Groups

Ethnography: Mature Friends – Seattle

Posted on December 25, 2009. Filed under: Collective Wisdom, Groups |

By: Beau Williams

May 30, 2007

The systematic approach of ethnography writing typically refers to fieldwork conducted by an individual investigator who has studied a select community of people over an extended period of time, with the intent of creating a textual portrait of the studied people by discussing the shared culture; to include customs, behaviors, and beliefs based on compiled information from the conducted fieldwork.  

Cultural anthropology is an interest of mine and is an area of focus for my Bachelor of Art degree currently being obtained through Antioch University, Seattle. It is my desire to complete a body of work that will be of benefit to the identified community. It is in through this effort and desire that I decided to volunteer my skills to achieve the following: complete an ethnographic research and writing detailing the evolution of the Mature Friends organization, the interviews conducted by me will be placed in the archives at the University of Washington library, and the ethnography produced to be handed over to the Mature Friends organization. 

The Mature Friends organization is a group of gay individuals and couples over the age of forty that formed in nineteen eighty nine and has grown into a large nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization with influence throughout the local gay community by leveraging the group’s vitality and size, making it easy for members to participate in a variety of social activities and providing a network for supporting the community at large.

I came to know about the Mature Friends organization through the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Project (NWLGHMP) (Project 2007). The mission of the NWLGHMP is as follows: The Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project (NWGLHMP, or The History Project), founded in nineteen ninety four, is an organization which researches, interprets and communicates the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the Pacific Northwest for the purposes of study, education and enjoyment. Recognizing that the history of this vibrant community has been sparsely and inaccurately recorded, the History Project seeks to: collect oral histories; locate photographs, ephemera, objects and documents; and work with archives to insure the preservation of these materials; and create public programs such as exhibits, publications and presentations to communicate the collective experience we have uncovered.

In preparation for this activity I have read several ethnographies, conducted multiple ethnographic interviews, researched historical information, and completed other activities intended to establish a base line from which to build this ethnography. I have conducted ethnographic interviews; compiled data of ethnographic interviews conducted by others, and acquired archival materials produced by the identified organization. In this material I will look for obvious patterns and use triangulation to show hidden patterns within the fieldwork to built an over all picture that is intended to reveal the origins of the organizations model, funding efforts, the gender make up of the organization, discussion of the original members, creation of by-laws, and the activities that have made this group a success.    

Current members of the Mature Friends organization have compiled a set list of questions intended to reveal the creations of the organization. The list of questions was used to conduct interviews of six the founding members of the organization, each of whom gladly volunteered their time and memories to this project.

I conducted three additional interviews that were held of similar individuals out side of the organization, to be used with the intent of compare and contrast. The interview questions used were predetermined and have been published on Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project’s (NWLGHMP, aka The History Project) web site. In addition the museum project has conducted, and has on archive nearly one hundred additional interviews using the same list of questions published, it is my intent to use these archived interviews as needed. 

The Mature Friends organization has done a nice job of saving and archiving published news letters and papers starting from the year the organization were founded. I have reviewed these newsletters and papers for the purpose of, as mentioned in the above, rediscovering their history.

FINDINGS:

From the archived material, the interviews, and a considerable amount of reading of related and supporting material I was able to identify several reoccurring themes; Organizational founding, naming, vision & by laws, model, activities, fund raising, and the hurdles experienced as the organization continued to evolve and expand.

  1. Founding the Organization: At the center of the Mature Friends organization was a man with a vision, John Reed. John Reed saw the need for an organization for gays and lesbians over the age of fifty and from a Christmas potluck at the Wallingford Methodist Church with hand made aromatic evergreen center pieces a gathering of elderly men formed a group (Reeder, 2007. Morgan, 2007.). When ask ‘Why did you and others start Mature Friends?’ Don Moreland’s answer was “… somebody came to us with the idea and as with most organizations, there’s always a spark plug. And the spark plug for Mature Friends – the person who had the vision of what we ought to do, to begin with – was John Reeder. … he knew that I had some organizational skills, so he came to me more with the idea of what he wanted to do and have happen within the gay community … John got us all to go to a Christmas party. … He knew how to put a pot-luck kind of thing together, and everybody seemed to bring things. And there was a piano and we had Christmas carols and – it was just a really festive event. (Moreland, 2007.)”Due to the success of the Christmas party, John felt energized and passionate about keeping this type of activity going so he put together a plan and met up with Don Moreland and his partner Mick to take the next steps, a Valentine party. The site for the Valentine party was selected to be at the Grace Gospel Church in Ballard. According to John, “…they have a lovely social room in their basement, which they gave to us for no cost at all. And we sent out some invitations and we invited other people. And we decorated up the hall. We had very nice food. And I believe about twenty five people showed up.” This is a thirty percent increase from the attendance at the Christmas party.After another successful gathering, the Valentine party, this small group consisting of John Reeder, Eugene VanVoorhees, Don Moreland and his partner Mick decide it is time to start thinking about formalizing this group of individuals. At this point several other people are now interested and John decides to invite everyone over to his place located at Sixty-Eighth and Greenwood. At this meeting the discussion of the name of the group came up and much discussion occurred. It was clear from the start that words such as ‘Pink’ and ‘Lavender’ were discarded due to concerns of safety and being out’ed. One individual thought long and hard about the word ‘equal’ and wanted to use it as an acronym. He finely came up with Elderly Queers and Lesbians (EQUAL) which brought many laughs & chuckles but was again discarded for reasons safety concerns. With a dictionary in hand Art got out of his seat and sat in the middle of the floor, after flipping though the pages for a while he finely came up with a name the group throught was acceptable and catchy, Mature Friends.      Given there were concerns about safety and being out’ed John wanted to make sure these concerns were abated from the beginning, “I had suggested and advocated very strongly, that we evolve as if this group had been in existence for a long, long time — that we were well-established, that we were safe, that we were reliable, that we were dependable, that we were moving forward, and that we had a mission and that we were accomplishing it. Now, that may sound funny, but it was enormously important because people then had confidence.”  Mature Friends was established and has functioned successfully sense 1989.
  2. Naming the Organization: There was a good deal of thought given to the naming of the organization. When the organization was created in 1989 many of its members were not openly gay so words typically associated with gay culture were intentionally discarded (e.g. pink, lavender). Yet, the organization wanted a name that reflected the general make up of its members. One member recalls “John [the unofficial leader at the time] had a dictionary, … he got out of his chair and he sat on the floor with this dictionary, and all of a sudden he came up, “Mature Friends’. And we all agreed, okay, that’s the name. That sounds good. So that is how the name came about (Morgan, 2007).”  The name Mature Friends was overwhelmingly accepted.
  3. Organizational Vision & By Laws: Initially the organization was intended to be a 501(c)3, a not for profit organization. The original by-laws state the organizational purpose as follows; Mature Friends shall function as a non-profit, non-partisan resource organization to provide social activities, education and human services, creative housing solutions, to protect again discrimination and other considerations appropriate [ individuals over 40 in the Lesbian and Gay Community, and friends] to men and women over 40 in the Gay Community.  The intention to become a 501(c)3 was later dropped and the organization continued on as a socially active organization.
  4. Organizational Model: There has been no one specific organizational model used for Mature Friends. The SAGE organization was looked at from New York but was considered to be far beyond what Mature Friends wanted to undertake. Prime Timers in Vancouver, Canada was visited and a joint activity was scheduled with them but nothing more ever evolved. However, according to one of the founding members, John Reeder, the one model he referred to as needed during the setup and creation of Mature Friends was the same model and concept used for Alcoholics Anonymous – Twelve Traditions. Being self-sufficient, Mature Friends raises their funds to be used as the organization deems necessary. It was also agreed from the beginning that Mature Friends would not have opinions on outside issues such as politics as there was a concern that taking a political stand may cause dissention with in the organization. And lastly, the idea anonymity was very strong for many; mailing lists and contact lists were kept out of sight and not shared with anyone.
  5. Organizational Activities: A key element to the organization’s growth has been its activities and has always remained strong.
    1. Cruises – Cruises have ranged from short 4 and 5 day trips and much longer trips that have taken its members all over the world. One thing I would like to mention about the cruises was a discrete technique gay people used to meet in public areas while on the cruises.  Eugene states, “ … there was something that developed within the cruise line industry that is there today, and that was the Friends of Dorothy. We started the Friends of Dorothy to — the object was to let gay people on the ship know that there were other gay people. … We got the ship to put it in their daily bulletin, and that’s how we started meeting new people and that’s how some of those people started coming on the cruises. To this day it still goes on. Norwegian Cruise Line has it in every publication. … (Voorhees, 2007)” these traditions have continued to grow. There is now a rather successful travel company by the name of Friends of Dorothy: Special Interest Travel that caters predominately to the gay community and some of their cruises are typically booked several months in advance. However, there is one common misconception made that should be mentioned “A lot of people think that it [Dorothy] refers to Judy Garland, but really it refers to Dorothy Parker, back in the early … 20s and 30s … she was very active in the gay community. And there’s been some literature, … written about …. That’s really the Dorothy (Simmons, 2007). More can be read about Dorothy and her legacy at www.dorothyparker.com.   

    2. Garden Tours – The organization was fortunate enough to have a master gardener in their ranks, Glen Hunt. Glen coordinated many garden tours that took members all over Western Washington and occasionally into Eastern Washington.  Eugene speaks highly of Glen Hunts efforts in coordinating the garden tour activities, “We had some members that were really outstanding in developing some specific garden tours. And the garden tours were very successful; Glen Hunt was the one that developed this. And he did an outstanding job of not only knowing the plants and knowing the places to go, but he was a lot of fun. We always had a fun trip. (Voorhees, 2007)” It was also mentioned that the garden tour activities was something most everyone was able to participate in as it was priced affordably from most any economic budget. 
    3. Potlucks – Out of all the activities it is my opinion and those interviewed that the potlucks have been the most successful of the Mature Friends activities. Not only did this provide all members with a regularly scheduled chance to come together with friends but they were organized in a way that has continually been a main source of revenue. See the fundraising section of this paper for additional details.
    4. Progressive Dinners – Progressive dinners were picked up in the beginning and were some what successful but over time the demand for them was lacking and eventually they stopped occurring.
    5. Pinochle and Bridge – Cards games always seem to draw members in and Mature Friends is no different. The bridge group continues to meet regularly for afternoons and evenings with friends.
  6. Fundraising: Fundraising has been very important to the organization, in the beginning and is still so today. It is vital to the organization in order for it to maintain its financial independence. The pot-luck has been the most successful in keeping a steady flow of funding coming into the organization. The group was very creative in coordinating this activity. A ‘suggested’ donation of five dollars is taken at the door, it is my understanding that most everyone pays the five dollars but should an individual find him or herself a little short of cash they are not required to pay, hence the suggested donated. This is a pot-luck and as is expected many people do bring dishes of food to be shared with everyone in attendance. This works out great for the organization as no costly catering is required and the donations taken in are used to pay for any other items needed at the pot-luck and what fund are left are banked into the organizations treasury to pay for meeting space and day to day operations. Also in the beginning, in order to get some reserves amassed in their bank account a rummage sale was pulled together and several thousand dollars was raised, allowing the organization to get off to a great start.
  7. Organizational Hurdles: In addition to many successful activities and endeavors this organization has discovered a few areas that could use more attention and when possible has made efforts to address them. One such issue Mature Friends has experienced from the inception of the organization is attracting and maintaining a female/lesbian membership over extended periods of time and a second concern for some members of Mature Friends is that of maintaining and attracting the next generation as they age into the organization target age range.
    1. Gender Gap: There have been lesbian members in the organization and at one point a woman served on the board but over an extended period of time those members participation in the organization dwindled. This is an issue that has been is touched on briefly in the interviews but no in-depth opinions were given. I have given the matter a great deal of time and consideration, and have come up with the following a hypothesis that has been included in the discussion section of this paper.
  1. Generational Gap: Another concern for some members of Mature Friends is that of maintaining and attracting the next generation as they age into the organization target age range. To address this concern the age limit has been lowered to from 50 years old to 40 years old. When Don Moreland was asked about his opinion on lowering the age limit his response was: “I don’t think it’s a matter of what we say the age limit is. It’s a question of, when do people identify with us and what we do? And just as I was saying I can’t do a lot of what I used to do. And it only happens when this arthritis hits me, and I have a hard time really walking. And it happened when we were in Las Vegas one night, the night we arrived, and the next day it was gone and we just had a great time. But every so often, I can’t do – and I think a lot of our members now are getting older, and so we need younger people. But I don’t think it’s a matter of anything we do. I think we have to be more welcoming to young people, and have interesting programs. (Moreland, 2007)”  Don goes on to speak of a few ways the organization is addressing this concern and one such item is the selection of the guest speakers for the pot-lucks.

 

Discussion

“Social support becomes an increasingly important resource for people as they age. Research has shown that the needs of older gay men are no different than those of their heterosexual counterparts, nor are older gay men more isolated than older men in general. Research has shown gay men rely on friendship networks more often than on family while heterosexual men rely more on family for social support. … Even though, the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the subsequent Gay Rights Movement forced Americans to acknowledge the presence of gay and lesbian people in society.” And “… with the advent of the AIDS pandemic.. . Family members often abandoned gay men because of the ignorance and fear surrounding the virus. Gay men’s friends became the primary …” focus for social and nurturing needs (Shippy, Cantor, & Breennan. 2004).

While it is clear that social networks play a critical role in the lives of older people, little empirical research exists on the nature and extent of the social networks of older gay men. Previous studies of gay men have found that most have several gay friends who function as a “chosen family” and are important components of the social network In fact, friends may be one of the most important sources of social support for older gay men. While research has disproved the negative stereotype of older gay men as socially isolated, the extent to which older gay men are socially integrated within their biological families and their friendship network remains largely unexplored (Shippy, Cantor, & Breennan. 2004). It is my belief that social needs of the generation associated and belonging to Mature Friends is in fact the catalyst that brought this organization in to existence.

In the following I will list the items from the finding section and will discuss them further with my own analysis.

  1. Founding the Organization: The founding of the organization has been clearly described in the findings section of the paper and does not need additional analysis in the discussion section.
  2. Naming the Organization: The naming of the organization has been clearly described in the findings section of the paper and does not need additional analysis in the discussion section.
  3. Vision & By Laws: For the most part Mature Friends has held true to the organizations original intent of functioning as a non-profit, non-partisan resource organization. Providing social activities, education and human services to protect again discrimination. However there is one exception, creative housing solutions. I do not believe the group lost its desire for this particular need, even though it is not in the interviews. I believe the desire and need for assisted living and elderly care still exists. What has changed is a shift is the socioeconomic make up of or our society and the offering of housing solutions for Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgender individuals and couples is now available with in the Untied States. To date, I am not aware of any with in the Pacific Northwest, but communities have been developed for this segment of the population and do exist in the Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
  4. Organizational Model: The model of the organization has been clearly described in the findings section of the paper and does not need additional analysis in the discussion section.
  5. Activities: The activities of the organization have been clearly described in the findings section of the paper and does not need additional analysis in the discussion section.
  6. Fundraising: The fundraising of the organization has been clearly described in the findings section of the paper and does not need additional analysis in the discussion section.
  7. Organizational Hurdles: In addition to many successful activities and endeavors this organization has discovered a few areas that could use more attention and when possible has made efforts to address them. One such issue Mature Friends has had trouble with from the beginning is attracting and maintaining a female/lesbian membership over extended periods of time and a second concern for some members of Mature Friends is that of maintaining and attracting the next generation as they age into the organization target age range.
    1. Gender Gap: My analysis of the gender gap within the Mature Friends organization is as follows. The current and past members of this organization are members of a generation that have seen many changes and have experienced several different movements over the past fifty to sixty years, the Gay Rights movement, the Feminist movement, and the Civil Rights movement. This organization was initially started by a man, John Reeder, with a vision. As I listened to the interviews it became clear John’s leadership style has its origins based in patriarchy, a leadership style that lends its self well to a hierarchy.  This hierarchy is the structure used for the elected positions in Mature Friends, president, vice president, secretary, treasurer. This is a leadership structure that seems to fit well with men but may not be the best fit for a generation of women who may be of the same age bracket but have had a significantly different experience and as a result are somewhat sensitive to this leadership style.These women also have the knowledge and experience of the feminist movement. As part of the feminist movement we now better understand some of the fundamental differences between women and men. Author Deborah Tannen suggests that women are naturally inclusive and collaborative in their leadership styles and as such women are more likely to desire a collective consensus on any decisions being made, a leadership style that is more commonly associated with a matrilineal style of leadership. From my own experiences and observations I have believe this to be a true statement (Tannen, 1990).In addition to the Feminist movement there was also the separation that occurred with in the Gay Rights movement, that being the separation of gays and lesbians. Lesbians felt they were being over shadowed by gay men with regards to media coverage and as a result their needs were not being given the visibility required to get them addressed. Both groups made a conscious decision to pursue the rights and needs most important to them and as a result there were several different factions with in the Gay Rights movement (Marcus, 2002. pg154).

      I suspect it is these differences between gay men and lesbains that have contributed to the gender gap experienced by Mature Friends. Example: Prior to the first official Mature Friends meeting there was an attempt by a few men to join in with a lesbian group that held the name of Lavender Panthers. It was suggested in the interviews that when John had an idea and wanted to run with it that established members of Lavender Panthers group may have held some resentment as they felt a man was attempting to take over and a collective agreement had not been made on John suggestion.

      I will also state that there are many factors that can also come into play when describing the differences between gay men and lesbians. When reading over the interviews a second, third and froth time it was obvious many situations were experienced and if each were analyzed closely it is my belief many of those could be explained as I have done so in the above paragraphs. 

    2. Generational Gap: The generational gap of the organization has been clearly described in the findings section of the paper and does not need additional analysis in the discussion section.

 

Conclusion:

During the creation of Mature Friends the founding members were able to quickly access and determine the needs to be met in order to get the organization off the ground. The concern for and requirement of anonymity was very strong for many when the organization is continuing to create a environment of safety and this element is still honored for those who wish to continue their anonymity.

Mature Friends has continued to serve as a non-partisan resource organization to provide social activities, education, and human services which clearly falls into alignment with the organizations original intent. So the founders were spot when placing these elements into their original by-laws. In doing so Mature Friends was able to fulfill a need by creating a social network for those who had been alienated by their families and/or by AIDS pandemic, as well as those who simply looking for a new social outlet.

Be it by mistake or intentional, John Reed and the other founding members had their collective finger on the pulse of a need for an entire generation of gay men located in the Northwest and was instrumental in the coordination of Mature Friends as an organization to support the needs of this generation. 

The organization’s continued success can be directly attributed to all the members who bring their strengths and passions in all the organization’s endeavors. It is my understanding and belief that Mature Friends is continuing to make the right decisions and is moving the organization in a direction in a direction for sustainability and organizational growth.

Bibliography

Miller, Ed & Ordway, Ray. Personal Interview. 9 February, 2006. Conducted by Mature Friends History Subcommittee for Mature Friends.

Morgan, Art. Personal Interview. 21 September, 2006. Conducted by Mature Friends History Subcommittee for Mature Friends.

Moreland, Don. Personal Interview. 15 December, 2006. Conducted by Mature Friends History Subcommittee for Mature Friends.

Reeder, John. Personal Interview. 18 July, 2006. Conducted by Mature Friends History Subcommittee for Mature Friends.

Simmons, Joe. Personal Interview. 15 December, 2006. Conducted by Mature Friends History Subcommittee for Mature Friends.

VanVoorhees, Eugene. Personal Interview. 17 August, 2006. Conducted by Mature Friends History Subcommittee for Mature Friends.

Loughery, J. (1998). The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities – A Twentieth Century History. New York, Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

Marcus, E. (2002). Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight For Lesbian And Gay Equal Rights. New York, HarpersCollins Publishers Inc.

Martin Duberman, M. V., George Chancey Jr. (1980). Hidden From History: Reclaiming The Gay & Lesbian Past. New York, Penguin Books USA Inc.

Miller, N. (2006). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History From 1869 To The Present. New York, Alyson Books.

Northwest Lesbian And Gay History Museum Project (2002).  Mosaic 1: Life Stories From Isolation To Community. Seattle, Northwest Lesbian And Gay History Museum Project.

Garnich, Danielle. Personal Interview. 25 February, 2007. Conducted by Beau Williams for Northwest Lesbian And Gay History Museum Project.

Naisbitt, Candace. Personal Interview. 16 October, 2006. Conducted by Ruth Pettis & Beau Williams for Northwest Lesbian And Gay History Museum Project.

Sibon, Richard. Personal Interview. 25 February, 2007. Conducted by Beau Williams for Northwest Lesbian And Gay History Museum Project.

Shippy, R. Andrew, Cantor, Marjorie H., Brennan, Mark. Journal of Men’s Studies. Harriman: Fall 2004.Vol. 13, Iss. 1; pg. 107

Tannen, Daborah. 2001. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York , HarperCollins Publishing Inc..

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