Among the usual lawn bowling and crafts activities listed for April 11 at a New Westminster seniors’ drop-in centre is an inaugural gathering that’s more common to high schools than seniors’ spaces.
The newly formed Senior Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) will hold its first meeting at Century House, a seniors’ centre run by New Westminster’s department of Parks, Culture and Recreation. After months of planning, organizers announced the group’s launch last month during a screening of Gen Silent, a documentary about seniors going back into the closet to avoid discrimination.
The movie played a key role in the Senior GSA’s creation. One of the group’s co-founders, Barbara Webster, who is a lesbian, saw the documentary when she attended the annual conference of the American Society on Aging. She and her straight peers were moved and sought to prevent the isolation and closeted living that many gay and lesbian seniors face.
The Vancouver region is an apt place for such a group, with its large gay population in a province with an older-than-average age demographic. About 15 percent of British Columbians are at least 65 years old, the highest percentage of the western provinces, according to Statistics Canada.
Alexandra Henriques, a community developer at Qmunity’s Generations Project, helped get the group started, with assistance from Century House, Family Services of Greater Vancouver and the Senior Services Society of New Westminster. This is the first GSA for seniors she’s heard of.
“They didn’t want it just for LGBT,” Henriques notes. “There were many allies. There were many straight seniors seeing the need and wanting to be involved.
“They saw the need, and they had the support around them,” she adds.
In addition to allowing allies to help, founding a gay-straight alliance also makes it easier for closeted seniors to participate, Webster says. She thinks of her own 86-year-old closeted gay cousin, who lives in California and often eats alone; he spent his last two Christmas holidays with no one.
“I see him being very isolated at this stage of life where his own health isn’t excellent,” she says. “It just seems such a shame. So I think of him and people like him when we’re trying to put something like this together, where hopefully we can give people in that kind of situation the opportunity — by calling it a gay-straight alliance — to be able to take that chance and come because they’re not being labelled anything by taking a chance and coming through the door.”
Century House ran notices in its newsletter that the group was forming. A few people joined the first planning session for the group. Now 13 people attend organizing meetings, and approximately 200 people attended the group’s launch/movie night. Organizers don’t know how many to expect for the GSA’s first meeting.
“What we wanted to have was an alliance so that people are integrated and come to learn about each other and accept each other and find out about one another and maybe open minds a bit and make new friends,” says co-founder Vance McFadyen.
McFadyen says he has seen firsthand why such a group is necessary to help gays and lesbians feel comfortable being out of the closet. As a resident care attendant at a hospital in Richmond in 1994/95, he saw gay and lesbian seniors treated by aides with nasty words and neglect.
“You hear things: ‘He’s just an old fag,'” McFadyen says. “You could just see a different level of treatment.”
The idea of the group is to “have seniors who are gay feel comfortable coming to this facility,” he says. McFadyen, who founded New Westminster’s Pride Society, knows of just three gay people who are out among the 1,800 seniors who regularly attend Century House.
Though such a group for seniors is groundbreaking, not one member of the centre has voiced opposition, McFayden says.
Heather Whiteford, project manager of Family Services of Greater Vancouver and a straight ally in the new GSA, says she remembers the courage of people coming out when she was younger. Though much progress has been made, there’s still more work to be done, she says.
“I think this is an opportunity for us to see that we can’t get complacent,” Whiteford says. “The community of New Westminster — both LGBT and allies — are coming together.”
The first meeting will take place Wednesday, April 11 from 1-2:30pm at Century House. “It’s open to anybody who has an interest,” Webster says.