Monday, September 04, 2006

We build lesbian cathedrals with dollars

By Guest Columnist Genet

My Irish-American grandma once told me how St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City was built. She lived in upstate New York, so I grew up on tales of New York State and all its dramatic mysteries.

"Irish immigrants built the church with the pennies they saved from working the most menial of jobs -- housekeepers, street car drivers and policemen, they worked very hard. Every time you see St. Patrick's, think of the immigrant's pennies that created a Cathedral," she said.

Somehow, this simple story of how a major project was financed left a deep impression on me. We could do wonders with pennies.

When I was four years old, I remember my Dad taking me to the bank to open my first savings account there. Other children spent their money on candy, but somehow, even at an early age, I was fascinated with the concept of compound interest.

Most girls and women stay away from financial institutions. In fact, very few people have fond childhood memories of banks, but luckily for me, this was not the case.
My bank was different. They gave wonderful thick rubber balloons to the children as they walked in, and at Christmastime, the place was decorated with a moving Santa's workshop that filled the entire lobby of the bank. Little elves pushed and pulled carts filled with toys, Santa rocked back and forth on a chair above it all, and trains pulled into Santa's station to load up toys for good girls and boys.

One thing I noticed about these trips to the bank is that my Dad was on very good terms with everyone from the security guards to the tellers. He and my Mom would wait in line for one teller and did business with her for over 20 years. When she retired, my parents took her out to dinner to celebrate.

These were my earliest lessons about money, and I can still picture in my mind the little passbook savings book that showed the interest in red and the deposits in black.

Last night, I watched another wonderful story of hard working people who saved up dollars to buy a building in New York City. The T.V. show was the gay and lesbian newsmagazine, In the Life. The story was about the founding of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

This New York lesbian institution began in Joan Nestle's apartment 25 years ago. Its goal was to preserve the papers and memorabilia of ordinary lesbians and to have lesbian history controlled by lesbians, and not by male centered academic institutions. It looked so inviting and intellectually wonderful. I love smart women! The archives are just crawling with them! No wonder lesbians are such dedicated volunteers there.

It was a committed group of volunteers that runs the archives and the women told how they spent years fundraising just to put a down payment on a large building to house the archives. One woman mentioned that it was a lifetime commitment. When was the last time you ever heard anyone in America utter, "lifetime commitment," about anything of late?

I looked at the fundraising jar that they showed a close-up of; it was filled with one-dollar bills. Lesbians are very fond of putting one-dollar bills in lesbian collection plates. It drives me nuts to watch them spend $8.00 on a martini at a gay male-owned bar and then contribute with such stinginess to their own community's welfare.

I have nothing against martinis, and I have nothing against men's bars, but I often wonder what it is that keeps money from flowing from lesbians to other lesbians. That's what I don't get. I hear the usual excuses about lesbian poverty, but you know what, I don't buy it. It's a matter of focus and planning. If you plan and focus, you really will have more resources. Spiritually, if you tithe, you'll reap abundance. When you give to these lesbian organizations, you are really giving to yourself and the next generation.

When I saw the show about the New York women, I felt proud. They now own their building free and clear. They are beholden to no financial institution now and they proudly reported that the place has always been 100% volunteer-run. No paid executive directors or receptionists. If you've ever visited lesbian or gay organizations recently, you'll notice their transformation from volunteer-led organizations to social service agencies. I've seen the decline in passion and commitment as layers upon layers of bureaucracy have been added to these once friendly welcoming places.

Call me a hopeless lesbian romantic but I miss the days when we had funky little spaces and no mean-looking security guards prowling around outside. It is the persistent meanness of guards that unnerves me a lot.

Lesbian Herstory Archives looked wonderful to me, and the next time I go to New York City, I'm going to make a trip there. I probably will donate my papers to this place as well including all my Genet columns. When I die, I want a large part of my estate earmarked for lesbian-controlled institutions -- not the Red Cross, not hurricane relief for straight people, but lesbian dollars going to lesbians. When I put money in collection jars, I begin with $20 and I skip the $8 martinis. It's about self-respect, it's about giving back to my own community.

Someday, I hope to see an entire town devoted to lesbian-owned buildings and cultural institutions. I'd like to see every lesbian who can, take out a life insurance policy so that she has a legacy when she dies. Think ahead. The only difference between lesbians and gay men is this attention to financial detail. If my partner is dead before I am, I want to give my house to a lesbian couple or institution.

When I die, I want to see a lesbian goddess in heaven. I don't think that's too much to ask, do you?