The idea began in 1994, when an activist-writer began interviewing women about lives lived in the early 20th century.
The women were lesbians, and their memories – many painful, all of them human – were taken first in Houston, then from around the country. The project – Old Lesbian Oral Herstories – has recorded, transcribed and printed interviews with 299 women between the age of 70 and 96.
Thirty-five of those women come from the Northwest, and each shares circumstances that seem unimaginable today.
“These women could be your grandmother, your Aunt Susie,” said Gloria Stancich, a 79-year-old Gig Harbor resident who has been interviewed and conducted interviews for the project. “It was life as lived by so many people, and there was such poignancy to the stories.”
A Tacoma writer, Margaret Purcell, has transcribed dozens of the interviews and helped turn excerpts into a pair of books.
“There were no magazines, no organizations and the only books that dealt with lesbians were psychiatry textbooks,” Purcell said. “We had one woman who was a nurse and trying to find as much information as possible, and the textbooks labeled lesbians as a perversion, a disease, and described how it could be treated.
“Two-thirds of the women we interviewed married men because it was what was expected of them. Some of them didn’t come out until they were 60 years old.”
Why? They lived in times when homosexuality wasn’t tolerated, by families or society.
“When I had a lesbian crisis in college, I knew nobody there was going to help me – the counselors would have been appalled,” Stancich said. “My parents never came to terms with it.
“When my son turned 17, I decided it was time to tell him. I told him, ‘There’s something I need for you to know …’ and he said, ‘I know that!’”
The project produced “A Gift of Age: Old Lesbian Life Stories” in 2009 and “Without Apology: Old Lesbian Life Stories” this year. Both books are available online, and each contains excerpts from the stories of 23 women.
“Over and over, we had women who said, ‘I thought I was the only one’ as they came of age,” Purcell said.
“They talked of the part of their lives that had to be lived in those days – living separately from those they loved, meeting secretly, always being afraid of being found out,” Stancich said.
All the completed transcripts are stored at Smith College in Massachusetts, where they can be accessed for research. Each of the women interviewed signed complete or limited releases – and all had the same hope.
“This project is important, because I fear these stories will be lost if we don’t tell and record them,” Stancich said. “I’d like to see these legacies saved, read in the future. These aren’t sexual stories. They’re about their times, our society.”
The project has been transformative for the Northwest interviewees and the interviewers.
“The joke in my family was, as I transcribed the interviews, these women took over my life. Their stories become part of you,” Purcell said.
“Telling your story was empowering,” Stancich said. “When we did the interviews, once women got past their fear, they came alive.”
Nita, who lives in Seattle and didn’t want to give her last name, watched her partner give her story before dying a few years ago, and was inspired to give her own for the project.
“I liked the idea of having my stories saved,” she said. “I got my copy this year, and my son read it – without my permission. He was at the house, cat-sitting.”
“He’s still talking to me,” Nita said. “And he asked for a copy.”
For all they have been through, the older women involved in the project have found some closure while maintaining a sense of humor.
“I’m an old, disabled, pagan lesbian,” Stancich said. “I’m in an eight-woman group who try to build coalitions by going to meetings of various groups and seeing if we have common goals or interests – I call it the Queer Crone Coordinating Council.
“Some people are offended. I thought it was funny.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 email@example.com