This past week, I was honored to read at The SAGE Center’s first annual Pride luncheon in New York. My partner and I met an old friend at the Center, who had organized the first book club with SAGE (Senior Advovacy in a GLBT Environment) when it was part of the New York LGBT Community Center on 13th Street.
Last January, The SAGE Center established itself as the first full-time LGBT senior center last January in its new home on Seventh Avenue. The SAGE Center is funded partially through the New York City Department of Aging. Currently The SAGE Center has 650 members and is planning to open centers in the New York boroughs.
I read from my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, which provoked a lively discussion where SAGE members talked about their own experiences as caretakers of elderly parents and friends. One man talked about his experiences visiting an older friend who was attracted to him. “We would sing together and dance,” he said, “and whenever we danced, he grabbed my ass. I was very firm in telling him that wasn’t happening.” Some years passed and the older man, who now had dementia, was living in a home. One of his relatives asked the man if he would visit the older man. “I went and he didn’t know who I was but he asked me if I was there to have sex with him. When I said “no” he asked me to leave. I had to explain that I was there to visit him.”
” Whenever we danced, he grabbed my ass. I was very firm in telling him that wasn’t happening.”
A woman in the audience talked about how caring for her elderly father and his grief at losing him changed her (now former) partner. In Tea Leaves, (under the editorial direction of Kathrine V. Forrest), I wrote about the tensions that arose in my own long-term relationship as a result of me spending so much time and emotional energy caring for my mother. It’s quite common. When I talk to other couples where one or both has cared for an elderly parent, they frequently mention that there were tensions in their relationship. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re not in this alone.
The need for The SAGE Center as a place where LGBT seniors can gather with each other, engage in activities, and avoid isolation is illustrated by a conversation that I had with one of the participants. While there are elders in the community who have led the way and who have always been out, many LGBT seniors are, in fact, not out. Even after retirement, many seniors are not out to friends and family members including grandchildren. While this is sad, it is a fact of their lives. There is much documented evidence of LGBT seniors facing discrimination and ostracism when they socialize and live in conventional (non-LGBT)senior settings.One SAGE participant told me that he was out to very few people in his life. “I have a friend is Israel who knows,” he told me, “And when he e-mails me with gay subject matter, he uses a different e-mail account.”
After the reading and discussion, I conducted a short writing workshop. Several of the participants shared their work – one man wrote about reconnecting with his father who he had not seen since he was a child and is now eighty eight. Another wrote about surviving his partner and feeling as if they are still connected spiritually.