First Person: Ruth and Donna’s Story

By
From the June 2014 edition

When the annual Pride parade steps off onto High Street on June 21, members of the Columbus chapter of Older Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC) will march right along with it.

In the spirit of OLOC’s national Oral Herstory Project, which records the stories of aging lesbians for posterity, we talked to longtime couple Donna Voelkel and Ruth Murray in their home on a winding rural road in Hocking County. 

Donna: I was born in 1934, and I had all my secondary education in Columbus. I went on to Capital University and graduated as a nurse in 1955. I was married in 1955 and was married for 23 years, and I have a son. We moved down here about 20 years ago. There isn’t a gay community down here that we’re involved in. We have to go to Columbus for that. Our friends are elsewhere. 

Ruth: I am a native Cape Codder. I was born in ’33, and I was married in ’56. I was also married for 23 years. I have a son in Canton and a daughter in Akron. I graduated from Kent State 30 years after I graduated high school. I didn’t go until I was divorced, and then I went on to Akron U. and graduated with a master’s. I’m still working.  

Ruth: Way back in the ’80s, there was a group called SOL—Slightly Older Lesbians. It was on Fifth Avenue in Columbus, and it was a gathering place for women to meet and talk about whatever the issues were, rather than being in the barrooms. We met there, and we’ve been together for 30 years.

Donna: It was a coming-out process for me. I wasn’t talking about this at work or anything, and SOL was a safe place to be. The other thing that did that was going to Michigan a few times to the Womyn’s Music Festival. Every year in August, they hold this huge music festival, and it’s only women. It goes on for five days. For me, as a gay woman in her 40s at that time, that was truly an eye opener to me. It was a huge step and a real experience.

Ruth: It was a place where people from towns who thought there were no others like them could go. The little town in Nebraska where they felt totally alone—someone told them about Michigan. They paid their money and went, and maybe met someone from Washington. It was a safe place for women.

Donna: We were both Lutheran, and that was a common bond. We were both married for 23 years, and we both had children. And we were both the same age. After a while I said, “Ruth, you should move in with me.” It was important for Ruth to buy into the house. That was an important step in the relationship, especially for Ruth. That was still my house that she moved into. So we bought this together. That also was important for the relationship.

Donna: The big challenge was telling my son, even though he knew. He still does not approve of my homosexuality, but he’s OK with it. It’s like something that he’s learned to live with. That was a difficult time in my life. When I was divorced, I left Fred because I was a gay, but I wasn’t telling anybody. I wasn’t able at that time to own up to who I was, although I began to realize who I was. Even today, you weigh whether you say it out loud. Down here it might not always be the safest thing, even though we live here openly, two women. We don’t hide the fact. But we don’t put out a rainbow flag very often. 

Ruth: I always knew I was different, probably from when I was in junior high. I never had a name for it because homosexual only meant men. I had relationships with women, but they weren’t named. I thought everyone else in the ’50s got married, but I still had those feelings. When I was at Kent State, they had this wonderful woman, she was a resource. She put me in touch with other women. And I was like, I’m not the only one!

Ruth: My son is like a son—doesn’t want to talk about it. But he loves Donna, and he says nothing negative to me. My daughter is a fiercely supportive person—she’ll take on anyone who says anything pejorative. Because I lived all over the country, my family never knew my husband. The only person they know is Donna. It’s always been Ruth and Donna, Ruth and Donna. They know. My nieces and nephews who are younger, they embrace Donna. It’s no contest at all.

Ruth: We’ve already been married. Do we have to do it again? It’s not as appealing to us as it is to other LGBT people. Our lives are a commitment to each other. When we got together, there was no such thing. Being together, buying property together, that was the commitment.

Donna: I was thinking of the legal things we’ve done. I see them as binding. But I’m with Ruth on the commitment ceremonies. I think they’re significant for people. But we’re already committed to one another in many ways. I honestly don’t think about it.

Donna: I have a great-niece who came out before she was out of high school. Would I have loved to have done that! My life would have been totally different. For the gay person coming up now, the pathway is clear—or it could be. We know there are still hate crimes against gay people, and we know there are parents who still abandon their children or shun them. We cannot gloss over that.

Donna: I didn’t seek out places where I would be looked down upon or ostracized or injured. I never came out at work, but they all knew anyway. I guess we always sought out safe environments. There will always be an element of people out there who do not like us. Even old people, we’re not looked on kindly, because we need help, or we’re slow. We’re one of the isms—ageism. 

Ruth: Even in the LGBT community there are people who think there can’t be anyone old in the community. When we march in the gay pride parade, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, they can still walk and talk.” We’ve been with OLOC for probably eight years, maybe longer. We’re probably the oldest ones in the group. We seem to be no matter where we go anymore. Generally there’s a topic of conversation, some kind of enlightenment. What they focus on is ageism but also going out and being places where there are old people who are not necessarily out. Some of them are probably frightened to death they could be outed. If they put a picture up of someone who’s of the same sex, don’t get excited. Treat them with dignity. Old is not a dirty word. A lot of people don’t get to be old.