01 March 2012

Why the SAGE Innovative Center Is Necessary

Today, the SAGE Innovative Center opened in Chelsea.

What is SAGE?  And what's so innovative about the center?

First, the organization:  Straight And LGBT Elders began as  Straight And Gay Elders more than three decades ago.  It was probably the first, and is still one of the few, organizations to cater to the needs of LGBT senior citizens.

So it makes sense (At least, I think it does) that SAGE would open a senior center.   But what, you might wonder, is different about an LGBT senior center?

Well, one of the harshest truths about the LGBT community is that many of us don't have anyone to take care of us--in fact, many of us don't have anybody at all--when we get old.   

There are many reasons for that.  One obvious one is that most of us haven't had children.  Corollary to that is the fact that, until a few years ago, there were no legally-sanctioned same-sex marriages.  This meant that those who lived as committed partners of other members of their own gender didn't have the same legal rights--including those of custody and visitation--that the spouses of heterosexuals enjoyed.  I recall a man I met who was dying of AIDS-related and whose partner of more than two decades couldn't visit him, much less be involved in any decisions about his medical care or estate.  Those rights were held by family members who cut off contact with him after he "came out" during his freshman year in college nearly four decades earlier.

Before and since meeting him, I have talked to other LGBT people who lost contact with their families in a similar fashion.  As an example, Charles King, one of the founders of Housing Works, told me that no relative of his has been in contact with him since he "came out" when he was twenty years old.  He's a few years older than I am.

The fact that they have experienced family life differently from most straight people also affects such things as the ways they deal with the deaths of loved ones.  Although same-sex marriage is now legal in eight US states and the District of Columbia (as well as several nations, including Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain), there is still not the same public support for a gay person grieving the loss of his or her partner as there is for someone who's lost an "opposite"-sex spouse.  Plus, many in the LGBT community have lost their partners--as well as friends and other members of their support networks--to the ravages of HIV/AIDS, as well as to violent crimes.  

I mean no disrespect to anyone who's lost a spouse or other loved one to cancer or any other illness, or to tragedies like the events of 9/11, when I say that LGBT people who've lost partners to HIV/AIDS or hate-fueled violence have, in some ways, a more difficult passage because of the lack of societal support I mentioned as well as the relative scarcity of counselors and other professionals who are trained to help them deal with their circumstances.  As someone who's lost people to HIV/AIDS-related illness, hate-fueled violence (and suicide) as well as pure and simple old age, I can tell you that the last one, while not simple or easy, is somewhat easier  because the deaths of older people are expected, and there are  more bereavement counseling and other kinds of support available for those who have lost parents or other elders, or heterosexual partners, than for those who might be assumed to be straight.

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