LET’S TALK ABOUT LGBTQ SENIORS
When we think of seniors, we assume they all have the same basic back story, they are all experiencing aging the same and that there are resources in place for everyone. But the LGBTQ senior community is different. By different, I mean their lived experiences, because LGBTQ experience is different than the heterosexual experience in every way.
The recent history has seen rights be extended to LGBTQ people which previously only applied to straight people. For instance, we can get married now; we can adopt children now; we can be covered by our partner’s insurance; and we can have our partners listed as our next of kin for medical decisions. Legal things have changed, but society at large is still catching up and there is still much work to be done.
Until 1973 being gay was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. People could be jailed for looking too gay. That meant if a woman wore a flannel shirt and jeans, she could be arrested and thrown in jail. If same sex couples were found dancing together, they were hauled off to jail. In the 80’s during the Aids epidemic, we only had one doctor here in Utah who was willing to work with men who were HIV positive or had Aids. We watched in horror as an entire generation of gay men were nearly wiped out simply because they were gay. Housing has long been fraught with discrimination as have employment opportunities. There has been historical mistreatment of this entire population based completely on the fact that we love differently. And let’s face it, different is scary and change comes slowly.
It is common for LGBTQ people to be closeted in their early life. If they are brave, they come out and live an authentic life or as close to an authentic life as societally possible. When they become seniors, because of the long-standing mistreatment of this baby boomer generation, they often go back in the closet. When seniors enter long term care, you may hear them refer to their life partner as a brother or sister or a cousin. To feel safe in their new environment, they often change their story to “fit in” and not be different. Some of this is changing and we celebrate that change.
LGBTQ seniors are two times more likely to be aging alone and four times more likely to be aging without any family. This is because they often do not have children and are often abandoned by their families when they come out. You may hear folks talking about their “chosen” families and it is for that very reason; their natural family abandoned them. It is why a strong sense of community with other LGBTQ people becomes so important and why we strive to provide services and resources for all LGBTQ people.
The history is difficult and there is still much work to be done, but there is good news. SAGE is a national organization that has existed for more than 40 years and provides services and advocacy for LGBTQ seniors. There are many affiliates across the United States and Puerto Rico. Utah is an affiliate chapter and is a program of the Utah Pride Center. Our SAGE program is very active with support groups, activities, clubs, and support systems. For instance, we have a biking group, a pickleball group, a book club, a trivia club, two different walking groups and much more. During Covid we moved all our programming online to continue to provide social possibilities to our seniors. It was challenging because seniors often do not have the technology skills needed to partake in a fully virtual world. Sometimes they do not have the equipment such as a smart phone or a computer. Often, they do not have internet because it is an expense that they cannot bear on a fixed income. We found a way to help seniors through the pandemic world.
Because Covid forced isolation and many LGBTQ seniors are living alone, we provided computers and internet service to 20 seniors. We did this through a generous suicide prevention grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. While virtual interaction isn’t the most exciting way to stay in touch, it did provide a way for people to connect; a way for people to still see their friends and a way to communicate and share their experiences, their fears and know they weren’t alone. This was incredibly important because senior suicide rates are far higher than any other demographic. One of the contributing factors for suicide among seniors is isolation. Providing even a virtual world was far better than being completely alone.
In this country our baby boomers are aging. In fact, 10,000 people are turning 65 every single day in this country. About 23% of our population identifies as LGBTQ (Gallup, 2019). That is a lot of potentially lonely seniors. So, we will continue advocating for fair and equitable treatment, continue to educate the public, educate private organizations, health care workers, and government workers about the needs of the LGBTQ community. SAGE will continue to advocate and serve the senior population far and wide. We have hope that one day, LGBTQ people all over the world will be seen for who they are as individuals rather than just for who and how they love.
If you would like further information about SAGE or the Utah Pride Center programs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deb Hall is currently the Director of Adult Programs at the Utah Pride Center. The largest program is SAGE which serves LGBTQ people over 50. In the first 9 months of running SAGE, she grew the program by approximately 3000%, started SAGE satellite programs in Ogden, Logan and Tooele. QSalt Lake magazine recognized Deb for her work in the LGBTQ community by naming her “Person of the Year” in 2020.
Deb is passionate about senior issues including healthcare, housing, equal rights, and suicide prevention. She sits on organizational boards or committees and community advisory boards often in the position of LGBTQ cultural competency, diversity and inclusion including the Alzheimer’s Association, Aging and Adult Services and UTA among others. Her education includes Business Management, Legal Studies, Gerontology and most recently certifying as a Sexual Abuse Counselor. She has a passion for lifelong learning and is often enrolled in a new class or certification program.
Deb’s hobbies and interests include yoga, paddle boarding/kayaking, biking, camping, traveling, gardening and reading. But her very favorite activity is adventuring with her grandkids. Her next big adventure is camping across America for six weeks in late 2021. She thinks about retiring one day but is not quite ready for that next chapter!