From left: Pam, Jennifer & India
By Mark McNease
One of the upsides to Facebook has been the opportunity to reconnect with people. Quite a few of my Facebook friends I knew from my time with Friends and Artists Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles, where I was able to develop as a young playwright. Among those friends is Pam Forrest, who now works as the Activities Coordinator for Seniors Services at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. What follows is an interview I’m especially delighted to be sharing, having spoken with Pam for the first time in over twenty years. She’s happily married to her wife Jennifer, and together they’re raising their daughter, India. I feel a chorus of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” coming on . . .
MM: Even though we only recently spoke again after many years, we’ve known each since the late 1980s, from Friends and Artists Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles. You moved to San Francisco last time I saw you. Would you mind saying a little about that move and your coming out process?
PF: If memory serves me correctly, the last time I saw you I was having a teeny tiny nervous breakdown. Actually, that’s not true. I was having a gigantic nervous breakdown. You and I belonged to the same wonderful theater company in L.A., the Friends & Artists Theatre Ensemble. We were rehearsing one of your plays, a few weeks from opening, when I suddenly lost my mind due to a debilitating case of internalized homophobia. Meaning my tiny, well-appointed closet was painfully imploding. So I did the only thing any self-loathing lesbian could do – I packed up my breakdown and moved to San Francisco.
MM: You met your wife Jennifer in San Francisco. What got you back to L.A., and what was involved in your decision to have a child together?
PF: I did meet my wife in San Francisco. We met about a year and a half after I moved up there. I was working at the Café San Marcos in the Castro. I was actually NOT supposed to be working the night I fell in love with my wife – I was filling in for a very sick friend. But Jennifer happened to come in that night to meet some friends for a drink after work and we’ve been together ever since. (Insert lesbian U-haul joke here.) We both knew that we wanted to have kids from the very beginning. We had no idea how that would ever eventually happen, but I always knew that Jen would be a great Mom, and that I would be incredibly fortunate to share that journey with her. After a few years in San Francisco and a few more years in Chicago we settled in L.A. It was Jennifer’s biological clock that actually set our baby making process into motion, in 2001, and it took us several more years to finally have our beautiful daughter, India, in 2005. We had a beautiful son, too. Eamon was born in 2007. Sadly, he had a terrible heart defect and we lost him 9 days after he was born. There are no words, except that we miss him every day.
MM: You married during the window it was legal in California. I’ve wondered if it feels odd to be in this carved-out class of people in the state who are married, when no one after Prop 8 can join you. A sort of archipelago of equality. Comments?
PF: (“Archipelago of equality” – I love it.) In 2008, when the window of marriage equality in California did finally open, it certainly didn’t feel odd to take advantage of it. It felt like, “It’s about fucking time!” At that point Jennifer and I had already been together 17 years, for heaven’s sake! How many straight couples are engaged for 17 years? True marriage is a commitment of hearts, not genital parts. (Hey!) So, all things considered, I think we were definitely entitled to a marriage certificate, to go with our lovely separate-but-equal Domestic Partner Certificate.
And I don’t mean to belittle the actual act of getting married. Our wedding was beautiful. We got married at City Hall in San Francisco in the summer of 2008. One of our dear friends performed the ceremony, right outside the Mayor’s office, and we were surrounded by friends and family. Our daughter was our flower girl. Our nephew was our ring bearer. And Jen’s Dad gave the most beautiful speech at our reception. Finally! After 17 years. We were married married! It was official (in the state of California) and truly beautiful.
And then came Prop. 8. So sickening, so hurtful. I remember driving through our neighborhood, seeing the horrible yard signs in favor of it, and being grateful that our daughter was still too young to understand what it meant. And then the damage was done, of course. The stupid thing passed. The villagers had chased the dreaded monster of Gay Marriage away with their pitch forks. And here we sit on this ridiculously stupid archipelago, waiting for the tide to turn again. Which, of course, it will.
So, is it odd? It is definitely odd. California recognizes that we’re married but our friends can’t get married and the federal government doesn’t recognize our marriage but they know we’re married but that doesn’t matter because of blah blah blah snore. There is so much that is so odd right now about life in this country. I think the important thing to remember is that marriage does not define us – we define marriage. My marriage to Jennifer began long before 2008 and my love for her will last forever. No law can stop it and no amount of ignorance or fear can shove it back in the closet. We’re not going anywhere and we plan on keeping this crazy little archipelago rainbow bright until the next wave of love birds are allowed to leave the cage.
MM: I think it’s awesome that we’re both involved in working with older LGBT people (in my case providing an online space and content). How did you end up at the Center in LA, and specifically with the senior programming?
PF: First of all, I love the work you’re doing, Mark. So thank you! And I totally agree with the awesomeness of the field we find ourselves in. I feel so fortunate to be working at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. I love my job and I wish I could take credit for how I got here but, like most of the other blessings in my life, it was actually a happy accident. To make a long story short, I discovered that I wanted to work with seniors after my Mom and Dad died. Witnessing their last years, and seeing what they had to go through – especially my Mom, who ended up becoming my father’s caretaker after a devastating stroke – it was transformative. Like so many of my peers who have been thrust into various caretaking roles with their own parents, after my Dad’s stroke I found myself taking a crash course on what it means to age in our society. It was heartbreaking, of course. But it was also enriching, eye-opening, humbling and extremely educational. After my folks passed away I felt this tremendous gift of love from them, and I knew that I wanted – and needed – to pay this gift forward, somehow, to people who perhaps were not as fortunate as my Mom and Dad to be surrounded by friends and family in their later years. So I knew I wanted to work with seniors. I just didn’t know how it would happen.
When our daughter was a baby, we would go to a playgroup sponsored by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. I met a lot of wonderful new families in that group and I adored the people from the Center who facilitated it. Later, we went to Rainbow Family Camp, also sponsored by the Center, and we had a great time. These were really my first experiences with the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and I was very impressed – and grateful for their services.
So, after India started school and it was time for me to return to the work force, I found myself checking out the job board on the Center’s website and, lo and behold, there was a job opening in “Seniors Services”! I didn’t even know the Center had a department for seniors! (There was a lot I didn’t know.) I sent in my resume and, as luck would have it, my interview was with the same woman who had previously been running our beloved playgroup for kids. A few weeks later I had the job. I’ve been at the Center two years now and I love it. It’s an amazing place to work.
MM: One of the things I’ve heard many times from LGBT people over 50 is that they feel disappeared by the culture, including our own. I hear this a lot. What are some of your takeaways working with LGBT seniors and older people?
PF: I think it’s heartbreakingly easy for any portion of our population to feel marginalized and ‘disappeared’ when we aren’t able to see ourselves truthfully reflected in the mirror of society as a whole. And, of course, with LGBT seniors, we’re talking about a population that has spent its entire life not only NOT being accurately reflected in the mirror, or the media, but – even worse – being slandered and bullied and shamed by it. So, yes, there’s that.
And then we have our own youth obsessed homo-pop-media-culture fixated on all the bright shiny things and, once again, our visage is nowhere to be found. It’s already been said but it bears repeating: getting old ain’t for sissies.
But I also think it’s easy to feel the cloak of invisibility wrapping itself around our eyes, around our lives, when, perhaps, we, ourselves, have not yet lived the life we wanted or intended to live. Sometimes it’s easy to feel invisible when you don’t like what you see in your own mirror. I think invisibility goes both ways. And perspective is everything. So there’s that, too.
Mostly, I think we all just want to feel like we’re here. Like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves – like our lives mean something. I think many of our seniors feel like they took the punches for our movement and all they got was a lousy t-shirt. And that’s valid. In an ideal world we want the ‘Circle of Life’ to truly come full circle – for grown children to return to their parents at some point and say, “Wow! Now that I’m a parent myself I can really see what you went through – it’s hell! Thank you for everything!” But in the LGBT community, so many of our elders live in isolation, with no children or family to return and say, “Wow! You went through hell and I get it now – thank you!” A little acknowledgement goes a long way. Be patient. Be kind. Slow down. Say Thank You. We are not invisible if our stories are heard – so listen. And get involved. Volunteer! Reach out to LGBT seniors in your community. We just held the 14th Annual Senior Prom at the Center and we couldn’t have done it without our beautiful army of volunteers. I can’t tell you how many volunteers came up to me during the event to tell me how amazing it was to meet their elders and hear some stories. We truly are family. So let’s take care of each other.
MM: I’m still writing after all this time, fiction and blogging now . . . and I see you’re directing! Tell me about ‘The Tao of Fruit’, Lucy Wang and your continued involvement with theater.
PF: I met Lucy Wang a few years ago when I was attached to direct a piece that she was developing for the Sundance Theatre Lab. Unfortunately, that piece was not selected for Sundance, but I loved working with Lucy. One of her short plays, The Tao of Fruit, was recently selected to be read at the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights Gay & Lesbian Play Reading Festival in West Hollywood and I was honored when Lucy asked if I would direct for her again. The play is a very sweet comedy about love and family. (And Chinese food.) So that’s been fun. And we also have plenty of theater projects happening for our seniors at the Center. I taught a Playwriting 101 class last year and this year I’m overseeing a Creative Performance Workshop that will be presenting a Variety Show in the fall. And the Stagebridge Theatre Company recently made its L.A. home with us at The Village, which makes me extremely happy. Bruce Bierman is the Artistic Director. He’s brilliant and he’s an angel – two things I adore in a man.
MM: Part 2 of that question: what other things do you love to do outside of work?
PF: Outside of work my life is all about my family. India’s only in first grade, so it’s still magic time for us. She’s a great kid and I don’t want to miss a thing. We go camping a lot in the summer time and try to spend as much time as possible visiting our wonderful family, who are scattered far and wide.
MM: What’s ahead for Pam, Jennifer, and India? Is where you’re living where you want to stay, or do you see yourselves moving somewhere else eventually?
PF: We are very, very happy right where we’re at. And now that we’ve promised to take care of the archipelago, we’re not going anywhere!