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by Jessica Carreras
Older gays and lesbians are always happy to talk about the crazy stories of their youth as though they were rites of passage. Community organizer and long-time gay rights activist Penny Gardner is no different. Without any provocation, she offers up the truth about her past. As a Playboy Bunny.
A self-proclaimed feminist, Gardner speaks freely about the hardships of raising three children in Florida as a single mother in the ’60s. “All I knew was I had to make a living…and there were no other jobs for women at the time that I was qualified for,” she says of the sexy stint.
And though her history of debauchery was not highlighted when she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at last week’s Pride Banquet in Warren, Gardner is not ashamed of it. Or of being old.
“Old people can become quite invisible if they’re not out and about,” the Lansing resident says. “They’re very much alone.”
Luckily, being invisible isn’t a problem for the 67-year-old siren. Since coming to Michigan in 1994 to attend graduate school at Michigan State University, she has served on the board of the Gay Lesbian Faculty, Staff and Graduate Student Association at MSU, was the program director for Michigan Equality and now serves as a full-time community organizer for the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition and the Coalition for Adoption Rights Equality.
She has worked to bring together the disabled and LGBT communities and fought for equality in the areas of discrimination, marriage and parenting rights. She started Young Old Disabled Action, the performance group that showcased the trouble of being gay and disabled at the Creating Change Conference held in Detroit in February. She has organized retreats and taught classes at MSU on LGBT issues. She is part of the state’s Commission on Service to the Aging. She even organizes the First Friday lesbian potluck dinners in Lansing. But Gardner wants to make one thing very clear: She’s not done.
“I was very, very proud and I was glad that people recognized me and the commitment that I have made,” Gardner said of receiving the Lifetime Achievement award. “But it doesn’t feel like an ending to me. It just feels like a wonderful pat on the back – and I don’t say that lightly. Lifetime achievement maybe can be reframed to be a push forward. Keep doing it.”
And she will.
Even as she spoke of her past, Gardner was preparing for her next activity: Grand Rapids Pride. There, and at other Pride events around the state, Gardner represents CARE and educates people about second parent adoption. It’s her current hot cause, and one that she won’t abandon. “I want to see second parent adoption through,” she says adamantly.
She also wants to continue her work bringing the issues of the disabled and the aging to light, including building a ramp up to the speakers’ platform on the capital and reclaiming the word “old.” She hopes to see the repeal of Proposal 2 and the continued rise of marriage equality.
But more than anything she has done or will do, Gardner claims it would all be for naught if it weren’t for the people in her life. “What I’m most proud of are the relationships I’ve established along the way,” she says of her time in the LGBT community. “I adore teaching, and recruiting young people into our work and helping them see the value of activism and how it will bring joy to their lives.”
Working with youth, says Gardner, has helped her to see what issues are important to LGBT young adults. “It gives me an opportunity to learn from them and keep informed about those things that are important to them,” she says. “And to tell them to turn off their damn cell phone for half a second.”
But above the electronic-wielding teens and twenty-somethings and slew of friends, the most important person brought into Gardner’s life through her work was her partner Marilyn. Now 11 years into their relationship, the couple met at the very same potluck dinners that Gardner now oversees.
It’s a big change for Gardner, who spent 28 years in her second marriage and has five children between her two husbands. Coming out as a lesbian was a change she saw coming long before she left her husband and her life in Miami behind. “Something led me to the women’s rights movement to become so engaged in it and began to define more and more of who I was within the company of women and less of who I was in the company of heterosexuals,” she explains.
The gradual change took her from married housewife to gay rights activist, from Florida to Michigan and, as Gardner puts it, “from Playboy Bunny to old lesbian.”