The Great Disappearing Act
What happens to older lesbians? Do they turn in their U-Hauls? Do they
join AARP? Do they buy Winnebagos? Or do they just disappear into
the senior citizen centers?
This past week, I had two opportunities to answer these questions and I discovered that there is life after 40 for older lesbians, so take heart all of you who are celebrating your 40th birthday for the fourth time.
It was Saturday night--early--when these two older women walked in the door at Rubyfruit. They had arrived in a taxi and had all the trappings of tourists: camera, several plastic bags, maps.
They seemed nervous...after all, the bar scene was for younger folks, right? They were dressed in classic lesbian fashion: the slightly older one wore a leopard-skin pant suit, wide-rimmed photo-gray glasses with rhinestones in the corners, almost-bouffant hair bleached blonde. The younger of the two was very very butch and did all the talking. She wore the opposite pole of classic dyke duds: black trousers, white Oxford shirt with button-down collar, vest, close-cropped hair.
They were from New York City, as it turned out, and they were here for some convention. They had found us in the Women's Traveler and the concierge at the hotel had directed them to a few bars...Oz, Charlene's and Rubyfruit Jungle. After a quick visit on Bourbon Street, they had wound up in the Marigny.
We invited them in for a cocktail, but they were hesitant.
They didn't "go out" much in New York and were unfamiliar with what they called "protocol." We told them that we had none...that our motto was Check Your Prejudices at the Door. They decided to stay awhile and ordered Tom Collins.
Soon they found their way over to the video poker machines and stood close together in front of the glowing screen. "Is this for real?" they wanted to know, and what could you buy with the credits. We explained that "credits" were money and they played with renewed fervor.
As I watched them share what almost seemed like the same spot on the floor, I could imagine them in their younger days joining other women at the gay clubs which were frequently raided. Paddy wagon rides were often the cost of a night on the town. This was especially true here in New Orleans where Rampart Street shared the dubious distinction of being home to several gay and lesbian bars as well as to the Police Station (still does). At least it wasn't a long ride. Several women have told me stories of hiding in potted palms and of running out of back doors as the cops came in the front.
Sadly, it is clear that we are losing our history... and what is the price of a disappeared past? There are many young women who know nothing of this history...they think police officers always came into the bars to get soft drinks or to use the bathrooms. Today in the Marigny, we have befriended the police who patrol our streets...it's not them we are afraid of.
But back to the two visitors from New York. It was only the glow of the poker machines that kept them in the club. Occasionally, they would glance at the variety of women coming through the doors...and at the gay men. Their faces were perplexed, and the talker asked the bartender if this was a women's bar when she ordered their next round of Tom Collins.
"Everyone is welcomed here," the bartender replied; their quizzical expressions just deepened.
Then suddenly, the impossible happened--they hit the jackpot--2000 credits!
The younger woman ran up to me and asked what 2000 credits equaled. "$500.00," I told her and she turned white as a sheet. "You're kidding me" was her only reply. Everyone was congratulating them, patting them on their backs, smiling at their good fortune. We had to show them how to print out the ticket to cash in their winnings.
They spent the next two hours surrounded by a small crowd of our regulars who had struck up a conversation with them. Last time I saw them they were laughing with a gay male couple ...then they disappeared into a taxi and were gone, waving from the windows, and with them went the mystery of their past-still a secret-still unknown to most of the customers with whom they had shared the evening. Bet they won't forget New Orleans anytime soon, however...both because of their good fortune and because of their glimpse of what a younger generation of lesbian and gay people are doing together: socializing.
It is obvious that there is a real vertical separation in the gay and lesbian community between the young and the not so young. While we have worked hard to establish horizontal alliances across our community, we have forgotten the older members who have rich and varied histories to tell and a lifetime of experiences to share.
Which takes me to part two of this story: Alice Brady. A friend ran into her the other day, and like the game 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, here in New Orleans we could play 6 Degrees of Alice Brady and almost always connect; that is, if we're old enough to remember Alice Brady. I was surprised to learn that my favorite drag performer who is only slightly MY junior didn't know Alice. Did time change so quickly back then? Things had seemed so static and unchanging....
Well, Alice Brady had gotten to talking with the old mutual friend and she had commented that she didn't ever go out anymore, not even on special occasions. She was, after all, in her 70's, she said...it was time to stay home with her memories. The gay community must seem like a foreign country now to this lesbian pioneer, yet without Alice Brady and others who ruled those establishments on Rampart Street, there would have been no lesbian social scene in the 50's and 60's, and no foundations on which to build today's history in the making.
Now Alice Brady lives across the lake. But she did give me an opening that I plan to take...a pathway of discovery...a map into the past that I long to pursue. She said, "I'd sure like to meet those gals who own Rubyfruit." OK, Alice, expect a phone call. I was one of those very young lesbians who ventured into your doors and found myself in a time warp back in 1971...and I want to hear all your stories. Call me, Alice Brady, at 504.947.4000. Leave your number. I'll come to you. Please do it before we lose all the memories in your mind.
You see, I'm not just the gal who owns Rubyfruit, I'm also a PH.D. in English with a specialty in Women's Studies and Gay and Lesbian Studies. I have connections and I want to write your stories down-yours and those of others' of your contemporaries. You were an integral part of New Orleans lesbian history and these young and not so young inquiring minds want to know about it.... So, please, Alice Brady, call me.
Life...it keeps going and going and going....