of color speak out
by Heather Cassell
LGBT seniors of color and their allies filled the Audre Lorde room at the Women's Building in San Francisco last week for a unique discussion about aging and remaining part of the community.
The discussion, "Setting the Agenda: Issues Facing LGBTQ Elders of Color," was attended by an estimated 70 LGBT seniors of color, advocates, and elected officials.
LGBT elected officials and community leaders' goals for the July 26 meeting were twofold. First, it was to continue getting the word out to San Francisco's LGBT elders about the LGBT Senior Task Force and to ensure diversity in the selection process for members. Second, was to get community input on issues for the task force to investigate.
The ordinance creating task force was spearheaded gay Supervisor Scott Wiener and supported by out Supervisors David Campos and Christina Olague. It was passed by the Board of Supervisors on June 5 and recently signed into law by Mayor Ed Lee.
The supervisors' rules committee, which will make recommendations for the 15-member task force to the full board, has tentatively set a meeting for September 6 at 1:30 p.m. Applications are due to the Board of Supervisors August 27, said Wiener.
Tom Nolan, 67, former executive director of Project Open Hand who has been working part-time for the Department of Aging and Adult Services, has been tapped to facilitate the task force.
Concurrently, Nolan hopes a survey about LGBT seniors will get under way within the next month. Private funds to match the $30,000 set aside by the city must first be raised, he said.
The task force is expected to deliver its recommendations to the supervisors at the end of its 18-month term.
Community members will have the opportunity to continue shaping the report during the process through joining an advisory committee or attending public hearings and meetings, elected officials and community leaders said.
"Our community is surviving and thriving and it is diverse. That is a positive thing, but we have to plan for the future with our aging LGBT population," said Wiener at last week's meeting.
Olague added that it is "critical" for LGBT individuals "to be able to age in San Francisco because for us it is a sense of community and a certain acceptance that we really don't have in other areas of the state or the country. So many of us feel a need to be here because it is where we are able to be who we are politically, personally, in every which way."
The discussion, moderated by San Francisco Human Rights Commission staffers David Miree and Zoe Polk and also sponsored by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, awoke a sense of hope among LGBT seniors of color. Many expressed throughout the two-hour meeting that they felt they finally had the ears of elected officials and community leaders.
"It's wonderful because, especially with the supervisor there, we can do something about it," said Dion Wong, 68, a gay man. Wong is taking a year off from leading the GAPA 35-plus group that he has coordinated for 10 years.
"This is the first time I felt like I wanted to voice certain things and that somebody might be listening," Bill, a 59-year old gay African American man who only wanted his first name used, told the Bay Area Reporter.
Larry Saxxon, a gay African American social worker, attended the meeting because many of his peers are "reaching an age where we are in need ourselves."
He expressed concern over the lack of visibility of elders in the LGBT community and the lack of intergenerational communication.
"We [he and his partner of 32 years] go out to the Castro now and we feel like strangers in a strange land. I feel like a dinosaur in my own community. There used to be the days when I couldn't wait to be a silver fox."
Yet, he was encouraged by the possibility to change past patterns of disappointment, discrimination, and oppression working with gay white male leadership in the community.
"I am making a major leap of faith that the traditional gay white male community is willing to hear this. I prefer to take the higher road rather than be bitter," said Saxxon, who added that he hopes to have a "more powerful voice at the table."
Variety of experiences
LGBT seniors of color talked about their experiences from access to health care to housing and social services to making rental properties accessible so seniors could age in their homes.
They also talked about issues of cultural sensitivity – non-American born and American-born communities – and language barriers, including how language is used, not always identifying as LGBT, and having translators with knowledge of medical terminology for monolingual communities.
Seniors expressed concern for fellow LGBTs who suffered from internalized homophobia and discrimination in faith communities. They voiced the need for training children of LGBT parents to advocate for their parents, as well as elder care workers during each point of care. They spoke about experiences of discrimination – age, employment, gender, identity, race, religion, sexual orientation – and being tokenized and forced to choose their identity when accessing services.
They also talked about the erasure of their communities from census forms and reports developed by the government and other organizations.
Answers to problems
But meeting participants didn't only come with complaints; many also came with potential solutions to the problems they face.
In spite of the good attendance at the meeting, some lesbian and transgender attendees noted that other members of their community who should have been present were absent. LGBT seniors and advocates encouraged those at the meeting to spread the word to get people to apply to the task force and encouraged the elected officials and others to continue doing more outreach by hosting town hall meetings.
Others suggested having people who are regularly accessible and available and who are connected with the task force within each of the communities. Marty Martinson requested that the supervisors be flexible with their outreach and selection for the task force "until we can get the appropriate diversity."
"This is so important," said Maya Rupert, NCLR federal policy director. She felt so strongly about the discussion that she rearranged her schedule to fly out from Washington, D.C. to attend the meeting. "This is the beginning of this conversation. We are making sure that this task force is dedicated to the needs of LGBT elders, not just inclusive of, but at the very stage being built with the concerns of LGBT people of color at the forefront."
Michelle Alcedo, a queer women of color who is director of programs for Openhouse, added, "There were just so many profound and eloquent speakers today. It was thrilling for me to be here to see what is happening in our community."
Rupert, a 31-year-old African American straight ally, believes that the meeting was the first step in a process that will build over time.
To apply to be on the LGBT Senior Task Force, complete an application ( http://www.sfbos.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=19462) and submit it to the Board of Supervisors by August 27. For more information about the application process, visit http://www.sfbos.org/index.aspx?page=3135.