Older Women in Watauga County, North Carolina, c. 1950-2010
Written by Cheryl Claassen, 2009.
Lesbian Retirees and Second-Home Owners
Women have been coming to the mountains of northwestern North Carolina to summer for over 50 years. Some graduated from Appalachian State University (once a teachers’ college) and bought a house in the vicinity in order to return to Boone. Others were hired to teach here. Still others have found the cool mountains to suit their vacation needs. These women come from Sarasota/Tampa Bay, Miami/Hollywood, Florida, and a few other places such as New Jersey and Cincinnati. Most are resident from April through October, others for shorter periods. Many of the Florida women socialize with each other when in Florida and friendship circles are responsible for many of women choosing Avery and Watauga counties over other places in North Carolina.
In 2009, there is a newsletter with information for social events and advertisements. Two large social groups exist, one centering on monthly brunches, eating out, and a chat group, the other on a game night and cookouts. There is no gay bar in the northwestern mountains. The game night group with approximately 20 people has a core of people from Florida, including two men, while the brunch group has a core of year-round women residents and university faculty and staff. There are approximately 50 people attending this group.
The brunches have been occurring once a summer month since 1997 and were started by two Boone women and two Florida women. In the early years there was a mix of faculty and summer women. In fall of 2009 the brunches became year round events with women coming from neighboring counties.
In 2009 the gay faculty and staff of Appalachian State University began socializing as a group and an LGBT minor was proposed. A Lavender Graduation began in 2008 at the university. Appalachian State University has a state-wide reputation among high schoolers as a place with many lesbian faculty. This university-based group is more feminist in outlook than the other two groups in the area.
Whistling Women is a book about older lesbians written by Appalachian State University Anthropology professor and local resident Cheryl Claassen. Based on interviews with 44 women older than 62, Claassen discusses their early lives, coming out, relationships and retirement of these women, half of whom summer in Watauga and Avery counties. Most of these women were born and raised in northern states, retired to Florida, and have second homes in western North Carolina. If they were not married by the age of 29 (22 women), they never married. Their marriages lasted longer than the national average (7 years on average) and their relationships with women have averaged even longer. The book most frequently read as young adults was The Well of Loneliness and the gay community of Greenwich Village loomed large in either their actual formative experiences or in their imaginations. Many of the women prefer “gay” to “dyke” and several expressed discomfort with the current queer movement and the inclusion of “fringe” groups.
Their working lives were spent as school teachers, insurance agents, doctors, financial advisors, designers, accountants, military, nurses, horse and dog trainers, etc. These women tell of bar raids in Miami and New York and lesbian daughters of mayors and generals. Two women were interrogated in Florida in the 1950s as that school system attempted to rid itself of all homosexuals. One woman was hounded by military police. One couple married gay men to hide from parents and lived in adjoining apartments.
In retirement, they entertain visitors from other locations, garden, golf, visit one another, participate in one or two of the social groups, go to yard sales and the farmers’ market, and take care of each other. Half of the women were married and have children and leave the area to visit those family members as well as entertain them here. Many of the women support themselves now based on real estate investments earlier in life, job pensions, and stock market investments.
Carefree Cove, a lesbian and gay community
A gay community exists to the west of Boone —Carefree Cove-- where building began in 2004. Men and women have built more than 20 houses in the Cove and do a good deal of socializing within that community. Several home owners attend the brunch group activities driving as much as 30 minutes one way but few of them are year-round residents.
Cheryl Claassen. Whistling Women: A Study of the Lives of Older Lesbians. New York: Haworth Press, 2005.