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3 min

Age of seniority

'You don't have to work so hard to please people'

WEDDING BELLS. Diane Charter (left) with her partner of 35 years Arlene McTavish, on their wedding day in 2004. McTavish passed away last summer.

When I think of seniors, I think of people like my grandfather — in a nursing home, partially blind, deaf and in need of a walker. In writing this story, however, I’ve come across a group of vibrant and active older queer folk who were often too involved with life to make time to be interviewed. One was off to Costa Rica for a two-week holiday, some were busy with work, others had volunteer commitments and a couple were too caught up in their romance of the moment. I’m starting to look forward to getting older.

On Wed, Mar 8, Toronto’s Senior Pride Network is holding a full-day workshop entitled Opening The Closet On Aging, focussing on issues unique to queer and trans seniors including long-term care, health, home care, recreation and mental health.

Dick Moore, coordinator of the Older GLBT Program at the 519 Community Centre says the initial response to the workshop was “a wonderful success” but also caused a bit of a crisis. Available spaces filled up so quickly that many seniors didn’t get in at first — including members of the Senior Pride Network.

“Originally we thought ‘Let’s put people on a waiting list and consider it,'” says Moore. “Then we consulted and decided that we would hold the registrations in respect to services providers and students, and that we would open them up to all seniors and, hopefully, members of the Senior Pride Network.”

While under federal law senior status doesn’t kick in until age 65, Moore says that, in the gay men’s community especially, men often start feeling older at 40. The queer community, he claims, is geared toward the young and the beautiful and as sagging breasts and bellies develop, many people don’t feel that they fit in.

Richard Birney-Smith is a bisexual polyamourous man who is working hard to keep himself in shape. Recently 65 — he got his first federal pension cheques the day I spoke with him — Birney-Smith exercises regularly, watches his diet and takes supplements.

“I’m more worried about a Mack truck than health problems; my grandfather lived to be 91,” he says. “I know those three cheques [work pension, Canadian Pension Plan and Old Age Security] are coming in for the rest of my life and I plan to live to be 100. I’m no bargain for any of them.”

Birney-Smith is relieved by the financial security that the pension cheques will provide. He was thrown into disarray a few years ago when his lifetime employment as artistic director of the Te Deum Orchestra And Singers suddenly ended. He has since started up his own business — a daunting task at any age — and is working hard to keep afloat.

As one of the panelists at the Senior Pride Network’s forum, Birney-Smith hopes to explain the issues of older bisexuals, but more importantly to talk about the needs of older polyamourous people. He’s gradually being more open about his lifestyle, both to friends and family.

Diane Charter, also 65, says life gets more interesting when you get older. “You don’t have to work so hard to please people at this point,” she says. “Boy, they just take me as I am. I am very comfortable with myself, very out at work and it’s accepted.

Charter is recently widowed — her partner, Arlene McTavish, passed away last June after 35 years together.

“It was amazing,” she says. “You need that much time to get a relationship right. It was a lot of commitment; a lot of growing together and it was really amazing.”

Charter and McTavish had an official coming out party in 2000 as part of their 30th anniversary celebration; they were legally married in 2004. At that point McTavish, who had worked in the military and in policing, was retired and a little more prepared to come out than she had been before.

“It was the first time she felt comfortable to do it,” says Charter. “I forced the issue by spilling the beans to some friends and it got to the point of no return for her. She went kicking and screaming into the big world.”

Charter is currently looking forward to a gradual progression toward retirement. She works as the manager of communications for the Toronto Community Care Access Centre, but intends to cut back to four days a week as of June to make more time for volunteering and other activities.

When asked if she was going to be one of those retired people who is even busier than when they were working, she replies enthusiastically, “Oh, absolutely.”