SAGE offers hundreds of programs every month, throughout the country. Our monthly “Quick Chats” with SAGE participants offer a first-person perspective on these programs, and a little more insight into the remarkable people who make up our community. This month, we spoke with Natalie Kenvin, a 72- year-old Chicago resident who has been a SAGE participant through Chicago’s Center on Halsted for about four years.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Natalie. When did you first become aware of SAGE, and how are you involved?
About four years ago. I walk through the door [of the Center on Halsted] and all pretenses are gone—it feels like a second home. I’m part of the Senior Action Group there. I’d like to see a little more activist presence, so I’m building a link between the Center on Halsted and local activist communities. I’m trying to get people more involved with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus [a senior activist organization in Chicago].
What kinds of issues are you working on?
Well, through the Jane Addams Caucus we are trying to get an ordinance passed to better regulate federal housing money in Chicago, to improve access to housing for low-income seniors. We have more than 13,000 people waiting for low-income housing in Chicago! When Cabrini-Green [the Cabrini-Green Public Housing Project, now demolished] came down, everyone was promised housing. But they never got anything. People who are not people of color, and who are middle class, don’t have this problem.
That’s amazing! Housing is such a critical issue for people across the country right now. Can we get to know you a bit better? Where are you from originally?
I was born in Philadelphia, but my family moved frequently. We lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Canada, and Michigan—Detroit. It was an intellectual family but also one that was violent.
When I hit adolescence we were living in a run-down area in Detroit, but I was going to a kind of snobby girls’ school. During that time I really exploded sexually, and my grades started to slide. So my parents took me to psychologists who gave me two diagnoses: depression and gender confusion. I ended up being hospitalized in a state institution. I remember a psychologist saying, ‘I bet you spend all your time playing basketball with the boys!’ I was totally uninterested in basketball!
But then I caught a break. The psychologist changed and the person I got was a wonderful man. He layed off of the ‘gender confusion’. I had taken a test to see whether you were gender-confused and I saw the result [in my file]. It said “Patient is Pathologically Female”! It had questions like, “I like to wear flowered dresses—true or false?”
[Natalie and I both cracked up at the thought of this]
My parents would visit and they’d get so upset. The doctor said to me, ‘you’re not going to see them and you’re not going back to that—you’re going to college.’ I went to Wayne State in Detroit.
And you went on to have relationships with women, men, or both?
With women and men. When this came up, I thought I must be the worst person in the world. That I must be crazy—‘I’m attracted to women and men!’ I thought of it as a pathology. I married a man early on and when that began to disintegrate I began relationships with women.
Are you in a relationship now?
No. I wish! I have a girlfriend but she doesn’t want to make it a sexual relationship. When she said that I thought ‘Oh dash it all!’ She is a lovely, positive, life-loving woman. She’s my age and came from a background like mine. We are both bisexual. When we first met she said ‘I have something to tell you—I’m bisexual.’ And I said ‘me too!’ we laughed and high-fived.
And what about work—are you currently working, or are you retired?
I taught English; my degrees are in Comp Lit. I won an NEA award for my writing [in 1995]. I've worked less since I’ve been ill in recent years but now I’m feeling better and having a bit of a renaissance.
You are doing amazing work! I wish you the best of luck. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story, Natalie!
--Posted by Kira Garcia