Edie Windsor, the wealthy plaintiff in the case that eventually struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, became an LGBT icon comparatively late in life. After the 2007 death of her longtime partner Thea Spyer, Windsor was hit with a $600,000 tax bill because the exemption from the estate tax did not apply to same-sex couples. Although her wealth might have made it difficult to portray her as a victim, she became a poster child or injustice. According to a lengthy 2013 New Yorker profile, an “experienced movement attorney” said that for sympathetic plaintiffs, “women are better than men, post-sexual is better than young.”
Perhaps. But during the summer after the Supreme Court handed own its ruling, the then-84-year old became highly sought-after in Provincetown and elsewhere. When a mutual friend tried to set Windsor up with an available 94-year-old, her first question was, “Is she still sexual?”
It’s a droll question, all the more so when asked by an octogenarian widow. Windsor became famous due to of the details of her marriage, but many people might assume that sex had drained out of her life years before.
Dirty Old Women, a reading group that’s met at Oakland’s Octopus Literary Salon for two years, counters this stereotype of sexlessness — straight or gay — with a program of poetry and prose by self-identified older women. Having collected some of the greatest hits into an anthology, Dirty Old Women: Erotica by Women of Experience, editor Lynx Canon will host a free launch party at the Make Out Room on Wednesday, Feb. 8, from 7:30-9:30 p.m. (and again on Feb. 28 at the Octopus, in Uptown Oakland).
“It fills a somewhat unique niche, but one that might be growing,” Canon says. “A lot of us are getting to the age where we’re looking back on our lives. We came of age in a time of great sexual freedom, freedom from disease and freedom from social restraint, a time of great social experimentation.”
“There’s a range of experience,” she adds, “but, as I say in the tagline, we’re old enough and secure enough and wise enough to write about sex in a really interesting and honest and direct way.”
That directness takes the shape of 23 poems and prose pieces, which may include scenes at airports that involve fantasizing about which types of sex toys people have packed in their luggage, stories about throwing back shots of Patron and seeing where an evening in San Francisco takes you, and verse like “While I’m chopping zucchini / for a stir fry, / all I want to do / is take a stiff one / up my cunt.”
Calling the poetry “funny and quirky,” Canon says that people shouldn’t be afraid of it, because “it’s not at all ‘When I see the canyons of your clavicles, my loins become fiery.’ ”
There’s “some romance,” she says of the overall book. “But mostly, they’re not romantic. They’re straight-up sexy — work that is designed to arouse and titillate.”
It’s also highly literary in nature, with a voice and a sense of place that never sacrifices the craft in favor of titillation. Canon says that, over two years, the audience has grown almost continuously from an initial coterie of mostly older women to include more younger people and more diversity.
“We have a core group of people who’ve read as featured writers a couple of times. … But all the time, I’m meeting new people who are amazing writers.”
Beth Elliott, an author, musician, and cofounder of San Francisco’s Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, is one of the contributors. (She has two pieces in the anthology, “Peace Offering” and “Zoe Howard.”)
Her political work and her literary work aren’t necessarily part of a single project, but rather, “I have more of an interest in turning conventions upside-down and inside-out, and taking characters from a Point A to a Point B that is unlikely — for them — but gets them there in ways they accept.”
“Writing not just stuff that is, as they say, ‘stark material,’ but is overall good literary content while being really exciting — that’s something I definitely wanted to support,” Elliott says, crediting fellow contributor Jan Steckel for initially bringing her on.
As a longtime writer, she has fought against all manner of puritans, from the heteronormative horde that long policed lesbian sexuality for being “unsettling to the mainstream order” as well as to radicals of an earlier era who wanted to enforce a rigid code of “what was appropriate sexual behavior.”
In other words, Dirty Old Women doesn’t have to be overtly political to be political, although its emphasis is still on the the joys of being a woman with a certain sagacity and perspective.
Elliott and Canon agree that women are freer today than they were in their youth, although Canon isn’t so sure that the changes have been uniformly positive in the sexual domain.
“Certainly there’s a lot more information to be had,” she says, “but also misinformation. Porn is so accessible, but it almost always gives such a distorted picture of sexuality.”
Well, to clarify matters, there is the anthology, which takes in the broadest possible definition of mature female sexuality. The women who speak at Octopus are self-identified older women, something that Canon left entirely to their discretion.
“I decided early on that I wasn’t going to police who’s old enough, who’s female enough, or anything,” she says. “If you’re willing to get up there and say, ‘Yeah, I’m a dirty old woman, you’re welcome.’ ”
Dirty Old Women
Wednesday, Feb. 8, 7:30-9:30 p.m. at the Make Out Room 3225 22nd St., oaklandoctopus.org