For New York City's "gay and gray" community — the first generation of openly LGBT Americans to grow old — an advocacy organization that's nearly as old as the LGBT rights movement itself is bridging long-standing gaps. Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE) has two community centers targeting different populations: The main center in midtown Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, which opened early last year, serves seniors from across the city, alongside an accompanying community space in the historically gay neighborhood of Greenwich Village, site of the famous 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. The group also runs a smaller satellite location in Harlem and supports a national network of affiliate service providers.
While other cities, notably Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have developed LGBT-specific senior housing, SAGE has pioneered a community-based care model that is municipally funded and designed around independent urban living. The Chelsea center offers services that would not be out of place at other senior centers — computer classes, exercise sessions, discussion groups for bereavement and legal counseling on health benefits — but the atmosphere is decidedly LGBT-inclusive. So the legal counseling session might focus on benefits for same-sex couples, while support groups may focus on LGBT issues. Meanwhile the Harlem branch caters to black and Latino populations, which have historically been isolated both from mainstream elder care facilities and the LGBT civil rights movement, where white-led organizations have often dominated.
SAGE's model is sensitive to the needs of LGBT elders in small ways that nonetheless make a big difference, avoiding missteps commonly seen at mainstream facilities. Intake interviews don’t feature assumptions about husbands and wives; the walls aren't decorated with posters featuring only smiling heterosexual couples; and transgender elders are called by their preferred pronouns. And staff make it clear that there is no prejudice against clients with HIV.
Despite major legal advances for LGBTs — including new state laws permitting same-sex marriage, a landmark Supreme Court ruling expanding the rights of same-sex spouses and pending legislationto bar discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — many LBGT seniors still face cruel barriers. As they age, many report "feeling like they have to go back into the closet in order to feel safe and comfortable receiving senior-related social services," says Gary Gates of the Williams Institute, an LGBT-focused think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles.Read More ▶