Barbee Cassingham and Sally O’Neil of Freeland were interviewed several years ago for “Herstory: Oral Histories of Old Lesbians.” (Contributed photo)

Barbee Cassingham and Sally O’Neil of Freeland were interviewed several years ago for “Herstory: Oral Histories of Old Lesbians.” (Contributed photo)

‘Herstory’ honors trailblazing lesbians of the Northwest

A Whidbey Island event will feature stories and photos from the past and present.

By Patricia Guthrie / South Whidbey Record

WHIDBEY ISLAND — They lived so long in the shadows that by the time the light shone, many had died.

But their names, stories and struggles live on through a collection of interviews called “Herstory, Stories of Old Lesbians.”

“Of over 600 interviews conducted, 90 percent are of women age 70 and older,” said Robby Stern, president of the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Education Fund that’s sponsoring a Herstory presentation 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley.

Whidbey Island women will be reading excerpts of the interviews aloud and organizers will explain how the Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project works.

“I was asked to be a reader for the event and am so proud to be able to participate,” said South Whidbey School District Superintendent Jo Moccia. “I believe that we must continue to tell our stories in an effort to continue to make progress rather than regress and repeat history.”

Launched 20 years ago, the purpose of the national project “is to preserve the personal and cultural history of these women and what they went through,” said Stern, a Seattle resident. To date, interviews have been collected in 39 states, including more than 70 from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.

In one excerpt, Jean, born in 1927, tells of the day she lost Bobbie after 35 years together in rural Texas: ‘“We had never held hands in public, but before they put her in the ambulance, I kissed her on the forehead and whispered that I loved her.”

The project has interviewed women born as early as 1916 and women as old as 96.

“Before coming out was safe and viable, lesbians risked arrest, being committed to mental institutions and were subject to all forms of harassment,” Stern said. “The idea is to remind all of us of the relative freedom we enjoy now because of these women who were strong enough to live their lives and love who they wanted.”

Retired Air Force Major General Trish Rose will introduce Sunday’s presentation. She hasn’t been interviewed for the Herstory project, she joked, because for once, she’s deemed “too young.”

“I think it’s an enormously important opportunity to highlight the arduous trials these women endured and how their persistence and struggle in the face of prejudice has made life better for me and countless other women,” she said.

Rose, the first openly lesbian officer to achieve two-star rank, currently works in patient relations at the Naval Health Clinic at NAS Whidbey.

“During most of my military career, I lived through the institutionalized discrimination of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Rose said. “And while that law was repealed, and great advances made, there are many in our military, and our nation, who still endure subtle, and not so subtle, prejudices and challenges to their right to be who they are and to serve with dignity.”

The Herstory project is co-based in Houston, home of 87-year-old founder and project director, Arden Eversmeyer, and in University Place, Wash., home of project manager and board president, Margaret Purcell.

To date, only two Whidbey Island women have participated in Herstory, Purcell said. Barbee “Cass” Cassingham and Sally O’Neil of Freeland were interviewed in 2009 when Cass was 81 and Sally was 72. They were together for more than 40 years; Cassingham has since died.

They were both highly accomplished in their respective health and academic fields and met in Texas.

In the Herstory interview, Cassingham tells of trying to find a doctor when dealing with breast cancer and having a new doctor literally walk in, look at the two of them, and walk out. They then left as well, feeling it was because the doctor, a woman, had identified them as lesbian.

The new male doctor they found in Seattle had a much different attitude, asking where Sally was if she wasn’t with Cass at an appointment.

Like many others do, they landed on Whidbey suddenly and spontaneously.

“One day we were over here looking for herbs and bought a house,” Cass told Eversmeyer in an interview. “We loved Whidbey Island. We’ve been here ever since.”

Representatives from the Puget Sound chapter of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change will also be part of Sunday’s presentation; the group networks to help make life better for lesbians age 60 and over through support networks and by confronting societal ageism.

Herstory organizers said there’s been a lot of interest in Sunday’s event and that younger people have also gotten involved. Youth from a Coupeville group and Langley’s HUB program interviewed local lesbians, focusing on what their high school years were like.

“The purpose of the interviews was mainly to create cross-generational support and networking on the local level, springboarding off the event — which we think has been very successful,” said Rozie Hughes.

Lessons of what the younger generation learned are being made into visual presentations.

“There will be a display at WICA to bring home the contributions that lesbians on Whidbey Island bring to their communities,” Stern said.

“This will be, by far, the largest public presentation ever held here to celebrate the lives and stories of lesbians.”

This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.

Old Lesbians’ Oral Herstory presentation, 3-5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 28, at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, 565 Camano Ave., Langley. Everyone is welcome, appropriate for ages 12 and up. Suggested donation $10 to $20. More information:

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