50 years. 50 queers.

Nancy Irwin (aka) Naughty Nancy

Nancy Irwin (aka) Naughty Nancy

Mar 5, 2013

Name: Nancy Irwin
DOB: 1960 (Gemini)
Occupation: Writer/gardener
Favourite Book: Any atlas or book of maps
Favourite Movie: Walt Disney’s Fantasia
Favourite Music: Piss Factory by Patti Smith
Favourite Person At/Over 50: my very queer BF!
One Word About 50: Pleasure!

“My advice to everybody turning 50 is to have a wicked, rockin’ party.” So says writer and Toronto SM community icon Nancy Irwin—also affectionately known as Naughty Nancy by friends and playmates—when asked how to hit the half-century mark with style. “I turned 50 in 2010,” she continues. I was fortunate that I was in New York City for a big women’s and trans’ play party and that turned out to be my birthday party on my actual birthday, in New York City and I had a fucking blast.”

Not satisfied to mark her big day solely in the Big Apple, she had another event at home that turned out to be the capper of this auspicious occasion. “I came home and a week later we had a ‘Rats Turn 50’ party in my backyard,” she says with a laugh. “I usually have a big backyard barbeque each year with maybe 65 people, and that ended up turning into a big SM play party as well. I think it moved from my backyard onto the garage if I recall. In both cases I had an extraordinary time.”

Irwin has an indefatigable attitude toward life—and growing older—and she believes one should use turning 50, or any age for that matter, as a reason to celebrate and rejoice in life’s little pleasures. “Don’t let it just go unnoticed. Really blow it as far out as you can,” she insists. “Because the positive reinforcement that I got from those two parties carried me through that year and the next year and set the tone: ‘If I can have this much fun at 50, I’m fine!’”

“The women who were way ahead of me who built and established the SM community are in general 10 to 15 years older than I am.”

Irwin has been involved in Toronto’s SM and leatherdyke communities since their inception. She was one of the original purveyors of perversion in Toronto long before there was really a scene here. “I looked for an SM community for years in Toronto and there was not one to be found,” she explains of how she became the maven of Toronto’s local SM culture. “There may have been a few players somewhere. I could find gay men at the Barracks. My truck knew it’s way to the Barracks,” she continues with a laugh. “I used to drive my close friend there all the time. Then the Toolbox, this was before the Eagle. There were places for gay men, leather, SM men, but there was nothing for women and eventually after I sold my house, I ended up finding an SM community in New York City. I really had to go to New York to find it. From that point I was able to find other women’s SM things like Power Surge in Seattle, which was a big women’s SM gathering. Eventually, I came back to Toronto and was in a really good position to help fire up an SM scene. Ten years later—in the late 90s—there were enough women who were playing or who wanted to get involved in SM who were seeking it out just like I had.”

Irwin took the knowledge and experiences form the variety of SM scenes around North America and brought them back to her home turf where she became one of the foremost play party organizers for lesbians and trans people. She also co-founded the SM Women’s Discussion Group. It was this scene that not only helped her find an outlet for her own personal proclivities, but also formed some of her attitudes about being queer and aging. “What I have noticed is that looking around the SM community, particularly among women, the women who were my mentors, the women who were way ahead of me who built and established the SM community are in general 10 to 15 years older than I am,” she says of the landscape of the community.

“I never expected to live to be 25.”

Even though she is comfortable in her own skin and with her age, Irwin does notice the differences between lesbians and gay men when it comes to getting older—from sex to socialization. “Gay men are a little different than lesbians. In the women’s community, I think 50 is a really great place because I have enough experience,” she muses. “My world is the SM/leather world and in that world I am now an elder. It’s a bit shocking to be an elder at 50. Often by 65 people aren’t out anymore, they’re not out at 60 a whole lot. I am vibrant. I have all my years of experience and I still have my physical fitness and my drive. I’m actually in a great place because lots of people are looking up to people of my age and experience. We’re not over the hill yet. Also, in the lesbian community, you don’t end up over the hill at 30.”

“Gay men are very body-oriented and youth is highly prized,” explains Irwin. “I tell people when it comes to looking for people to play with, to have sex and quality SM, generally speaking you probably should be looking at your elders. Really, guess who’s got the experience. I think in gay male culture there’s so much about being pretty, being beautiful that people look at someone old and want to completely discount them. I think in the lesbian world we’re much more embracing of our elders. We don’t discard each other. We have the Crone. The Crone is the wise woman. We like our wise women. We’re not as quick to discard our elders.”

Another factor that shaped Irwin’s attitudes about aging was AIDS. Like many gay and bisexual men, she grew up when the disease was practically leveling a whole generation. As with many queer people who lived through the first decade of the disease, it shook her to her core. “When I was a teenager, the Cold War was going on. I never expected to live to be 25,” she states matter-of-factly. “By the time I was 26 my best friend was diagnosed with AIDS, and at that time I had no reason to believe that I wouldn’t get it too or that I didn’t already have it. My sexual activities were a lot different than my friends. I had a bisexual boyfriend before we knew about AIDS and he went to the bathhouse and was casually active and that alone let me know that it put me in the category [of being in the high risk group]. When my best friend was diagnosed and was dead a year-and-a-half later, I had no idea how long I would live.”

“We need to do a lot of education and work towards making our nursing homes queer-friendly, queer-knowledgeable and queer-supportive.”

This was a seminal time in Irwin’s life. As she dealt with the loss of her best friend—not to mention scores of other friends who were dying—she also dealt with the idea that she might not survive. These events caused her to re-examine her life, her priorities and her goals. It lead to a major decision she would later recount in a piece in Canadian Biker magazine. “It was an article about why I sold my house and my business, gave my truck away, put my bikes in storage, turned my home and whole life into a motorcycle and a trip around the world, she explains. “It was because I didn’t know how long I would live and because I’d just buried my best friend. The way things were looking back in those days we were all going to be dead. All of us queers who were completely unsupported by the government and medical system and straight society. I never visualized 50. I sure as hell didn’t have a retirement plan.”

Now, almost 30 years after that decisive time, Irwin is looking ahead, not so much about her own personal aging, but to the community in general and some of the issues we need to start to think about as we get older en masse. “I would say nursing homes is a place we need to be paying attention to because if you’re in a nursing home and people don’t respect, or know what it means to be gay, or trans which is another huge issue,” she says. “If you’re trying to take trans people and put them in a gender place where they do not feel like they belong based on their genitals, it’s a huge problem. I say we need to do a lot of education and work towards making our nursing homes queer-friendly, queer-knowledgeable and queer-supportive.”

Irwin sees a growing number of elderly queer people in unenviable situations in eldercare facilities. “If you go to Fudger House, which is a city-run nursing home on Sherbourne Street you will find a number of gay people there. It’s one of the few nursing homes that has lots of queer staff and residents,” she explains. “So it is very queer friendly and supportive, but it’s the only one I know of that has a quantity of queers in it. We don’t all have families. And if you’re 65 or 75 or 85 right now, chances are, most of your peers are dead,” she says. “They probably died of AIDS. Most people who have died of AIDS, those were the people who would have been around to help support you, especially the younger ones. The number of gay men who are missing because of AIDS is huge,” she continues. “It’s not just that gay men as mentors have disappeared, but the older gay men who are still alive are missing caretakers who would have been the younger ones.”

With one foot—and probably a leather switch—in the here and now and the other tapping at life as a senior, Nancy Irwin is still living up to her playful moniker…naughty. And while she sees the places we need to work on and tend to as a community, she can look ahead with a sense of ease because she looks back at some of her mentors who helped pave the way for where she is today and people we can aspire to be like as we grow older. “George Hislop, Anna Willits, Chris Burchell. All of the fags and dykes who are 10 to 15 years older than me who have done so much. Those are the ones I admire because they had a much harder time than I had. The people who started The Body Politic. The women who started Broadside, that was a radical lesbian newspaper back in the 80s. The women in Michigan who put out The Lesbian Connection, which is the largest lesbian magazine in North America. I really appreciate the people who paved the way for me.”

4 comments

  1. RICHARD ILOMAKI /

    Nancy is one of the most dynamic and brilliant people I have ever met. Although I have not seen her in nearly 20 years, I recall every time we met. Thanks for inspiring me to live and enjoy!!

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