Editor’s note: This is part of a series during LGBTQ Pride Month, focusing on experiences and challenges in the LGBTQ Community.
LITTLETON – Aging can bring challenges, such as finding appropriate housing and care — or just a chance to socialize.
For the LGBTQ community, those needs can be complicated by isolation, or fear of rejection or compromised safety.
Advocates for elders are reaching out to older LGBTQ residents to provide resources and a way to connect.
A virtual event, “Coming out Across the Generations,” launched in March, with a follow-up event set for June 17.
Rev. Nancy Willbanks, pastor of First Baptist Church in Littleton, will serve as facilitator.
The church became a Welcoming Congregation in 2019, recognizing and supporting LGBTQ members. “After we voted, I discovered we had a member new to the congregation, an elder, who wasn’t talking about the fact that she was a lesbian,” Willbanks said.
Even with Willbanks, who is lesbian, the member struggled expressing her identity, and her needs.
‘Your story really matters’
In talking with Rev. Lara Hoke, of First Church Unitarian, Willbanks said, “I knew that they had older folks…what can we do?”
The idea of a multigenerational program soon developed. During the first session in March, Wilbanks said, “A baby boomer told this coming-out story and asked, ‘Does my story matter?’ A millennial said, ‘Yes, your story really matters.'”
Willbanks said, “A lot of members had grandkids who were gay or lesbian and said, ‘I want to see something better happen for them.’ That’s part of what goes on, and part of what we are trying to do.”
One participant, 21, came out to family while in eighth grade — and talked of keeping shoes close by, in case of the need to flee. A woman recalled losing her nursing job 40 years ago, when her female partner brought her the lunch she’d forgotten at home.
No longer alone
Willbanks said, “Elders would be afraid to get services. You had to ‘straighten up’ your house, to show no sign that you had a partner — turning away pictures, hiding who you were, because a case manager would be coming in.”
“Almost everyone of the older generations, as we spoke — this would be true for me as well, as a Gen-Xer — you had a sense that no one else was gay. You felt really overlooked,” Hoke said.
More in this series: Chelmsford resident reflects on the 40-year AIDS battle
Hoke, who is also lesbian, said about one-fifth of the church congregation identifies as LGBTQ. The church became a Welcoming Congregation in 1996.
“When I thought about it, I realized, some of our older LGBTQ members – especially people who were single — could feel isolated in any other context,” said Hoke.
The COVID pandemic added a new layer of concerns. Willbanks said, “The stories in this last event — people losing their jobs, getting disconnected from families — all those things happened, and happen, still.”
A time of change
In Massachusetts, a lot has changed — with growing legal protections and awareness, including the legalization of same-sex marriage.
“In this part of the world, in Massachusetts, it feels like a safer time and place…there is a lot more acceptance for many of us. I include myself,” Hoke said.
Hoke added, “It’s not that there aren’t ways to be hurt, but they are more personal.”
The Chelmsford Senior Center hosts a twice-monthly meeting group for older LGBTQ residents, called LGBTQ and Friends.
The group is for residents 45 and up. Most are in their 70s.
The group will continue meeting virtually at least through June and July.
“They don’t want to consider themselves a support group, even though staff are there to support them…they decided they wanted to be a social group,” said Debra Siriani, the senior center’s human services director.
A safe space
When needs arise, such as housing or long-term care, Siriani said, “Some seniors who are LGBTQ don’t feel comfortable coming out to people in their own home, and are sometimes forced back into the closet, whereas they may have been out earlier in their lifetime.”
Siriani stresses that the senior center is safe for everyone.
Siriani said, “When we first met with them…I was surprised myself, hearing that many of them had a concern. They weren’t sure where it was safe to go, and just be themselves.”
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