All Ages Welcome
By Carly Aimi
Each year when June comes around, we find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Figuratively that is. It’s officially pride month and as members of the LGBTQ+ family, it’s time to celebrate. When thinking about Pride, there is something about it that feels particularly youthful. Which by no means is a bad thing, it just does. Maybe it’s the ridiculously amazing parade costumes or the tenaciousness of today’s youth demanding that society address, and most importantly, understand identities outside the gender binary. Whatever the reason that made me associate the month’s celebration with youth culture, got me thinking about a lesson we’re taught from a young age. No, I’m not talking about that Easy Bake fucking Oven you should’ve never bought. I’m talking about a traditionalist value that transcends all boundaries and binaries: to respect your elders. After all, the spirit of activism and relentless perseverance had to start somewhere.
For our third collaboration with You-Do-You, the agender online fashion publication, we headed to Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) in Midtown to hang out with some incredibly young at heart 60 plus-ers. SAGE is the nation's first, largest, and oldest full-time LGBTQ+ senior center. But truthfully, calling this a ‘senior center’ doesn’t even do it justice. There’s yoga, a pretty rowdy game of Bingo, and Liza Minelli performances starring Michael, a 5-foot tall firecracker you’ll meet a little later. And every single person we met lived such decorated lives, the kind of stories you could sit down and listen to all day.
It’s hard not to feel old or at least sound like it when you say comments like, “back in the day” or “these kids don’t even know how good they have it,” but at the same time it’s hard to avoid it. When we headed to SAGE to photograph LGBTQ+ seniors, embracing that saying was really the goal. I thought great, let’s remind the world who paved the way—sure, it’s not perfect, but look how far we’ve come and these are the people who not only helped us get there but survived. Survived riots, survived extreme homophobia, survived the AIDS epidemic. Almost exactly one year after the Supreme Court Majority Opinion ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, the government declared that finally same sex marriage was legal throughout the United States. So, now felt like the perfect time to learn from our elders, respect them, and honor everything they did and went through to get us where we are today.
Then Orlando happened. And everything I wanted to tell you changed. To be honest I didn’t even know what to write. This story was supposed to be a rite of passage for our LGBTQ+ community, a story the youngin’s could learn from. Something that would inspire them to speak on more injustices and band together to overcome them. Now everything felt heavy. How could we still be surrounded by so much hate?
Then I thought of Pearl. Pearl’s a 66-year-old HIV-positive transgender woman who survived the Vietnam War, AIDS Epidemic in New York City, and still kills it in a Kenzo jumpsuit. Pearl grew up not knowing what transgender was, causing her to question her sexuality. “I was in high school and I dated a straight cis woman. I wore my tuxedo and she wore this beautiful dress (and I had secretly wanted to wear that dress). I really loved this woman.” So you can imagine how hard it was when Pearl decided to come out after her girlfriend received a scholarship at a prestigious college and wanted to turn it down so she could be with Pearl. “I had all these conflicting feelings but years later, we remained friends. It was something about telling the truth.” explains Pearl. After being an active member in the Special Services during the Vietnam War, Pearl would eventually move to New York City, working on Wall St. during the week and performing “Coffee Shop Talk with Mother Pearl” on Fire Island during the weekends. “And one day I had to go back to the city and didn’t want to take Pearl off,” says Pearl. “I never looked back and that was in 2000.” However, Pearl would stop going to Fire Island. After losing hundreds of friends and loved ones in the AIDS epidemic, “I stopped counting at five hundred and something, it was just too depressing.”
Or what about Guy who worked in the beauty industry for fifty years, doing hair and makeup for all the biggest Broadway stars. Guy saw the AIDS crises surround him and knew he had to make a career change to escape it, teaching himself to see past an industry all about possessions and vanity. “I began to paint. Coming from hair and makeup it seemed like a natural transition. Now I’m an abstract expressionist,” says Guy who recently showed at the MoMA! It’s the little things, or as he calls them “clichés” that keep him going, like staying innovative, spiritual, vital, and knowing as long as you have a roof over your head, it’s all going to be okay.
Then there were SAGE members like Sheila and Michael who also live long and fulfilling lives. Sheila has been with her partner for 23+ years, loves quilting, swims in hopes to work on that bod, and doesn’t have or need some big “coming out” story. Or Michael, a 75-year-old man who is a self-proclaimed child prodigy that started dancing at the age of five at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn to later becoming a self-taught gemologist and has even been an extra in a couple of Woody Allen movies. Michael came out to his parents in the early ’60s on his terrace in Brooklyn. “Mom, Dad I’m gay.” My mom turned around to me and just said, ‘Good son.’ I said, ‘Mom you aren’t mad?’ And she said, ‘What do you want to do about it, you’re my son,’” says Michael who goes on to talk about how supportive and liberal his family was.
These are just a few of the stories from just a few of the members we met at SAGE that day. And though the pain of Orlando’s horrific events will never go away, I think of Pearl, her perseverance, her love, her fight, her positivity, and her hug. I wrapped my arms around her and it was one of those embraces— so full of warmth and joy— you didn’t want to let go. We’ve been taught to learn from history and respect the ones that helped get us here, but now more than ever, let’s combine past and present. Let’s stand for a society that no longer alienates one another but rather loves. Because one day, maybe everyone will be lucky enough to be hugged by Pearl.