Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams (bio) 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, and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here.]
Last summer, my friend Pat turned 80. At her party she made available a memoir of her life compiled with the help of her friend Laura. It's a fascinating tale. It also reminds me, a lesbian now 62, just how much had changed by the time I came along, in part through the bravery of women like Pat.
For this column, Pat has given me permission to share some of her story (in italic type) and I'll counterpose to some observations about my age group to bring out the contrasts. The 18 years between us made for many differences. Pat begins:
I was born at home, with the help of a midwife, near Hayward, California, on July 12, 1929. That's exactly what my birth certificate says, "near Hayward...”
“I would call the neighborhood 'city lots' but in those days, that meant quarter acre lots...and everyone had vegetable gardens, chickens, rabbits...everyone. It was the depression!
“...We were low class. Now I guess the word is working class. Everyone was poor, but everyone got by. Like many others in the neighborhood, my mother and her sisters worked at Hunt Brothers Cannery, which was only a block away.”
During Pat's childhood, the Depression and a semi-rural, neighborhood-centered life was the reference norm for many Americans. I grew up in a big city in the prosperous 50s - my reality included a strong sense that national well-being derived from industrial production. We would drive by the Niagara Falls chemical factories (think Love Canal) and the refinery by the river, burning off oil day and night. My parents looked at them proudly. Delight in sheer productive capacity was what World War II had taught my parents and their friends.
”I never did very well at school. I had a very hard time with learning to read. Looking back, I wonder if I had some hearing loss even then, or some kind of learning disability. Who knows? But I really struggled. By the time I was 16, just starting 10th grade, I was impatient to go to work, earn a living, have some money in my pocket. So that's what I did, I quit school and went to work in the canneries. Within a year, I'd settled into line work at Owens Illinois glass factory, although I'd had to fudge my age a little in order to get hired...
“No one would believe me if I told you how shy and quiet and serious I was when I started at Owens. I was a 'mind your own business' kind of person. It took quite a few years before I began to speak out and express myself...it was a slow process. But gradually I got more confident. I became active in the union, I was a shop steward, and even union president. Part of that 'growing up' included going back and earning my GED. Owens encouraged people to be educated and was very supportive about that.”
By the time I came along, anyone with the slightest aspirations had been convinced they had to finish high school. And the post-World War II G.I. bill had even made college imaginable for wide swathes of the population. Apparently the Owens Illinois company shared in the national push for more education in the 1950s.
”Owens was a community in itself - there were almost 2000 employees altogether and we did shift work, one week on days, one week on swing, then a week working graveyard; that's how they did it in those days, and that was my life for the next 30+ years. Owens had a women's softball team, and Owens had women like me! I made friends, buddies; I didn't feel so alone...
“In those early days at Owens my hair was short - they all knew...but the word "lesbian" was never used. You were 'butch.'
“I remember reading The Well of Loneliness...I thought, 'wow, they write books about it!' There was so much I was in the dark about...
“My social life centered at Owens. There were gay bars that you could go to, Last Chance, Pearl's, but I was cautious, not wanting to get caught in a pick-up, a raid, which were frequent particularly in the 40s and 50s. Owens had a policy that what you did away from work was a reflection on your work...so if you weren't 'a good citizen' you could get yourself fired.
“My buddies and I were attracted to straight women. That's all that we knew; that's just how it was. We always hoped they would stay with us 'forever,' and some were lucky; my buddy Mick and her partner Erla were together about 30 years until Erla's death. Most of us, though, would end up with broken hearts. We all did the best we could.”
It wasn't much easier to be a lesbian teenager in the early 60s, at least as I experienced that time. The difference was that a kind of snickering prurience that characterized the 1950s had taught women who were striving uncomfortably to fulfill the feminine mystique that one of the ways they could flunk their female role was to be a homosexual.
Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group, was an artifact of that consciousness. There was a sort of dirty awareness that some people were homosexual - that those unfortunates would probably live a sad, lonely life and die a miserable death. No one wanted to be one of those people, even those of us who were gay.
Yet by the 1970s, there began to be visible gay people who were saying, “no! there's nothing wrong we me!" Gay visibility, "coming out," began to change attitudes, to make being gay just part of life, not a dirty secret.
Moreover, change was coming for women...
”I knew from my experiences at Owens that there was no reason a woman could not be a crew leader or even a manager. We were training the men, and they got the promotions. There had never been a woman in management at the Owens Oakland plant.
“In the early 70s, with Equal Opportunity, I filed a grievance to become crew leader. There was a lot of haggling back and forth, management would come up with reasons against, and I'd respond; it kept on and on and finally they said, 'OK, Pat, we give up,' and I became the first woman crew leader at that Oakland plant.
“A few years later I was finally promoted to management - no more shift work, no more hourly pay! My final position at Owens before retirement in 1984, was as a 'service engineer,' visiting our customers' facilities, mostly at that time wineries all over northern California, and trouble shooting whatever problems they might be having with the manufacture of our various commercial containers.”
My generation really got the benefit of women like Pat standing up for themselves. I can remember when the newspaper classified ads were divided into "help wanted: male" and "help wanted: female." But by the time I landed in San Francisco in the 1970s, it was possible - though sometimes difficult - for me to make a living in construction.
Sure, there were lots of guys who didn't think I could do it. Some women I knew were harassed on the job. But those guys could not stop me as long as I could do the work. And in less stereotypically male jobs, women were getting into everything. Times had changed.
Pat closes her memoir: ”I was almost 60 before I traveled anywhere outside the U.S. but since then, I've been lucky enough to see Australia including Darwin and Kakadu National Park, also Singapore, Hong Kong, also Paris, London, Portugal and Madera lsland where my family was from - and New York City, the Southwest and even Las Vegas.
“I'm glad to have seen all those places, but now I'm glad to stay home; I'm happy with my dog Pebbles, my garden, all the projects around my house that never seem to get finished, you know? There's never enough time for all I want to do.
“And every day I give thanks to the Creator; I give thanks for everything. I walk in my garden and every little growing thing is a miracle. There has to be something larger than a man or a woman, larger than 'God' to create all this! It's a shame we don't spend more time in awe about what's all around us, and appreciating it rather than destroying it. So I give thanks for life, for the life of every one and everything around me.”
I want to feel that kind of delight and gratitude for living when I'm 80!
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claire Jean: ID Bracelet