre Lorde as a young woman, and so I’m confident that Jackie Kay knew what she was giving me.

And my mum deserves an honorable mention. It would be remiss of me now to mention my mother in the older lesbians who have built me up with support and encouragement, especially considering she gave me the gift of life. My mum was pretty young when she had me – younger than I am now – so if she does fit into the category of an older lesbian, it’s by a hair’s breadth. All the same, she has passed on some vital elements of lesbian culture, teaching me DIY skills and the importance of holding on to your independence as a woman.

Older lesbians deserve to be valued so much more. They deserve to be seen – not just in the role of community elders from whom we can learn, which gets a bit one-dimensional, but as women we can laugh and cry with; women we can protest alongside and go dancing with after we all put down our placards; women we can share friendship with and perhaps, in the process, teach in return. And if more women were receptive to the principles of lesbian feminism, those amazing connections to be found could become the rule rather than the exception.

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