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Jerre Kalbas

A 90-Year-Old Lesbian's Story

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Jerre Kalbas with Cathy Renna at SAGE

Jerre Kalbas with Cathy Renna at SAGE

© Courtesy of Cathy Renna
When Jerre Kalbas was 60, a friend approached her about becoming involved in a group for gay and lesbian elders that was just starting. That’s how she became one of the original volunteers and poster child for SAGE. That was 30 years ago. At age 90, she is still an active member.

Jerre says because she was too shy to speak in public, she lent her face to a poster to advertise the new social group forming in New York City in 1978. Wasn’t she afraid to have her face on a poster advertising a gay organization? “I had no qualms about being gay at the time,” she said. “I’d been out for a while.”

SAGE Social Events

She helped organize the first SAGE social events. “We would meet with sandwiches and potluck and talk. It was just a handful of people until we got bigger and bigger.” She still volunteers for the social which has over 100 attendees these days. Jerre also volunteers for the women’s dance committee, where more than 400 women show up. She helps with the raffle.

When She First Knew

Jerre says she first knew she was gay when she was a little girl playing under the steps with other girls. “I knew there was something, but I didn’t know what. I was a very shy person.” At her first job, she said being around so many women was hard for her. “I liked women very much and I didn’t know how to handle it. I can’t describe the feeling, but it was frightening. There were many crushes that I had and that was even worse.”

Eventually, though she found her community. She says her shyness disappeared after she had her first relationship. She remembers her years at the bars. “It was really free and easy,” she says “There were some raids at different places, but when these were happening, we sort of got word and we would start dancing with the guys. We just knew what to do.”

She was always a tomboy. “I was walking down the street with my very short haircut. At that time we didn’t wear slacks and a man’s shirt. The guys would yell ‘Dyke!’ Which is a word I hate to this day,” she says. She never felt comfortable in makeup or with earrings, but she learned because that's what women did at the time. She was happy with physical labor, like when she worked on a farm. "I was chopping down trees, building a road, digging a well. I went up there 139 and I came back a solid 165. Solid muscle," she says. She also had a gift for anything mechanical.

Jerre had many careers in her life. She worked in an artificial flower factory, on a farm, in the machine shops, was an electrician on the boats in California during World War II. "I was known as Rosie the Riveter," she says. She would have loved to join the army, but they wouldn’t take her because she didn’t have her high school diploma. She even owned her own machine shop on West 4th Street, manufacturing tricks for professional magicians.

SAGE is Like A Family

Jerre doesn’t have any family left, so the people at SAGE have become her family. When she had her hip replaced, “They came and took me home and saw to it that I was being taken care of,” she says. She has a social worker who checks in on her from time to time.

Even though she is 90, she still lives a very active life. Aside from volunteering for SAGE, Jerre has been making jewelry most of her life and recently learned to sculpt in silver. She does art research for friends who live in Holland. She swims at the Y and she’s learning how to use the computer.

"I’m not lonesome, but I am alone a lot. I keep busy," she says. Many of the friends her age have died. If she gets to the point where she is lonely, she knows she can turn to SAGE for a volunteer "friendly visitor."

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