Life Lessons, Advocacy and Activism
Reflections of an LGBT Senior
Wilhelmina Perry, Ph.D. , Convener, LGBT ministry of the Riverside Church, Organizing Member, SAGE Harlem, Marriage Ambassador, Empire State Pride Agenda
As I reach my biological age of 73 this December 2007, I can finally say that I know emotionally and physically that I am a senior. Although there is still an inner voice that says, “you are not really old” and folks constantly tell me that I look about ten years younger than I am, I know that I am old because when I look into the mirror, I see my mother’s face looking back at me.
How are social workers and other health professionals to counsel us in the midst of our own irreconcilable issues? Most of the seniors that I know feel as I do, young at heart, although most things around us project a youth-oriented culture and send the message that we just do not exist or have reduced status in the “real world.” We have to develop our own strategies to remain confident and vital.
My partner, who would wake me every morning with a greeting that included how beautiful I looked…is gone, and now I must dig deep within myself to keep the sense of “wellness” and the “security” that will fortify me throughout the day. As I move about these days with all my advocacy and activist work, I see seniors like myself who struggle with feelings of depression, being isolated and excluded. Not all lesbians my age have been mothers and now have children who support them or grandchildren who adore them. Many of us are alone. We are a subsection of a larger senior population.
In 2002, my life changed suddenly and dramatically, when my partner of 30 years died. Our life together had been full of activities. When she died, I had to stop and assess my life and even make a decision as to whether I would continue my life without her. I cannot say that we were in a closet but our activism did not include gay issues.
Our activism had always revolved around our respective communities, Afro-American and Puerto Rican. During the course of “finding myself”, I joined a SAGE bereavement group. It was among this group of people, so different from me and my life experiences that I found who I would become. I made the decision that my continuing life depended upon my being able to fully and completely profess the love and companionship of my long-term relationship. I wanted to say out loud that I loved her and ours was a healthy, productive, and long-term relationship.
I asked myself, “If you cannot do this, how can you claim your love and justify the great grief that you feel?”
My life as a gay “out” senior activist would begin and transform me and the work that I will continue for the rest of my life. As I was experiencing my own sense of loss and displacement, I learned that others had also experienced situations of being denied by family members, had lost their income, had also endured legal battles to secure their homes, their belongings. There were stories of being ostracized and totally shut out by family members or being sued by biological relatives or children of the deceased.
Assuming the role of gay activist meant that I would speak out about the injustices and prejudices that LGBT seniors faced, but I would also become a spokesperson for same sex marriage and legal protections. In my mind, they are interlocked and intertwined. I am particularly identified with seniors of color. This is the population best known to me and the ones most frequently left out in the profiles of gay America.
Since 2002, I have divided my volunteer work between two major populations, LGBT seniors and LGBT homeless youth. These are two much neglected populations. The world of seniors that I see is still divided along racial, ethnic and social class lines. As much as we do not want to acknowledge this reality in gay America, we remain basically in our separated worlds. However, in settings where we feel that we may share common issues and problems, we are more likely to overcome our prejudices and biases and engage in shared endeavors, and this is where opportunities for collective work exist.
As I proceed in my work of organizing and advocacy, the questions that I ask myself are: “Where are our LGBT seniors? Can we identify them? Do they want us to identify them? If seniors exist outside the traditional social welfare centers, they are practically invisible. We are now identifying ourselves in the census as “same sex households”, and this provides important information for general purposes, but it does not give much practical information for grassroots organizing work.
Many of the seniors that I meet grew up when the gay movement was primarily a movement of white males. They do not see that the movement addressed the discrimination that they were experiencing. In many instances, the movement was real for them, but it was their personal journeys of exploring and affirming their sexual identity. It was not a public matter, and they may not have assumed roles of public activism.
Many of us are now retired with adequate retirement incomes. Others are struggling economically. We are in perfect physical health while others have all the expected chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Alcoholism and HIV/AIDS are becoming visible conditions. Depression and feelings of exclusion can be experienced periodically or over a sustained period of time. However, the larger group that will come to social welfare settings will be seeking social, housing and economic supports. These will also be the citizens who will be most effected by increasing paces of gentrification in historically low-income minority communities. We are the spectrum of the rainbow, but very few programs exist for “out seniors.”
While I know that many seniors still feel afraid and unprotected if they speak openly, I advocate that we should speak out about the issues of concerns that affect us as LGBT seniors.
I believe that we should also raise our voice in support with others who act against situations of injustice no matter who experiences them.
I believe that we should release ourselves from a “closeted life” and take advantage of the independence that some of us have.