To listen to an excerpt of the audio from Laurie’s interview click here:
I am Laurie. I was born 8-3-48 so I will turn 65 in about a month. I live 8 months a year in southern Arizona, between Tucson and the Mexican Border, I stay here in West Virginia more or less a month doing this High Rocks camp [teaching about horses], and then I go to rural Denmark for 3 months a year. That’s all I can stay due to E.U. Guidelines, unfortunately. And I’ve been doing this pattern, for, I think 7 years now. I have lived in southern Arizona since 1984. I went there for a job. Lived in Tucson for a couple of years, and then bought a place in the country, kinda the country, in probably 1987. I’ve lived there ever since, and I’ll probably live there for the rest of my life.
It’s the Arizona Sonoran desert. We have these marvelous islands in the sky of mountain ranges that just shoot up. The closest one to me shoots up to 9,300 feet, but they really kind of rise right out of the flatter desert. If you just walked up the mountain you would pass through several ecological zones, it’s just fascinating: the trees would change, the animals would change, the air would change. But where I live is about 2,700 feet, more or less. Things pretty much run north and south there. The Santa Cruz River Valley is where I live, but only some of it runs all year round. But we have monsoons: big, dramatic, lovely monsoons in July and August. Dramatic thunder and lighting storms. And then there’s rain in January.
My job really got me very involved in rural life there, because it was a rural community health center. And, there were already just fledgling clinics started in a little town called Arivaca, which is really only 14 miles from the border as the crow flies. A real interesting mixture of cowboys and old-time Hispanic families, and hippies that moved in there and bought cheap land. Miners, there’s small time gold mining and that type of thing going on. Lots of contraband being grown, I mean even straight people…straight meaning legal…even straight edge people grow pot there and sell it cause the prices are so good. Anyway, just a huge amalgam of people, in that town.
Every town I worked in was so different. I had three clinics, and expanded over the 22 years I worked there. Three Points is a real rough and ready area west of Tucson, right on the edge of the Tohono O’odham, formerly known as Papago Nation. It’s the only place you could buy liquor, ‘cause the reservations are dry, so just swarming with people when the checks came in, and lots of public drunkenness and stuff, and just a rough…a rough area. Full of trailers and broke people and good people too. It had a good school district. We started some school clinics in some of these areas, but they weren’t all big enough to have their own school. And then Continental is an old-time Hispanic community that goes way way back, and they got surrounded by a retirement community. Arizona is full of these quintessential retirement communities, where you have to be 55 or over to even buy there, and it was much more master-planned development with lots of home owner restrictions and things like that. So it’s just such an interesting mixture of people. You can’t generalize, or say it quick. And, I guess it’s all rural, it qualified for rural for federal grants, the kind of clinics I ran were started with federal grants to areas that were under served medically and so on. Lots of Mormons, and Mormon family settlements, like McGee Ranch and Curly Horn Ranch, especially McGee Ranch is known as a place with multiple generations of Mormons living there. Very rural. I was the executive director of the clinics; it was started by the University of Arizona School of Family and Community Medicine.
I was born in Oakland, California in the San Francisco Bay area, and grew up there and went clear through high school there. I had a great childhood, I walked to school. It wasn’t real urban, but it wasn’t suburban either. Everybody’s house looked different and there were still lots of trees and parks and things like that. It was really a comfortable place to grow up. My father, he ran a family business that made hydraulic fittings for the oil industry. Shand & Jurs, it was there for years in Berkeley. My mother didn’t work, she never had a job. She was a big time volunteer. She was Girl Scouts all the way. When my grandfather retired, they looked all over northern California – this was back in like 39 – and finally chose this wonderful piece of land up in Calaveras County which is the foothills of the old gold rush country. They settled there. It was just marvelous. And there was a river running through it. And they had an apple orchard, and made apple cider, and they had a barn, and they didn’t have horses, but chickens, they had a chicken house. There came a point where they couldn’t hang onto it, so my parents and another family with kids our age bought it. So then we were going there all through my childhood, and we did get horses then, so that was the beginning of really having access to horses. So I just had a love of the country. I think we all had it. Somehow in my heart and my mind, because of growing up and going to my grandfather’s place, and just being an animal person and a horse person, I think I knew I was destined to that [country life].
I went to high school in Oakland, California with a woman named Patricia Baker, and we were great horse friends. Trish had horses, I had horses, we rode together, were great buddies. She became a lesbian, or came out, maybe not right then. What’s interesting about this is that she then went to Finland for some kind of college, gravitated down to Denmark, and met the person who’s my partner now, Jennifer Clarke. And Jennifer is a transported Brit, who moved to Denmark when she was 23, she’s 70 now. Right then was the women’s movement, and the lesbian movement and all that stuff. And they were squatting in houses in Copenhagen, and marching down the streets, and just doing all sorts of stuff. And had women’s houses, and had women’s camps. This was when people were looking in their own vaginas with mirrors and speculums for the very first time. No one else was doing that. And so, Jennifer and Trish were all part of that. They maybe weren’t partners right away, but they went on to have a long 20 year relationship, with maybe one hiatus in there.
And so, Trish got ovarian cancer, in maybe 88, or something. But she beat all the odds, I mean, you don’t supposedly live very long when you get ovarian cancer, especially when it starts out in stage 4, but she beat all the odds and lived for 5 years with basically pretty good quality of life that whole time. But she did have a hankering to reach back to her roots in California. Unfortunately, that did not include her family, who hated the fact that she was lesbian. But it did include friends like me. So Patricia and Jennifer came to visit me in probably 89 or 90, at my house in Arizona, and we just had a great re connection. That was the beginning of a much closer friendship between the 3 of us. And they came back a couple times, and I went to Denmark, to their house. Trish died in 93. I wasn’t able to go to the ceremonies or anything in Copenhagen. Jennifer came back a few times after that, but she always came with somebody. And all this time, believe me; I’m in over my head in a very stressful, very demanding, job and career, as an executive director. That took up most of my time.
Then I got fired from my job in early 2006, I mean there’s a lot of rough water under the bridge there. There was a medical director that…I wouldn’t say he wanted my job, but he wanted to run the organization a whole lot differently than I did, and but he reported to me. At a certain point, we weren’t both gonna be able to be there. I tried my very best for two years to work, I chose him, I worked with him, I really thought we could make it work, but we couldn’t. Anyhow, so they chose him over me, they fired me, and they were not into talking about it, at all, which was tough, because I had really personal relationships with these directors, especially the three that fired me, the executive committee. This was a 22 year job. So that was dreadful, that was horrible. But that’s what happened. And I actually got over it fairly fast, but I had to go through a pretty substantial grieving process. I had 6 months at full salary. So, I was able to really go to counseling, work through the grieving process, get over it, open to new stuff. But the most amazing thing that happened was then Jennifer came to visit, which was the first time she came to visit by herself. It was a 9 day visit, and she didn’t know it, and I wasn’t sure about it, but I fell in love with her during that time. But I wasn’t about to say anything, cause it was, you know, I wasn’t really sure. I wasn’t sure, because, believe me, I’d been married to my job. I’d had relationships with men, but more earlier on, hadn’t had very many or anything that lasted very long, but I still felt healthy. I was healthy, I felt fine, I didn’t feel repressed.
I didn’t stew about it, it wouldn’t have done any good, it didn’t matter. I mean the main thing, is that there’s a very wide range of normal, a very wide range of normal, among everything we’re talking about. So, anyway, I did fall in love with her during that time, but I wasn’t about to say anything. I finally lived with it for a month. I went to a mutual friend who knew Jennifer. She said, “Well I don’t think Jennifer has any idea.” By then we were all planning, the four of us: the Tucson couple, Jennifer, and I, were planning to meet up in Greece…In Lesbos, don’t you know, for a vacation. I said, “Well, can’t I wait and straighten this out, till I get to Lesbos?” and she said, “Laurie, no, you can’t!! What are you gonna do if she shows up with a girlfriend, in Greece?!” I said, “Well. I’ll dive off a cliff headfirst. Just like Sappho.”
So I had to deal with it on the phone, which was a bit tricky, cause that’s like teenage nerves and…So once we got that squared away it just got really wonderful right away, and especially that stage where it was just long distance, on the phone, on email, and writing letters…that was a terribly sweet period, you know, reading every email 50 times, and just you know, all that. I was falling in love. I wasn’t indecisive about any of that. It all fell into place, it really did. I couldn’t wait to tell my family. I knew it would be fine. I didn’t have to come out. I was never in the closet, somehow. I don’t know why that happened. People are envious, like “you never had to be in the closet!” I wasn’t in the closet, it wasn’t a struggle, either I was so deeply repressed I didn’t know it, or repression has a healthy side, or I just wasn’t repressed! I was just someone that grew in different ways. So, I’ve never felt anything that was like discrimination, to me personally. I couldn’t wait to tell my family, and of course my family was thrilled. My father would have had a very hard time with this, and both my parents died before all this happened. I think my mother would have been fine.
Anyway, one thing led to another, and immigration, you know, put some boundaries on the thing. We got a tourist visa for her, which is good for 10 years, but still it’s got a 6 month limit on it. So now it’s in this pattern where she’s in Arizona for 6 months, I’m in Denmark for 3, and we split the difference. And that’s been really pretty successful, for awhile, and it’s gonna have to be successful again for awhile. Hopefully our plans would be that Jennifer would live in the States more, but I cannot imagine us not going to Denmark every year, for at least a month or two. I don’t think it would be easy for her to leave her community, but I also don’t think it would be easy for her to leave her country home on Langeland. This is a place where you can see the ocean from the kitchen window; this is on a dead end road surrounded by plowed fields. It’s a long skinny island, like 30 miles long and 5 miles wide and a population of 15,000 and kind of a dying rural area like a lot of areas in the States, where the young people have to leave cause there’s no jobs, and what jobs there were have faded out.
She loves it. It is a 150 year old Danish farmhouse and had rosebushes growing through the floor, um, you know, they really fixed it as a communal effort, the women did all the work. Now it’s, you know, huge fruit trees, cherry trees, apple trees, huge garden, rhubarb, 8 kinds of berries that last all summer long. It’s just almost paradise, it’s wonderful, but it does take a lot of work and when you start getting to our age, 65 and 70, she says you know “I just can’t live here indefinitely, it’s too much maintenance, I’m not willing to see it crumble around me.” I would move there if it was the only way we could be together, but it’s not, I don’t think, and she doesn’t think I would thrive there. I would, but I’d rather live in America. There’s no wilderness in Denmark, there’s no wilderness, there’s no wild animals, there’s no road kill. You get to the point where you say, “I wanna see some road kill!” ‘Cause it’s so park like. Anyhow. She loves the wilderness too and loves the desert, so that’s why we’re there. We both live on houses at the end of dead end roads, we both live surrounded by nature. Hers is more agricultural, mine is more open desert.
Which brings me to the concept of a home place. I’ve never had that, you can’t have it if you didn’t have it. What I have finally realized, but of course you can’t really realize it if you don’t have anybody you love as much as I love Jennifer, is that my home is with her. Wherever it is, if it’s in Denmark, or Green Valley or some other place.
I didn’t know if I’d be able to afford staying retired. But, I realized I could, if I dialed back my lifestyle a bit. I immediately joined the Green Valley Samaritans, it’s a humanitarian group that works with immigrants and border issues and migrants that are walking through the desert. The Samaritans became the thing I went to immediately. I mean it’s like Civil Rights times down there, where this amazingly horrific stuff is going on all around you, and you can easily ignore it, and I didn’t know much about it when I was still working. I vaguely knew, but you have to want to find out about it, ‘cause the horrific things that are happening are way out in the desert. It’s like Civil Rights times in terms of the unbelievable travesties that are going on, and then the incredible militarization of the border. Helicopters flying over our house, knowing they’re chasing and hunting down people like animals. But, remembering, putting a good frame on it, like: not all border patrol agents are good or bad, good people do bad things, bad people do good things. But let me tell you, 20 minutes walk from my house are places where we found migrant bones, not even skeletons. Scattered bones, but enough that we knew they were human, we called the coroner, this happened over a couple weeks period. Three different people, the coroner could tell from the bones, one was a teenager. So whenever I hear the dogs bark, or I think, I hope there’s no migrants out there. Any time any migrants have come to the house, it’s been for help, it’s not been scary, and then when you remember people from 20 minutes out in the desert, that could see rooftops, but were either too cold, too hot, or too afraid. Yes, I would rather they come. Anyway, Jennifer and I are both deeply involved in that humanitarian group. But then where immigration hits home is someone like me that has a foreign national partner, and can’t even think about getting a green card, except maybe now. We don’t know whether we will get married in Denmark and have it recognized in the States if it could be as a green card application, or whether we would need to get married in one of the ten or eleven states that recognize. But certainly, my state, will be one of the last to fold, believe me. So we’re just on the verge of finding that out, I mean that all just changed last week. [When the Supreme Court struck down D.O.M.A.]
[The largest issues facing LGBTQ folks in my community are:] I guess most LGBTQ people my age have already crossed those bridges of am I, or am I not, or what am I, and you know, gone through a circuitous journey. It’s more the problems of old age: Do I have enough money to retire? Where can I live? I mean people with long term partnerships…there’s a lot of issues. Because, the federal benefits really matter when you get old in terms of who gets the Social Security benefits, how are estate taxes done, those things matter a lot. 1, 138 federal benefits that same sex couples do not get, that heterosexual couples do, and so clearly immigration is a lot of it, and that’s terribly important to me. Veteran’s benefits. Death benefits. Things like visiting your partner when they’re in intensive care. Things like that. So, it’s a different set of issues than for younger people, people your age, and teenagers. I’m just not very in touch with those issues. But it’s terribly important, and hopefully we’ll have it straightened out before you have to deal with it!
Interviewed at High Rocks Educational Corporation in Millpoint, WV on July 2, 2013.
Categories: country queers