Society may not always recognize that there are LGBT grandparents—and even great-grandparents—living among us. Carrie (Chaous), an active union member and grandmother, has two daughters, Cayne and Corrie. Cayne has a daughter, and Corrie has two sons. Carrie’s mother, Vivienne (Nana), is a great-grandmother. They don’t generally like labels, but Carrie agreed to the term “dyke on a bike” and Vivienne agreed to “dyke on the back of a bike” to describe themselves.
Born in the 1940s, Vivienne was repressed and abused by her father. She wanted to leave home but didn’t. Her father told her that lesbians would pick her up on the street and beat her. At age 17 and six months pregnant, she and her boyfriend tried to run away. Their parents hunted them down with shotguns and forced the marriage. After her son was born and she was pregnant again (with Carrie), Vivienne says, “Their father came home from working the night shift and told me that he had been seeing another woman for a year and that he was leaving me.” Living in a trailer on her dad’s property, she worked as a go-go dancer at night and went to beauty school during the day to support herself and her children. After she lived with another guy and was beaten by him for several years, her family “moved me out one day to get rid of him.”
Carrie never knew her dad’s side of the family. “I was close to my mom’s family,” she says. “My grandma on my mom’s side did a genealogy. I learned my great-grandparents came from Prussia to escape the Nazis and to avoid being drafted into war. My grandfather was a peace-loving person. I am really close to my immediate family. My mother and her parents accepted me for who I am, and her parents accepted Vivienne as a lesbian.”
Born in the mid-1960s, Carrie had two moms well before it was at all accepted. She learned about McCarthy and Communism in school and about the movie stars losing their jobs. She lived through bomb drills in grade school, having her mother throw her to the ground and cover her with her body on State Street when the students were being tear-gassed by the police during the Vietnam War era and the bombing of Sterling Hall on the UW – Madison campus. “I vividly remember how scared I was,” she notes.
Attending Malcolm Shabazz High School, she learned “how to practice passive resistance. I learned organizing skills at Shabazz from the progressive teachers and organized a protest.”
“I was bullied and learned not to be bullied by little kids. I was always against injustice. I was tear-gassed in Detroit in the ‘80s and marched against racism. I knew we were losing rights every day, but what could I do about it as one person?” As a union member, when the controversial budget bill of 2011 called Act 10 happened, she got involved. “I don’t like bullies!”
When I asked Carrie about her two daughters, she explained, “I never married. From childhood I always knew I was gay, but I had to hide who I was. I was trying to be straight when I was with my boyfriend for three years. I didn’t want to get married because I saw my mom and my aunt and my mom’s roommate being beat up for being gay. We had to hide. I was affected as a child by what I was seeing around me.”
Carrie loves her children and grandchildren. “I can’t imagine life without them. Everything I do, every cause I stand up for, is in large part for them. One of the grandsons, Osiris, is five; Levi is seven. Lilly is the youngest. I listen to everything they say. I’d say their actions speak the loudest. They know everything I do, and sometimes they come with me. One time I was talking about some conflict with Stone Soup, a project I began a few years ago to feed homeless people on the streets. Osiris began to cry when he thought Stone Soup was not going to be continuing. Last year when he went out with me after Halloween, he gathered all his personal candy from trick and treating and gave it out to the homeless. No one asked him to do this.”
Vivienne says that, while she “might not agree with” all of her daughter’s choices, “I support and love her. Carrie, her daughters, and my son, John, are all really, really smart, and that just blows me away! I’m proud of them. They make their choices in life.”
Caroline Werner has a Master’s Degree in Social Work. She did case management with Dane County seniors before retiring. Now she is a part-time LGBT Senior Advocate for the OutReach LGBT Community Center, funded by the City of Madison.