When Raymond Koehler moved to Kelowna in 2009 he longed for meaningful connections with other LGBT people but found that existing services and supports for gay men failed to address the unique needs of senior gay men.
“I wanted to connect with the community and what I found was there was nothing geared to my interests,” he explains. “You either went with the all-night disco or you stayed home. Some older men have arthritis and may not enjoy dancing, and other men like to talk to people but can’t hear themselves think over the loud drumbeats.”
In 2013 Koehler, already a community activist involved with organizing Okanagan Pride, helped launch Senior Gay Men in Kelowna (SGMIK), a support group for senior gay men living in the Interior.
The organization, which now has over 200 members, celebrated its second anniversary at Kelowna’s 2015 Pride celebrations on Aug 15.
“In the Central Okanagan we know statistically that there are approximately 2,000 older gay guys and a lot of them are doing just fine, thanks,” says Koehler, who is the coordinator and spokesperson for SGMIK. “What we are particularly concerned about in that demographic is a high instance of isolation.
Koehler notes that older gay men grew up in a time when homosexuality was considered a criminal offence and a mental illness. These men, he says, then survived the AIDS pandemic and in some cases the loss of both birth families and families of choice.
“Like a war, they suffered wave upon wave of death and loss that swept through all of the community, with so much suffering and loss just compounding itself,” he says. “But it can be worse in the gay community where older fellows are thought of as trolls, dirty old men, and any of those pejorative terms you want to throw out there.”
Summerland resident Bob Parkhurst describes SGMIK as an inclusive and supportive group.
“I’ve made some very good friends in the gay community, which is something I didn’t have before,” he says. “At Senior Gay Men in Kelowna they go around the table and make sure everyone has an opportunity to say something, which is a lot unlike other gay events in the Interior where you can sit by yourself all evening and nobody will talk to you.”
Koehler says that many SGMIK participants came together as a result of a focus group conducted by researcher Robert Ablenas, who interviewed older gay men in Kelowna, Prince George, Vancouver and Victoria in 2013.
His study corroborated existing research that showed gay men over the age of 60 face more challenges to developing and sustaining social support networks.
Ablenas says he is excited about SGMIK’s progress over the past two years.
“It’s great that they’ve inadvertently ended up as an organized group with fluid boundaries,” he says. “They seem to be doing all the right things from the perspective of certain needs that are experienced by senior gay guys and younger gay guys.
“It’s important to feel a sense of belonging,” Ablenas says. “They are going beyond their immediate peers, gay guys, and actually just going beyond that particular boundary into the wider community.”
Koehler says SGMIK seeks to address gaps in service though social interactions, community integration and information sharing through biweekly gatherings, telephone networking, and partnering with other community organizations such as the Central Okanagan Community Food Bank.
“We want our guys to get engaged in the community,” he says. “One of the projects we have available to them is they can volunteer if they want for the local food bank, and that’s working really well because we have some very committed volunteers who go in and help food bank prepare hampers that provide food for about a week. “
In addition to that partnership, SGMIK has also developed a growing list of allies in community organizations, counselling services and senior service organisations.