As Southland gays rally around the pride flag this summer, there is much to celebrate even beyond marriage equality. But amid the revelry, some of the people who got us here — trailblazing elderly gays — are retreating back inside the closet.
Even in the Los Angeles area, known as a mecca for equality, services for LGBT seniors barely scratch the surface.
"People are starting to get interested in this issue," said Kathleen Sullivan, director of senior services for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. "It is dawning on people that we need to start talking about this."
Sullivan estimates about 65,000 LGBT people age 50 and over live in Los Angeles County. The center serves about 3,000 seniors in the region. Though L.A. is on the forefront of the issue compared to other cities, even when all its planned projects reach completion only about 200 units will be available.
Michael Adams, executive director of the New York City-based Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders, said many gay seniors become fearful when forced to enter assisted living facilities or nursing homes. Many of them, in addition to having lost their spouse or partner, have no children. As they become dependent on facility workers for daily living needs and try to acclimate to their new living arrangements, many button up about their sexuality.
"We had one woman who went into a facility, and she came out after a month because she had felt she made friends there, particularly with her bridge group," Sullivan said. "But when she came out, she was completely ostracized. Nobody would eat lunch with her, and she went into depression."
SAGE is working nationally to change such heartbreaking realities. It has provided training to 3,000 elder workers in 27 states to help create more affirming environments. Training varies from online courses to in-depth on-site training. The organization even provides facility audits to give them an idea of their tolerance.
Assisted-living facilities and providers of elder services need to send subtle messages about inclusiveness, Adams said. "It's about the pictures on the walls, the questions asked on intake forms, marketing materials ... for aging services providers to do a good job, they need to deliver the message 'This is an LGBT-friendly space.'"
There are things the younger LGBT community can do to help their elder counterparts. Spending time with those without family or who are residing in assisted-living or nursing facilities helps ease isolation.
"We've tended to marginalize and make invisible our elderly. But in fact younger people have the opportunity to learn from them," Adams said. "There is history about HIV and history about the battle for equality and the fight for our rights. People had to fight to make things this way, and if we're not ever-vigilant, it won't always be this way."
To learn more about SAGE's work, visit http://www.sageusa.org/.
For more information about the center's elderly housing services and other resources for LGBT seniors, go to http://www.gleh.org/.