Over the past year, the nation has been gripped by the high numbers of gay teen suicides and heart-wrenching stories of anti-gay bullying in schools. The “bullycide” epidemic, as some began to call it, prompted national outrage and campaigns like the It Gets Better Project. But homophobia, harassment and isolation aren’t reserved to the realm of youth. Older LGBTs, too, experience much of the same prejudice. Les Geller, a member of the LGBT Center of Raleigh’s board of directors and co-chair of its Gay & Gray Initiative, says older LGBTs from the baby boom-era, like the rest of the country, are standing at a crossroads. As the nation ages, so do its LGBT seniors and many are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles in healthcare and housing.
“A lot of the older generation is not out and are afraid to come out over fears of having problems in healthcare facilities; they’re afraid they’ll be mistreated or proselytized or shunned,” Geller, 65, tells qnotes. “These are people who grew up when being gay was illegal and many have never gotten over the sense of being outside the mainstream.”
Lorraine Johnson, 49, is also a center board member and Gay & Gray co-chair. She says facts clearly show that the LGBT mature adult population is facing challenges.
“It’s the population that is 70-years old and up primarily who are hitting the healthcare system in terms of homecare and nursing care,” she says. “The senior abuse statistics are terrible. If you add onto that what could be a hostile attitude from a caregiver toward you, it compounds it.”
Geller and Johnson’s involvement in the LGBT Center’s Gay & Gray Initiative is something they say was at the top of their agenda even as organizing for the center itself was still taking place.
“I knew it was going to be my focus from day one,” Geller says. “It was just a matter of the timing being right for it to get started last year.”
The initiative seeks to reach out to the older LGBT community in and around Raleigh. Johnson says part of their mission is social — getting those who have aged past the “going out” stage involved in community events and ensuring they, too, have safe places to go for friends, fun and camaraderie. Yet, serious issues of access and healthcare take priority. Johnson says she’s most concerned with elders’ ability to access the services they need. Older LGBTs are as much as five times less likely to access needed healthcare and social services because of that fear, according to Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), which provides services, advocacy and programming for LGBT elders.
“They aren’t going back into the closet because they are imagining things; there are real instances of abuse and discrimination,” Johnson says. “You’re dependent upon your caregivers for your life. You’re dependent upon them for your transportation to get back and forth from a doctor. The very people you depend on might be the same people you’re afraid of.”
Those problems are magnified in the transgender community, Johnson says: “Think about the hostility toward the transgender community in general and the lack of understanding frankly even from the LGBs and now imagine you’ve got a straight caregiver or doctor doing an exam and being asked to prescribe hormones. It’s a mess.”
The Gay & Gray Initiative has been a success so far, Geller says. Several of the group’s socials have attracted dozens. He’s also pleased with the level of interest and involvement from younger LGBTs.
“We’ve seen quite a bit of support from the younger generation, which has been quite a surprise to me,” Geller says. “Several members of our committee are under the age of 30 and our volunteer coordinator is 26-years old.”
Such young adult involvement is essential to building community. Geller believes many LGBT youth don’t know their own community’s history. He’s also concerned with the invisibility older LGBT people face.
“Older LGBT people tend to be invisible to younger LGBTs,” he says. “We want them to know who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve done and how much they owe to us.”
The initiative’s efforts have already had a positive effect on getting older LGBTs more involved and visible. At the center’s OutRaleigh event on May 14, Johnson says she was encouraged when she witnessed so many people of all ages enjoying the events.
“There were men and women, both younger and older there,” she says. “I’d love to see that be the case at other events.”
The initiative is still in its infancy. Johnson and Geller have high hopes for its future and the LGBT Center of Raleigh’s efforts to create more inclusive spaces for the LGBT community’s diversity. They rest easy knowing they have the full support of the center’s leadership. Future efforts to continue social programming as well as healthcare and education initiatives are on the docket. Also planned is a potential partnership with SAGE.
“We just want to do whatever we can to help,” Johnson says. “This is part of our community. This is who we are.” : :
— Learn more about the Gay & Gray Initiative and the LGBT Center of Raleigh at lgbtcenterofraleigh.com.