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Gays and aging: Halsted center serves surging population of gay seniors

Halsted center tailors programs to aging clientele

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Gays and aging: Halsted center serves surging population of gay seniors

Windows on the second floor of the Center on Halsted frame an ever-changing portrait of gay life in 2009: Same-sex couples walk hand in hand; cross-dressing young men strut with confidence; rainbow banners herald a neighborhood that embraces gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of any age.

Behind those windows every Tuesday sit Chicagoans in their 60s, 70s and 80s, many on the tailing arcs of lives spent denying their true sexual identity. Women and men who married opposite-sex partners, had children and only late in life felt comfortable telling the world that they’re lesbian or gay. Men and women who chose solitary lives over the possibility of being outed.

They’re a population celebrating still relatively newfound openness, while also confronting issues that rarely appear on the radar of a youthful gay-rights movement focused on the right to marry.

Some have only recently come out and are trying to find their way in a new community. Some have been out for years but are now in nursing homes where their sexuality has again become a stigma.

They find comfort, advice and solidarity each week at the GLBT community center on Halsted Avenue. On the last Sunday in June, many will gather to watch the annual gay pride parade pass by, marking a loud celebration of a lifestyle many long denied.

“I knew this program was here,” said Sandi Simmons, 60. “I kept telling myself, ‘I should go over there, I should go over there.’ About a year ago, I finally did, and it’s been wonderful. This is my community, and I can be here and not have to keep asking myself, ‘Should I be so open? Can I be open?’ ”

The seniors program – called Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, or SAGE – offers everything from a free lunch to counseling to yoga classes and discussion groups. Serena Worthington, director of the SAGE program, estimates that Chicago is home to more than 40,000 GLBT people older than 55.

Conservative estimates point to a national GLBT senior citizen population of 3 million, expected to grow to at least 4 million within the next decade.

“The numbers are probably higher than the estimates,” Worthington said. “They’re hard to measure because they may or may not be out, and they may not answer direct questions honestly. But there’s definitely a gay aging boom happening.”

Such seniors have particular needs, especially those born well before the Stonewall riots of 1969, when gays and lesbians in New York City stood up to repeated police persecution and launched the gay civil rights movement.

“The pre-Stonewall generation has a much more complicated view of life, in many cases,” Worthington said. “Some are still afraid of being outed. In the past they’ve been afraid about losing their housing, their jobs. They lived through a time when it was illegal to be gay, when all religious organizations said it’s immoral to be gay, when the psychiatric associations were saying there’s something wrong with you.”

Shelton Key came out when he was 73. Now 88, it was only through the help of Chicago Prime Timers – a social group for older gay men that has been around since 1977 – and the program at the Center on Halsted that he was able to transition from decades of keeping his true self locked down.

“There’s no way I could’ve come out in those days,” said Key, who was married for 30 years, had two sons and felt comfortable exploring his sexuality only after his wife died. “It was sort of a conscious decision to live a straight life. And it was smart, and I did it well.”

A majority of the people who come to the weekly SAGE meetings are men, though Worthington said the number of women in the program continues to grow. Vernita Gray, 60, a SAGE board member who has been out since she was 20, said women often have social structures in place that many men – particularly those who come out late in life – lack.

“Lesbians are just more likely to get together and hang out,” Gray said. “Women tend to be more involved with their friends. But the core issues men and women in the GLBT community face are the same.”

There are other organizations and services for GLBT seniors in and around the city, but having a senior center such as the one on Halsted – with wide-open windows on the world, made to represent an unwillingness to hide – is something few thought they’d ever see.

For Marsha Markko, 59, a visit to the center is a focal point of the week.

“I feel like I belong,” she said. “It’s a place I can come to and feel relaxed, be around people who face issues that I face and can talk about them. I feel comfortable. And I think any senior deserves that.”

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