[EDITORIAL NOTE: Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here.
In 1983 (along with her partner Cynthia Rich), Barbara MacDonald published a collection of essays titled Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism.
With this slim book, MacDonald put the lesbian feminism movement of that time on notice: in carving out space for ourselves as lesbian women, we were ignoring, excluding, and rendering invisible the few old women around us - and the old women we ourselves would one day become.
MacDonald insisted unequivocally that her ability to name the ageism she experienced derived from her life of knowing "otherness" as a lesbian in unsympathetic times. And she knew that experience was not something unique to lesbians.
”...these essays are about growing old...but they are about difference - about otherness - and all my life I have had to deal with difference, so old age does not come to me now as a stranger...It happened that I felt my difference because I was a lesbian.
"But difference is something we have all dealt with in our lives - that struggle to follow our impulse, our own uniqueness, to know aloneness; and that desire to be like everyone else - not to stand out, to belong.”
In those heady days when lesbians were making themselves visible as never before and many U.S. women were exploring their individuality and autonomy with heady vigor, MacDonald all too often felt an outsider because, in her mid-sixties, she was the oldest woman in the room. Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts amid the ferment,
”...again I was ‘other.’ Again I lived with the never-knowing when people would turn away from me, not because they had identified me as a lesbian, since I was no longer thought of as a sexual being, but because they identified me as old.
"I had lived my life without novels, movies, radio, or television telling me that lesbians existed or that it was possible to be glad to be a lesbian. Now nothing told me that old women existed, or that it was possible to be glad to be an old woman...Again I had to chart my own course, this time into growing old.”
Sometimes this was lonely, alienating.
”I am glad the women's community has a beginning and is there to support women but I am aware that it is not there to confirm who I am...Sometimes I feel like the only way I'll really get into [a women's community center] - [appear] alive in the eyes of the young women - is dead, on a poster.”
Though righteously angry with the young women who erased her, she knew what she wasn't going to do in response. She wasn't going to pretend that she was not getting old. Too often, MacDonald wrote,
”...the old woman tries to pass. ‘I don't think they know my age...People don't think I'm as old as I am, so I don't go around blabbin' it.’ Another old woman recommends ‘taking on the qualities associated with youth. People will never think about your age. They'll just think how young you are.’
“Passing...is one of the most serious threats to selfhood. We attempt, of course, to avoid the oppressor's hateful distortion of our identity...But meanwhile, our true identity, never acted out, can lose its substance, its meaning, even for ourselves.”
MacDonald understood that the aging of the U.S. population would mean that old people would become targets of a pervasive, ageist marketing campaign. She insisted we were being deformed by
”…a society which, in anticipation of the year 2000 (when one out of every four persons will be over 50), is planning a whole new image of aging that will tell us we are as young as we feel and that how to feel young is to look young. A society which is developing endless products to keep us looking young. Which is to say that society isn't going to let us grow old naturally any more than they ever let a lesbian, or any other woman for that matter, do what comes naturally.”
Angry as she was about what society did with her experience of aging, she sought to report honestly what aging meant to her.
”What I am always aware of, somewhere in the back of my mind but not taken out and examined as I do now on this page, is that I am in the process of dying and that all of this is part of the life experience. It is a process and one that we may be conscious of for the last ten or twenty years of our life, which, if you think about it, may be a quarter or more of your lifetime. I find myself wondering why this is not more talked about and why it has not become the common knowledge of our lives...
“...I see that only some deaths are hidden...I see now that all my life, as in yours, one death was always visible in film, in art, and in literature - the agonizing death of the hero who dies gloriously in mortal combat...we see him always in that single moment of death...
“The assumption that is made [by the myth of the heroic warrior] is that if you kill them first, you will live. (I assure you that, with the body messages I've been getting lately, I won't.) This assumption would not be possible if the daily deaths of ordinary people were made visible, and if the life process of dying were in our heads instead of the single event, and if the bravery of the old who face death every day were recognized for the courage it demands of the human spirit...
“Today, gradually, sometimes not easily, I begin to understand that my body is still in charge of my life process and has always been. It is still taking good care of me, but it always had two jobs: to make sure that I live and to make sure that I die. All my life it has been as busy with my dying as my living.”
Barbara MacDonald died on June 15, 2000 at the age of 86.
I had not thought of MacDonald's book in many years until Marian Van Eyk McCain of Elderwomanblog reminded me of it in comments on a previous Gay and Gray column. When I first encountered it, I was one of those youngish women among whom MacDonald was never sure she could find a place. Today I am almost as old as Barbara was when she began writing these essays. Reading it again was a profound experience I had hope I have succeeded in sharing here.
Look Me in the Eye is presently out of print, so I have taken the liberty here of offering long quotations to share the flavor of what hold up well as a challenging work by a brave woman.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran explains how she came to be nicknamed Smokey.]