Karen Marcune and Melissa Lowrie: A place of our own

Melissa Lowrie

Last weekend Amber Hikes came back to town to do a Q&A after one of The Women’s Film Festival screenings. A good part of the conversation was about community, where we found it, and if it still exists today. Things have certainly changed. A lot of young people don’t feel the need to find community in the way that my generation did, or they are able to find it online. But a lot of the young people in our audience longed for face to face interaction with other LGBTQ people. One place that people seem to find it are in queer camping spaces, for the fellas, how ever you identify yourself, you have The Woods, and for the Sisters, there’s SisterSpace, happening this weekend. It’s a place/event that I’ve attended since I was in my 20’s, and it’s still as magical and enriching as it was back in the day. Three days of concerts, comedy, workshops, dances, and so much more. I had a chance to speak to two of the key people in charge of making it happen: Board President Karen Marcune and Festival Producer Melissa Lowrie.

Karen Marcune

Do you remember the first time you attended SisterSpace?

I think it was 2005. I had a few friends who said, “Hey, there’s this women’s weekend happening, you’ve got to come and check it out.” Most of my life I’ve been a community oriented person and I’d never been to anything like that before. So when I got there, it was mecca. 

I love that when you get there, even if you’ve never been before, you’re greeted with, “Welcome Home.” What were some of the first things that you remember getting excited about, and are they the same things now?

[Laughing] When I first came, I wanted to do everything I could and went to every single workshop I could get into. I enjoyed going to the investing workshops, I enjoyed the pool volleyball, I loved listening to the poets or laughing along with the comedians, going to the concerts. One of my favorite workshops was car maintenance. It was later, not that first year, but it was great. We actually got to get under the hood of a car and learned how to change the oil and air filters and all that. I loved doing all the workshops and hanging out at the pool, etc.

But what I found was that I loved volunteering. I started helping out in the kitchen, but mostly worked with camp services helping people find their way, even though I was new myself. I became the “Radio Goddess.” I was in charge of the walkie talkies, handing them out, hunting them down. I wasn’t technically a volunteer, I was still a paying camper, but it was fun and I got to meet a lot of people. The next year when I tried to pay to come they said, “Nope, we won’t let you pay, we want you here as a volunteer. You’ve been recruited!” It’s been my love ever since. 

Karen Marcune

What’s the first memorable moment that pops into your mind?

Seeing Kali, who runs the sexuality space, jump into an invisible ball and roll around the swimming pool like she was walking on water. Only a Goddess could do that. SisterSpace is as creative as the women that come and it doesn’t always have to be a headlining moment, sometimes it’s something as simple and beautiful as that. 

Speaking of the sexuality space…

Yes, one of the things that’s nice about the weekend is that people have a chance to explore their sexuality in a positive manner. They used to explore it a little too publicly, which made some people uncomfortable, so now we have a designated sexuality space that’s run by Kali Morgan. Kali is a respected sex and fetish educator and the owner of Passional Boutique and Sexploratorium.

There are so many amazing musical performances scheduled this year. What are some that you’re looking forward to?

I’m excited to see Raging Asian Womxn, they’re one of the few all-Asian, all-womxn Taiko drumming groups in the world. They look amazing and I appreciate the diversity they bring. I’m also a fan of Mimi Gonzalez, so I’m looking forward to her making us laugh. And I want to give a shout out to our MC’s Di Hargrove and Debra D’Alessandro. They deserve kudos for the style they bring and always keeping it moving.

So tell me a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in New York, Long Island. I mostly spent my time in Cedarhurst, so I grew up with sand in my toes. Fishing or swimming,

I was always at the beach. I got my degrees in engineering and nursing and ended up working for 35 years in the Bronx. I got Long Covid during the pandemic and almost died, it really did a number on me. As a result, I decided to retire which leaves me even more time to dedicate to SisterSpace! 

Nice! When you’re not volunteering at camp, what do you do for fun?

I live on a beautiful farm that’s half forest and half open fields where we grow crops. I have 15 acres of alfalfa. I don’t cut it myself; we have a farmer who comes to harvest it. In the forest, I like to go on hikes, I go mushroom hunting  and just take in nature in all its different varieties. Every day I’ll see something I’ve never seen before. I also like to invest. It’s one of my hobbies. I like to do research and share knowledge about all types of investments. I like to help start businesses, I’ve had a few of my own and I’ve helped colleagues start them.  I love sharing that entrepreneurial spirit. 

Who was your first crush and when did you come out?

I’m a latecomer. I may have had a few crushes and questioned my orientation when I was younger, but I met my husband when I was in my 20’s, we got married and I had my beautiful daughter Victoria. When the marriage ended, I decided to explore those old feelings. 

I found myself coming to SisterSpace, and in 2010 I met my partner Jessica. She was beautiful and outgoing and I never thought she’d want to be with someone like me, but the story goes like this. I had a cabin reservation that year, but I brought a little tent so I could meditate. I didn’t know where you were allowed to set up tents, so I just looked and saw another tent and set up right next to it. My friend was helping me set it up and I could hear the people in the big tent giggling and saying, “Ha, that tent is so small we could use it for storage!” I burst out laughing and said hi and they laughed and a voice said, “Uh, you know you can put your tent anywhere in the whole entire camp. You don’t need to set up practically on our tent!” And then she popped her head out and it was love at first sight. And that’s when all the feelings that I’d suppressed came forward. Over the next few hours we talked and laughed over everything, and 10 years later we’re still together and still laughing. 

Melissa Lowrie

Where are you from?

My grandparents were born and raised in Philly but my parents were born in the suburbs, so I grew up in Chester County. I was raised in a very rural place, and went to a very tiny Christian high school. I made a break for the city as soon as I could after graduating. 

Tell me about the first time you went to SisterSpace?

I think it was in 2012, and I was definitely underprepared for what SisterSpace was. I came in as a stage crew volunteer, I was invited by Kate Gormley who was best friends with my partner. Kate had been a long time fixture on the stage crew. I was just recently out, so it was my first experience in something that was a full on lesbian space. I grew up in a religious family, so being in a lot of all women’s spaces was familiar, but never a queer space. I was really taken by it; it felt so special and I loved it immediately and ever since. My favorite thing about it was how diverse but also multi-generational it is. The kind of multi-generational friendships that are fostered almost immediately on the land. That kind of layered community feels really new and lovely, especially outside of the context of religion. It’s such a special place. 

I know stage crew is non-stop. Do you have time to check out any of the workshops? 

I don’t think I’ve ever taken a full workshop. I think I went to a mindfulness workshop once and got pulled out for something! But I have fun scheduling them. And I love the functioning of the stage crew and how precise and meticulous they are. Every tiny bit is planned out and there’s a solution for everything. It’s like a flashback to girl scout camp with a layer of creating community and keeping records. Like the way we document how everything should be done when we come back to the land, the systems that we create, and how the ways that we do things are communicated year to year. And I love how real people are all willing to participate in the collaborative volunteer stage crew. It’s an incredible, loyal and dedicated group. 

Is your day job in the entertainment realm?

No! I work for a home and garden lifestyle brand, Terrain, which is associated with Urban Outfitters and I head up their buying team. It’s pretty varied, lots of spreadsheets and numbers but also fun things, like going to Amish country to go to pumpkin auctions in the fall. It’s never boring, I actually was able to write a book on houseplants which will be released in the fall! Which is super weird, but exciting. But nothing to do with what I do at SisterSpace. It’s a nice change. 

It’s neat that people who volunteer for crew get to learn whole new skill sets. 

For sure. We’ve had people use us on their resumes to get jobs. We have people who credit SisterSpace for helping them find a new career path in sound design or lighting, or other crew positions. It definitely has had an impact on people’s lives. And not just on stage crew, I think about Crystal coming in to the kitchen with no experience but because she’s a dedicated and well organized human, she now has on her resume that she’s run a kitchen cooking for 350 people. 

For someone who’s never been, what are some of the things available?

One of our favorite programs is the ODYQ (Old Dykes, Young Queer) forum, a great intergenerational opportunity for communications. We have a Women of Color forum. There are always talks around sexuality and gender expression and there are new topics we try to explore each year. And of course there are a million great workshops, everything from body painting and breast casting to finances. There are several dances throughout the weekend. There’s an olympic sized pool and lots of activities in and around the pool, a nightly bonfire, an ArtSpace with sip and paint events, a ton of incredible vendors, karaoke, which I know you’ve participated in, and our sexuality space. And this year we’re going to be doing a lot of small pop up concerts throughout the land. Two of them will be poolside and then it will roll into a party with a DJ and then we’re doing a late night jazz and blues club on Friday. 

So much and so varied! I’m looking forward to it. Back to you, what did you study in school?

I went to St. Joseph’s as a theology major, which was very much about finding my path. I think I needed to understand more than I was taught about religion and wanted other people’s perspectives. Studying at a Jesuit school ensured that you got a 360 degree view of religion. They were so willing to entertain and ask questions, nothing was off limits. The practice of thought was that you consider everything. It really paved the way for my own self acceptance much later.

How was your coming out journey?

I was really lucky, I did grow up in very conservative surroundings, but have a mom who loved me first and foremost, and I always trusted that her love was big enough, bigger even than her religion. I never doubted that and I also had the benefit of a lot of gay friends coming out around me over the course of my high school and college experiences. So having such a supportive community around me, it was more a case of my awakening rather than any external pressures holding me back. 

A few years after college I took the job with Urban and was a consistent overworker and did a lot of late nights with this girl named Wen. I know that she was gay, and I guess I was never opposed to the idea of being gay, it’s just that with the way I was raised, there were no examples of it around me until I was older. I didn’t have words for it when I was young and there didn’t seem to be anyone like me around. So I met Wen and one day we went out after a work thing and we kissed and suddenly everything made sense all at once. We dated on and off in the beginning back in 2009, and she brought me to my first SisterSpace. We soon became exclusive and have been together ever since. She does all the branding and design work for SisterSpace and creates the tee shirts and stuff. 

We now live in Germantown and we have two matching spotted dogs, we call them our spotted monsters. Jasper and Ru, [laughing] our life centers around them for better or worse! 

Okay, a few random questions. A family heirloom you treasure?

I wear my grandmother’s wedding ring on my neck. It’s just a simple saw cut band and my grandfather hand engraved their anniversary date inside of it. It’s one of my favorite things. 

Favorite book as a kid?

I was deep into Nancy Drew. I just inhaled them, I read them like breathing. 

If you could do something dangerous just once with no risk what would you do?

I’d sail across the ocean. I recently rented a tiny boat and took it out by myself and it was the most empowering, great time. It would be amazing to do that on an open sea, but too terrifying to actually do on my own. But if there was no risk of danger? Yeah. 

Last question, I’m so gay…

I’m so gay that I help produce a 3 day women’s weekend… for free!

For more information go to: www.sisterspace.org/.