By Ed Sedarbaum
It may be hard for Americans to believe, now that the Supreme Court has validated same-sex marriage and so much progress has been made on civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, but there are still people living under the yoke of secrecy and even shame because of the near-unanimous homophobia under which they came of age. LGBT people born before the mid-1950s grew up without hearing a positive, or even sympathetic, word about homosexuality, let alone bisexuality or the transgender experience. Throughout that period society said they were either sick, criminal, or sinners—sometimes all three. If they had the strength and good fortune to visit a gay bar, the best they heard from their peers was that, yes, we’re sick, and we are risking arrest, but at least we can have a good time in each other’s company.
More often, many of them exhausted their mental energy keeping their “condition” a secret from everyone. This was not a foolish decision, given that honesty meant risking being thrown out of their homes, disinherited, imprisoned, shunned by religious organizations and family, institutionalized, and, potentially, being robbed, beaten, and killed. The impact of this treatment on those who grew old enough to be today’s senior citizens means that many of them, so practiced in concealment, still feel too unsafe even to walk into a social worker’s office to ask for help with something as simple as a government form, even if it is totally unrelated to their secret “condition.” Believe it or not, they see social workers, medical professionals, police and other potential sources of service, as authority figures capable of wrecking their lives should they ever be found out.
The effect on those seniors today is often some level of isolation from their community. LGBT seniors need places to gather where they feel safe to be themselves. They need information and referrals from someone they know they can safely talk to. And as their friends and lovers die or lose their capacities, they need a way to expand their circles of informal support. That is why I have organized a new organization, Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County, a program serving LGBT seniors and their allies who live in Berkshire County and need activities and services in safe and secure spaces where everyone’s privacy will be respected. At mainstream senior centers, reminiscence is an important activity for helping older people feel their life is worth living. Imagine, then, the impact on the closeted seniors who listen to those conversations convinced that they dare not talk about their own lives. They need information and referrals from someone they know they can safely talk to, and a way to expand their circles of informal support.
Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County has the support of every Council on Aging director who has been approached, and they are eager to help us spread the word to all LGBT seniors, whether they identify publicly or not. Elder Services of Berkshire County is supporting the program enthusiastically, as does the county’s entire legislative delegation, the mayors of both Berkshire cities, and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. At our first meeting, in September at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown, everyone was eager to see the organization become a reality. More important, people were not shy about what they thought the group should do and be. And being sensible grown-ups, they made sure our reach won’t exceed our grasp so that we can grow in a considered way. I love it when a group just takes over from the facilitator that way. The self-determination demanded at our first meeting was made real at our second, in October, when two of our members performed a 10-minute comedy, That Thing, which led perfectly into a member-facilitated discussion on “Keeping Relationships Alive.” And of course we had a delicious potluck meal, a regular feature of our meetings.
As the number of participating seniors grows, we will learn from them what they feel they need or want out of such a program. And so we begin. If you want to know more about Rainbow Seniors of Berkshire County, visit our website at www.rainbowseniors.org, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, call Ed at 413-441-6006, or just show up for our meetings at noon on the third Tuesday of each month.
Ed Sedarbaum, 69, has decades of experience as a community organizer, including founding SAGE/Queens, an OGBT senior center in New York City in 1995. Ed lives in Williamstown with his husband, cartoonist Howard Cruse.