When the Long Island GLBT Community Center in Bay Shore recently hosted a town-hall meeting on marriage equality after the measure's defeat in the New York State Senate, the room was packed to overflowing. And sitting upfront, filling many of the seats, were older members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
Two years after the Long Island chapter of SAGE (which now stands for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) was formed at the center to address the social needs of older GLBT individuals, some of its members are feeling empowered and are gearing up to become advocates for issues important to their community.
Experts estimate that 10 percent to 20 percent of Long Islanders are part of the GLBT community, or question their sexual identity.
"I think it was very important," said Ellen Davis, 64, of Amity Harbor, a retired recreation therapist, referring to marriage equality. "It's just defining who you are as a human, as a citizen, that we want the same rights as everyone." Davis, who first came to the center as a volunteer docent for a Holocaust exhibit, has signed up for advocacy training being offered through a grant.
Across Long Island, groups are reaching out to address the concerns of the 50-plus GLBT community, some by providing forums where they can feel safe and comfortable.
"It's the commonality, the shared experiences, the fact that I don't have to explain myself," Davis said at a Monday Mingle session of SAGE-LI (631-665-2300). "If I go to the local community senior center, it's 'Oh you've never been married?' It's more accepting here."
Richard, a retired teacher from Commack who didn't want his last name used, said, "I come every week and for special events." Once married, Richard has two daughters and two grandchildren. "I'm increasing my circle of friends, because, at my age, my friends are leaving in one way or another. They're either going South, or they're going south," he said, pointing to the ground.
Now, SAGE-LI is moving beyond the social experience. "We are one of five SAGE programs in the country to receive a constituent advocacy grant to train seniors on advocacy tools," said David Kilmnick, chief executive officer of the Long Island Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Services Network, which includes the Center, SAGE-LI and LIGALY for youths ages 13-21. The $20,000 grant will be used to send seniors to the Constituent Advocacy Conference for GLBT older adults from around the country, sponsored by SAGE-USA in New York, where they will share information and ideas and learn advocacy and civic engagement skills.
"A couple of the seniors are going to training. They will come back here and provide the same training to the rest of our seniors. They will then go to the Suffolk and Nassau legislatures to talk about LGBT issues."
Klimnick said, "We're ready, after two years of people coming here, to take this show on the road across the Island, to make sure that from Mineola to Montauk, LGBT seniors, no matter where they live on the Island, can feel a sense of community, can feel a sense of belonging."
On eastern Long Island, the North Fork Women for Women Fund (NFWFWF) www.nfwfwf .org, 631-477-8464, has secured a grant to study the needs of lesbians aging in place. They have hired a project coordinator and are looking to contact every lesbian in Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island towns. "Our objective is to reach every lesbian on the North Fork to get her to participate in this survey so that we can really begin to look at what are the special needs of our community as we age," said Sandra Benedetto, 55, of Greenport, president of the North Fork agency's board.
Many of the community's issues are identical to those faced by the larger aging population on Long Island - isolation, lack of transportation, access to health care. But, unlike couples who can legally marry, when one member of a long-term gay relationship dies, the surviving partner cannot collect Social Security benefits. "There are a lot of financial issues involved when you're alone after being with a partner for 30-40 years," Benedetto said. "In parallel, a lot of what we may find may be applicable to gay men and applicable to the general population in a more rural
Robin Imandt, 58, of East Marion, the project manager for the survey, said, "Some of those things we may find will be similar to heterosexual women who never married. They don't have children, who would be the presumptive caregivers as we age. . . . People who never had children have to look elsewhere and reach out, and we plan to address those issues."
Another group that targets older lesbians is GOLD - Great Older Lesbian Discussions - (golddiscussions .com/index.html, 516-501-1501), which meets at the GLBT Community Center and provides a welcoming, safe place for gay women to gather and share their feelings on issues relating to themselves and to their community.
"I think a lot of the older lesbians were cloistered and really didn't have a lot of socialization," said Bonnie Cody, 66, of Farmingdale, president and a founder of the group. "A lot of them have come out of their shells . . . They're getting to meet a lot more new people who have a similar vision of life, and
sometimes that's good."
GOLD began as an alternative to the bar scene for mature lesbians, giving them a chance to meet and have discussions with others their own age. The group has evolved to the point where many of the participants now get together for social events, Cody said
While some SAGE-LI members are ready to take on the role of advocates, the group is still a strong social outlet for many of the participants.
"I was looking to make new friends to hang out with," said Louie Lisi, 83, of Oakdale, who was married for 47 years and has five children and eight grandchildren. "I didn't have many friends. Most of the friends I had were married friends. Here, if I talk about Myrna Loy or William Powell, they don't say, 'Who's Myrna Loy?' "
"There's so little going on in the older gay and lesbian community in terms of healthy activities," said Ken A., 67, of Holbrook, a retired educator who was married for more than 28 years and has two daughters, two grandchildren and three cats. "I run a dinner group called Dinner Anyone which has had about 170 events since 2003," said Ken, who asked that his last name not be used. "Groups get together for dinners and house parties, mostly in restaurants, some catered Christmas parties. It's an opportunity for socialization and, until SAGE came along, it was really the only one where most people could attend."
When John Didonna, 79, of Hauppauge, a retired mechanic, lost his partner of 52 years, he felt isolated and alone until he attended a SAGE meeting. "I needed someplace to go," he said. "I've found 32 new friends since I started coming here."