BAR HARBOR - Between sea kayaking and chilly ocean swims off a long wooden dock, members of Maine's gay, lesbian and transgender community took in a bit of history at this year's second annual Gay Times Festival at College of the Atlantic.
More than l00 men and women filled a high-ceilinged seaside lecture hall last Sunday morning to hear Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who have been together more than 44 years, speak about the numerous gains and future struggles facing gay men, lesbians and transgendered people (people who have had a sex-change operation).
The two women are living history to many lesbians. In 1955, the couple founded the Daughters of Bilitis with six other women.
The club's name came from a Frenchman's poem about a lesbian named Bilitis who lived on the Isle of Lesbos with Sappho.
Founded in San Francisco, the club's mission was to reach out to isolated lesbians across America. Chapters sprung up in cities and small towns across the country. The Daughters also published a magazine called The Ladder, filled with stories, fiction and poetry by and about women, giving hope to many lesbians at the time.
The couple is perhaps best known to a loyal following for a book they published in 1972 titled "Lesbian/Woman," which described life as a lesbian in a way that was affirming and did not conclude such a life would end in a tragic, tortured way.
Many women at the festival could remember reading this famous tome as teenagers or young women. A few had brought their worn copies to get autographs.
Lin Gould of Mount Desert, one of the ofiganizers of the three-day festival of workshops, music and outdoor activities, said the book was a beacon of light to her.
"`Lesbian/Woman' was the first book I bought when I was a lonely teenager," she said as she introduced Lyon and Martin. "To read this book gave me hope that I wasn't alone and that there were wonderful people out there. I just had to go out and find them." Lyon, 72, and Martin, 76, gave the speech like a relay race, passing the written text off when each was finished.
Lyon recounted an encyclopedic listing of events and issues in gay political history. "Time is of the essence. We're catching up with May Sarton," said the energetic woman with short, reddish hair and large owl-frame glasses. She called Ellen DeGeneres' coming out episode on television the big event of 1997.
"More people know about Ellen than Ralph Reed," she said, referring to the former director of the Cllristian Coalition. She also praised President Clinton. "As a community, we've spent a lot of time vilifying Bill Clinton although he has done more for us than any other president."
Lyon said Clinton was poorly advised by leaders of the gay and lesbian community to take on the military policy on gays in the opening days of his' administration. She called the new policy that emerged from this controversy - the don't ask, don't tell compromise - a disaster.
In fact, she said discharges of gays and lesbians reached an all- time high in 1996. And women are more likely than men to suffer from these discharges, she said.
When Martin took over the podium, the white-haired woman with a deep, res8nant voice turned her attention to the issue of older gays, lesbians and transgendered people.
In 1995, she and Lyon founded Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, dedicated to helping older members of the community fight discrimination and live proud lives.
"Ageism is rampant," she said. "We believe that life is not over until it's over."
Martin and Lyon decided they needed to go national with the issue and wrote to their congressional representat~ves to ask to be named California delegates to the 1995 White House Conference on Aging. Although the conference leadership was initially reluctant to place gay and lesbian issues on the agenda, the women demanded to be heard.
They wanted language prohibiting discrimination against older gays and lesbians to be part of the final recommendation to Congress. They made sure it was. While the speech focused on politics, the audience wanted to know about the personal.
John Grundman of Steuben asked the couple whether it was really fun, as they said, to struggle for change over all those years. Lyon responded: "When we started back in the '50s, no one had invented burnout."
Diane Elze, a longtime gay and lesbian rights activist in Maine, wanted to know what the key was to the couple's long and fulfilling relationship.
Standing at the podium together, laughing and smiling at each other, they said it had never been a struggle for them.
Lyon said the key was "liking each other, loving each other and having a lot of common things."
Martin said it helped to have a long view on issues and to enjoy the challenge of fighting the odds. "Every little victory gives you a boost," she said.
In an earlier workshop, Elze, 45, urged the people at the festival to congratulate themselves for their recent victories in Maine including this spring's passage of the anti-discrimination law for gays and lesbians.
"These victories came about because of the thousands of conversations you and I had in our homes, corner stores, workplaces, schools and campgrounds," she said.
Elze predicted the issues of the future would involve gay marriages and the rights of transgendered people. She said these issues will fundamentally challenge "heterosexual supremacy."
Active for more than 20 years in Maine starting when she was a student at the University of Maine in Orono, Elze was active in the Portland campaign to pass the city's human rights law protecting gays and lesbians, and she founded a youth group for gays and lesbians in Portland.
Although politics and activism were the subject of speeches, the festival also included music from blues and jazz bands, a comedy act, health workshops, a hike up Mount Gorham and a chance to simply hang out.
Troy Pinkham of Bangor said he came with his boyfriend Scott Archer to meet other gay couples. He said the relaxed atmosphere and the emphasis on fun was the best part of the event.
"And it's just nice to know there are other couples out there," he said.
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