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Pitzer College Hosts Session About Gays for Older Students

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meinard Kooiker, 66, decided it was time to go back to school after learning six months ago that her daughter is a lesbian.

Last week, Kooiker, of Minneapolis, joined 22 other people from around the country for a Pitzer College study session on gay and lesbian issues.

The session is part of Elderhostel, an inexpensive educational and travel program for people 60 and over. Most of the older students at Pitzer were parents of gay and lesbian children. Others were gay or lesbian themselves; some just came for the knowledge.

Kooiker, whose daughter is 26 years old, came to be with other parents of gays and lesbians. “When I saw this course in the (Elderhostel) catalogue, I knew I had to come,” the retired social worker said.

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“I want to learn as much as I can. . . . Sitting in these classes, I’m beginning to understand the hell society has put them (gays and lesbians) through.”

Although the Boston-based Elderhostel program isn’t new, this is Pitzer’s first session of courses ranging from homosexuality in Ancient Greece to child custody battles of lesbian mothers today, said Jiggs Gallagher, director of Elderhostel in Southern California.

“Everybody is watching Pitzer to see what happens,” said Selia Sacks, program director of the Northern California Elderhostel program in San Francisco.

Elderhostel began in 1975 with five colleges. Today, it includes 1,600 colleges and universities, private schools, national parks and a variety of other educational institutions across the country and around the world. Even though there is a wide variety of choices available, most courses dwell on pursuits such as country music, art, photography, folk dancing, literature, poetry and golf.

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The $250 charge covers accommodation in college dorms, three meals a day at school dining halls, five days of classes (three courses a day), and a variety of extracurricular activities, including field trips, movies and dances. Courses are not for credit and there are no exams or homework.

“The founding philosophy behind Elderhostel is that learning is a lifelong process and it can enrich your life,” said Cady Goldfield, representative of Elderhostel in Boston. “The course at Pitzer falls into this realm. It might be a little more controversial than other courses, but it’s typical of the challenging topics available. . . . We are always interested in keeping up with current issues.”

All nonprofit institutions that participate in Elderhostel choose their own courses; the only restriction is that the classes cannot deal with geriatrics.

“Pitzer’s program is very innovative, and it’s expanding the Elderhostel program to a new audience, an audience whose needs has not really been met,” Gallagher said.

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Those who began the gay and lesbian program at Pitzer say this small, private liberal arts college was ideal for this set of courses. “When it comes to gay and lesbian issues, Pitzer is taking the leadership within the Claremont community,” said Dr. Lourdes Arguelles, associate professor of Women’s Studies, who taught the course on “Issues in Lesbian Studies.”

Pitzer is the only one among the six Claremont Colleges to offer a course in lesbian studies during regular school sessions. It hosted an international gay and lesbian conference in April, and Pitzer students recently voted to ban ROTC on campus because of the military’s discrimination against homosexuals.

“We’re trying to start a gay and lesbian studies here and we thought the Elderhostel program would be a great way to test some ideas,” said Pieter Judson, a history professor at Pitzer who taught the Sexuality Through the Ages course. “We weren’t really sure what to expect. But we were all very curious.”

Last week’s session was broken into three classes a day. The first, “Issues in Lesbian Studies,” dealt with the “coming out” process of acknowledging homosexuality, as well as other problems facing lesbians, such as child custody battles with previous husbands.

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The second class, “Sexuality Through the Ages,” covered lesbian and gay culture from Ancient Greece to 19th Century United States and the significance of same-sex relationships in history. The last class, “Contemporary Topics in Gay Studies,” dealt with gay political and social movements in the past 20 years.

The students also took a field trip to West Hollywood to tour the Gay and Lesbian Community Service Center, the oldest and largest social services agency for gays and lesbians in the world.

“What we want is to educate as many people as we can on the complexity and diversity of gay and lesbian issues,” said Peter Nardi, sociology professor at Pitzer who taught the third class.

Arguelles said that, for most of the older students, this was the first formal instruction they have had on gay and lesbian issues.

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“Some might be very active in gay and lesbian community centers and organizations, but they have never really studied the many issues involved,” Arguelles said. “There are many issues of concern to gay and lesbian seniors that are similar to heterosexuals, but they also have very different concerns, such as inheritance laws, which ignore homosexual couples.”

Some participants said the program gave them a chance to break stereotypes that people have of the elderly. “This is a week not to be old,” said Joan Miller, 66, of San Francisco. “A week not to be ignored and treated like you don’t matter.

“Young lesbians don’t like old lesbians; there is a lot of prejudice,” she said. “I came here to meet women and have a good time.”

Nardi agreed: “We live in a very youth-oriented society. Older people’s needs are usually ignored, whether they’re homosexual or heterosexual.”

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Then there were those, like 85-year-old Linnea Ross, who had never known anyone who is gay or lesbian, but wanted to come for the “intellectual stimulation.”

“I live alone in a mobile home park and the biggest excitement is bingo,” said Ross, of Pomona. “The only thing I knew about gays was what I saw in gay parade . . . I just wanted to learn more.”


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