Monday, February 17, 2014
A Very Queer Golden Jubilee
I'll get to the drama in a minute.
Sheri and Lois were the founders of the Boston Chapter of D.O.B. - Daughters of Bilitis , - the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States - which they led for more than 20 years before turning over the reigns to a new generation of lesbian women.
It is now defunct, as most DOB chapters are, but has pretty much morphed into the LGBT Aging Project which is making new roads of progress for Marriage Equality and access to health care in hospitals and nursing homes for LGBT Seniors.
Back in the day, gay couples and lesbian couples often traveled together as cover for each other, but there were gay bars and then there were lesbian bars - the only real way most gay and lesbian people could meet and socialize with each other - and no one frequented the other.
The bars were frequently raided by the police and then, the next morning, newspapers printed and published the names of those who had been arrested in the local paper.
Which is why many lesbians and gay men took other names. Indeed, Sheri isn't really Sheri; her name is Claire but she took the name Sheri just in case she ever got picked up and arrested.
During their time in leadership in DOB, their home phone was tapped by the FBI, and their "activities" were closely monitored by the police. Still, they persisted and persevered, providing education and information, legal advice and emotional support for women who were isolated and persecuted for the bigotry and prejudice that affected them in terms of housing and jobs and education and their ability to have custody of their own children.
There is no doubt in my mind that the DOB in general and Lois and Sheri in particular saved lives. And, when they didn't save lives, they saved the sanity of many women.
I remember with painful clarity the first conversation I had with my father after I had come out. Well, I didn't really "come out". I had been forced out.
I'll spare you all the details for another time but, out of the blue, my father called one night to try and "talk some sense" into me. He started by telling me that, when he has been diagnosed with "a touch of emphysema", the doctor told him that he had to quit smoking.
It went downhill from there.
His last attempt was to tell me about the time he was a young boy, living on his father's farm. He said, "I used to watch the cows and, every now and again, one cow with try to jump another cow. I would ask my father what they were doing and my father would say, 'they are just overheated'. "
Then, thoroughly disgusted and frustrated, he delivered his final salvo, "Elizabeth, get a hold of yourself! You are smarter and better than an overheated cow!"
I was devastated. Sobbing and inconsolable, I called Sheri in Boston. She listened carefully and patiently, trying to affirm my goodness and graciously explaining that my father's world view was simply too small to try to fit in this new understanding of how the world worked in general and the implications for my life in particular.
It didn't matter. I was inconsolable. And, rapidly getting hysterical.
When I got the the story about the overheated cows, however, Sheri started to giggle. Her response was so incongruous to what I was experiencing in that moment, it had exactly the effect she wanted. It stopped me in my tracks long enough to think about the absurdity of my father's words and the reality of my situation.
"Mooooooo!" she said. It was a low, slow sound, working up to a full bellow.
"Overheated cows!" she laughed. "Oh please! Oh, please! Stop! You're killing me! Lois! Lois! You've got to hear this one. I've heard a lot of descriptions of lesbians over the years, but that one is a first and it takes the cake."
"Overheated cows!" she shrieked! "MoooooOOOooooo!"
Suddenly, a switch was flipped inside my psyche and I heard my father's words for what they were. Sheri's laughter was just the medicine I needed, allowing me to move past the absurdity and recognize his inability to move past his simple, uncomplicated view of the world and into an affirmation of the goodness of my love and my life.
Sheri found an old pastoral print of some cows, cooling themselves in a stream. She tastefully colored two of the cows a light lavender, framed the print professionally and gave it to us as a present the very next Christmas.
That picture has hung in every home we've ever lived in, a reminder that laughter in the face of blind prejudice and ignorance is not only the best response, it is also the best antidote to that kind of psychic and emotional poison.
I have Sheri and Lois to thank for that - and so many, many other wonderful lessons about how to navigate my way through life complicated by the prejudice and bigotry that comes with a "love that dares not speak its name."
There were many "Lois and Sheri" stories that were shared at their celebratory party, each one a testimony to their generosity and love and deep commitment to each other and the newly emerging Queer community.
Oh, I almost forgot the drama.
One of the guys, John, dropped something into the garbage disposal and stuck his hand in to it to fetch it. Except, his hand wouldn't come out.
As Sheri and Lois continued to hold court in the dining room, some of us quietly attempted to help John.
First, we tried pouring liquid soap. Nope.
Then, some cooking oil. His hand wouldn't budge.
Michael, one of the guys who was there, is a doctor, so I quietly called him aside and told him what was going on. We decided that some cold water to reduce the swelling and then to slather the hand with some petroleum jelly might just do the trick.
I even tried using a plastic spatula and delivering his hand like a forceps delivery of a baby's head.
No way, Jose.
Michael then suggested we check it out on Google.
Duh! Of course! Except, it wasn't much help.
I did find a story about a cat who had gotten her head stuck in the sink and the only way they finally got her out was to sedate her and then put some petroleum jelly all over her before they were able to slide her head out of the sink.
No one had any Valium. We considered whiskey but figured that was probably not a good option. A drunk with his hand stuck in a garbage disposal didn't make for a very pretty picture.
Michael and I decided that we had exhausted every option and now it was time to call 911.
Before we knew it, our festive party of 12 Queer people was expanded to include sixteen (16!!!!) of Boston's finest firefighters, police, paramedics, EMTs and assorted other first responders, all huddled into our host's kitchen, trying to figure out the best way to handle the situation.
It took a little over an hour and included a blow torch to cut out the garbage disposal and some oxygen for John and much backing and forthing and, of course, some picture taking to document the saga because, you know, being Queer people, we are going to be dining out on this story for YEARS to come and someone is bound to say, "Get outta town!" and then we'd have the pictures to prove it.
"Your friend is free," announced the fire captain to wild applause, "and this," he added, "is going to hang on my office wall. I'll use it for future training purposes."
And, because we are part of God's Rainbow Tribe, we simply had to serenade Boston's finest in thanksgiving for their work in rescuing one of our own from the many dangers, toils and snares of the garbage disposal.
We broke out into a wonderful version of "YMCA" - complete with all the appropriate dance moves.
They loved it.
Of course, our host was left with a sink and dishwasher and kitchen counters filled with dirty dishes and pots and pans and utensils but she won't be able to clean anything until she can get a new garbage disposal and a plumber to come and hook everything back up.
But, hey, we're the Queer community. Someone at the table knew someone from our Tribe who is a plumber and, last I heard, he was coming out first thing in the morning to make things right again.
And, John did spend a few hours in the ER at the local hospital trauma center. I talked with him this morning and he's doing just fine. His hand is in a soft cast and he's a bit sore and more than a bit embarrassed, but, as he says, "What a story, huh?"
I know, I know. I'm an Episcopal priest. I should be able to wring at least one sermon or theologically reflective essay from the metaphor of an aging gay man who had his hand trapped in a garbage disposal, but just this once, I think I'll pass.
If someone had said to me, even twenty years ago, that I would one day be in Jamaica Plain, MA, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of two very dear friends in a room filled with Queer people and just a touch of drama, I would have said, "Shut the Front Door!"
If we are blessed to be a blessing to others, then there was ample evidence of the truth of that assertion.
May there be many more celebrations of Golden Jubilees in our Rainbow Tribe.
Happy 50th Anniversary, Sheri and Lois.
May the light of your love continue to be a beacon of inspiration and hope to us all, and may it be a continued source of joy and consolation to you both.