Geri Mars: Finding empowerment and education at SisterSpace

Geri Mars: Finding empowerment and education at SisterSpace

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To mark the end of Women’s History Month, I decided to feature a group that has been empowering women for decades. SisterSpace Weekend is one of the longest-running women’s festivals in the United States.

For those unfamiliar with it, several-hundred queer women and their female allies get together at a private camp in rural Darlington, Md., for a weekend of entertainment, workshops, activities, socializing and much more. I personally have taken part in merriment and mischief at the weekend numerous times. As the ring leader of my gang in the rowdy section (you can choose to be in quiet, rowdy or chem-free), I remember leaving for the weekend with my best friend’s mother questioning me, “Why do you need two suitcases to go camping with a bunch of dykes in the mountains?” The question was answered as I set up my margarita blender and pulled out speakers for our first-night cabin party.

There’s a little something for everyone, from the avid partier to the serious scholar; workshops on everything from feminism to self-improvement to salsa dancing — and it changes each year. There’s a pool (clothing optional) in which to cool off and a sexuality space to get hot. Feeling creative? The art space has the supplies you need to express yourself. If you’re more on the sporty side, join a pickup game of basketball or flag football, or take a hike. Ready to party? There’s a nightly dance and karaoke. All topped by some of the finest entertainment in town, from the comedy of Poppy Champlin to the music of performer Karma Mayet Johnson. I reminisced with SisterSpace planner Geri Mars and got a sneak peak of what can be expected in September.

PGN: So where do you hail from?

GM: I grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Philadelphia after college. I’ve been here ever since

PGN: How is Pittsburgh different than Philadelphia?

GM: When I grew up there it wasn’t all that nice, but when I go back to visit family and friends, it really has changed. It’s really nice now; it has a smaller-town feel than Philadelphia and a whole lot less traffic. Two places that were the same physical distance apart would take me a whole lot less to get to in Pittsburgh.

PGN: What were you like as a kid?

GM: I was definitely a tomboy.

PGN: A favorite memory?

GM: We had woods behind our house and I used to love to roam around and explore on my own — it’s a lot different from the way kids are brought up today. We had much more freedom. I look at kids in today’s culture and think, I was really lucky to grow up when I did.

PGN: Small or big family?

GM: We were a small, post-World War II baby-boomer family: just me and my sister.

PGN: Where did you go to school?

GM: The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up?

GM: I didn’t have any idea. I tried a couple of different colleges before ending up at the Art Institute. I was not particularly studious. I did well in the subjects I was interested in and did poorly with the ones I could care less about, like chemistry. At the Art Institute, I studied advertising and graphic design, which was about the only choice for a degree.

PGN: What was your first experience as a gay person?

GM: In high school I had a relationship that grew with a friend of mine. This was in the late ’60s and back then we didn’t really have any words for what was going on between us. Well, we knew some words, but they were all derogatory.

PGN: Talk a little more about what it was like pre-Ellen.

GM: There was no context for anything. Unbeknownst to me, I had plenty of friends who were like me and going through the same thing at the same time but we never talked about it. Not until much later. So there was no community that we knew about, there were no words — you weren’t in a relationship, you weren’t in a partnership, you weren’t dating. There was nothing to describe or explain what we were to each other.

PGN: Where or how did you find community?

GM: It wasn’t until after I moved to Philadelphia, during the heyday of the feminist movement. I got involved with a woman who was straight at the time but she was a real feminist. She was into women’s music and being part of the feminist women’s community. I was apolitical and had been involved with a woman before, so we joked that she brought me out as a feminist and I brought her out as a lesbian.

PGN: Was there a particular organization that you were a part of?

GM: Well, as I said we were both into women’s music so we’d go to every concert. It was also the time that the women’s community was starting to find itself so there were newspapers and magazines and bookstores and all sorts of gatherings, people organizing to go protest for women’s rights in Washington and that kind of stuff. It was very different than the isolation I’d experienced 10 years prior.

PGN: What was your first impression from your first trip to SisterSpace?

GM: The first time I went was 1984 and I worked in the kitchen. [Laughs] So I didn’t get to see much outside the cafeteria.

PGN: How’d you end up there?

GM: A friend of mine had volunteered to organize the kitchen and she recruited everybody that she knew.

PGN: So you weren’t the master chef?

GM: Nooo, I was in charge of chopping vegetables and plugging in the coffee pot.

PGN: SisterSpace is known for having really good food.

GM: Yes, they really go out of their way to prepare great meals. The campsite actually comes with cooks, but they’re male so we kick them out and take over. We only want women-made food for the women of SisterSpace!

PGN: Hear, hear!

GM: We try to cater to all tastes: vegetarian, vegan, etc.

PGN: [Laughs] Since you apparently weren’t in the food industry, what were you doing at the time?

GM: I was a computer programmer.

PGN: I just listened to a program on NPR about the fact that a lot of the original programmers for the first computers were women.

GM: Yeah, Grace Hopper and that group.

PGN: Were there a lot of women where you were?

GM: When I started we were still doing computer programming on punch cards and there were quite a few women. There weren’t any computer schools and the way they found people is that they would do an aptitude test and if you did well, they’d hire you and train you. One of the groups they recruited were math teachers, so finding women in the IT department was not unusual. There were a lot of women learning to be cobalt programmers.

PGN: It’s funny that someone who wasn’t into the sciences ended up in that field.

GM: No, I didn’t like the sciences, but I tested high in math and science in the SATs. Go figure. I was actually working at the time in the art department for a life-insurance company. A friend of mine was a math teacher and I got her a job at my company and she in turn talked me into taking the aptitude test. When you’re the only person that does something in a company, there’s not much room for advancement, so I thought I’d give it a try. I passed and became a programmer for several years and then the company got a laser printer, which created the ability for companies to create and print their own policy forms and bills. With my background in graphics, they decided that the marriage of my cobalt knowledge and art skills would make me the perfect person to do it. It’s what I still do to this day.

PGN: Any hobbies outside of planning for SisterSpace?

GM: I like scrapbooking and woodworking and I’ve been doing a lot of genealogy work lately.

PGN: What’s an interesting fact you found out about your family?

GM: I’m part-Irish! I never knew it! I knew that my mother’s side of the family was German and Norwegian but I didn’t know much about my father’s side. When I’d ask him about it he’s just say, “I think we’re from Great Britain or something.” It’s a shame that he passed away because I know more now about his family than he ever did.

PGN: So, for someone who’s never been there, give me a description of SisterSpace.

GM: We had someone come for the first time last year who I would say was definitely a lesbian feminist, probably in her 30s, and it was her first women’s festival of any kind. After the festival she said, “This was amazing. I didn’t know how much I needed this until I actually experienced it.” And I think that sums it up. Young women today have grown up in a very different LGBT culture, a more out culture, a culture with context, where you can legally get married in the state of Pennsylvania, so the concept of a safe women’s space isn’t prevalent. They don’t really know what it is or how it feels until they experience it. But once they do, it really makes an impression. We’re really trying to get more people to experience it so that we can keep it going.

PGN: It almost reminds me of Sisters nightclub. People don’t realize what they’re missing until it’s gone.

GM: Yeah, when I came out, there were three lesbian bars; now there are none. That’s one of the reasons we really want to keep SisterSpace going.

PGN: What are some of your favorite workshops at SisterSpace?

GM: What? I don’t get to go to workshops! [Laughs] I’m working! There are workshops on sexuality, feminism, relationships, body painting, self-improvement, financial planning, car maintenance, salsa dancing and more! But one of the most popular is our ODYQ workshop. It stands for Old Dykes Young Queers. One year SisterSpace determined that there was a big generation gap between the older women like me and the younger women. We talk different lingos, we grew up in different cultures and we really didn’t know much about each other, so we decided to start a forum to begin an ongoing conversation. We learn about them and culture today and they learn a little bit of the history that enables them to have the freedoms they enjoy now. It’s a workshop that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s always interesting.

PGN: What are some of the other things for people to look forward to?

GM: We always try to have a diverse line-up. Different kinds of music, different colors of music, comedy, spoken-word, old, young, middle, you name it. The pool is always a big draw. We also have karaoke and nightly dances. There’s a sexuality space run by Kali Morgan from Passional Boutique that’s a full-programming track with all kinds of different things: meet and greets, demonstrations and workshops.

PGN: Hey, I heard that the facilities have really been revamped recently.

GM: Yes, as usual people can choose between tenting on their own or staying in a cabin. All the cabins have electricity, ceiling fans, overhead lighting, hot showers and toilet facilities. And people will be happy to know that we have Tempur-Pedic mattresses and new showers!

PGN: Nice. Back to you … The thing I like most about myself is?

GM: [Sighs] I don’t know.

PGN: What kind of female empowerment is that?

GM: OK, I guess the abilities that I’ve learned over the years, such as woodworking, event planning, I can do a spreadsheet, that kind of thing. Being involved with SisterSpace lets you get involved with all kinds of things. It’s like life in a microcosm for three days, so we have to eat, we have to have infrastructure and people to run everything.

PGN: Yes, I understand people can volunteer to be a part of the stage crew or part of the kitchen staff, work in the general store, lifeguard or help with arts and crafts.

GM: We are also looking for people to come up with and run workshops.

 

PGN: Who or when was your first kiss?

GM: Oh boy, that’s like a really, really long time ago. That would have been in high school.

PGN: Describe a favorite meal.

GM: Probably something my mother made which would be a Depression-era type of meal, like chicken and rice in Campbell’s soup.

PGN: Favorite Motown song?

GM: Motown! I don’t have a favorite one, but I recently saw Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” on TV so I’ll go with that.

PGN: Any pets?

GM: I’m a lesbian, so I have cats of course! Scarlet and Butchie.

PGN: Who was your best friend as a kid?

GM: A number of girls from my Girl Scout troop. We’re still friends to this day, 50 years later. We still get together and not all, but a number of us, are gay.

PGN: The first lesbian movie you ever saw?

GM: “Personal Best,” the movie about the track runners. Oh! A fun fact: A woman that I went to school with was in the movie “Born in Flames.” In a million years I never would have expected her to become a radical lesbian!

PGN: How can people find out more about SisterSpace?

GM: They can go to the website. If people register before April 15, there’s a special tax-time price they can take advantage of!

SisterSpace runs Sept. 11-13. Go to www.sisterspace.org for more information.

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