In 1994, Marvin Burrows and a few of his friends placed an ad in the newspaper inviting gay and lesbian seniors in the Bay Area to join Burrows and his friends for a meeting at the Bayfair Mall in San Leandro. They called themselves the “Lavender Seniors.”
“The thought was to have a social group that mixed gay men and lesbians, which is unusual in our time period,” Burrows said, “and to advocate for LGBT senior issues, to do things that were positive and to educate the public.” (The LGBT acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.)
On Saturday, members of Lavender Seniors, based in Oakland, gathered at the San Leandro Community Church—where it has been meeting the second Saturday of each month for the past 18 years—to celebrate its final potluck lunch at that facility. Next month, the group will move to another church down the street.
The 30 or so people gathered at the church filled their plates with salads and sandwiches, and sat around large round tables decorated with purple tablecloths. Some men and women walked from table to table, sharing hugs and updates about their lives.
Over the last 18 years, Lavender Seniors has met several times a month to offer training in areas like financial planning and legal advice. The organization hosts several support groups that meet regularly to discuss feelings and share resources.
On Saturday, the group began with several announcements of local events geared to LGBT activism, followed by a presentation from local insurance professional David Scharff called “What you need to know about longterm care insurance.”
Members of Lavender Seniors present at Saturday’s event ranged in age from their late 50’s to late 70’s and hailed from Oakland, Berkeley, Fremont, Hayward and other East Bay cities.
For the aging gay population, community groups like Lavender Seniors are essential in combating what the group’s director, Dan Ashbrook, said is the number one problem facing most LGBT seniors: isolation. “A lot of times, as we age, we don’t have families anymore,” Marvin Burrows said. “We don’t have children to take care of us.”
What they need is each other, Ashbrook said. “This group came together because of that, to address the isolation that most LGBT seniors face.”
But Lavender Seniors is more than just a forum for socializing, Ashbrook said. The group also works to educate social service providers, like healthcare providers and nursing homes, about the specific needs of LGBT elders. “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual older adults have higher rates of disability and mental distress than heterosexual older adults,” according to Caring and Aging with Pride, the first federally-funded survey of LGBT seniors conducted by the University of Washington.
Ashbrook says many seniors are also reluctant to share their sexual identity with healthcare providers or social service workers. Most of the older gay and lesbian population came of age during a time when, he said, “it was considered sick, sinful and criminal to be openly LGBT.”
While acceptance has improved since the group formed in the mid-90′s, Ashbrook said, “for the senior that has lived in that experience, the trust in the community changing their attitudes and beliefs is where the issue is.”
Burrows and his partner of 51 years, Bill Swenor, faced this type of discrimination when the couple considered moving into an assisted living facility ten years ago. “No one wanted to take us as a couple,” Burrows said. Though the facilities could not outright refuse the pair, they did refuse to let them stay in the same room, Burrows said.
Ashbrook said that even though Lavender Seniors does its best to help train staff at local facilities about sensitivity to LGBT elders, some seniors can still face discrimination from other seniors, patients or workers. “Just because you’re training that facility, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for someone in that facility to come out as who they are and establish a social network as an openly gay person,” he said.
Ashbrook said he would like to see more programs like Lavender Seniors, especially in parts of the country that are less accepting than the Bay Area. That, along with more federally-funded psychological and medical research on the nation’s aging LGBT population, could help expose more of the needs facing that group and point to solutions for those needs, he said.
For Burrows, whose partner passed away in 2005, talking with other people at events like Saturday’s potluck helps provide a much-needed sense of community that alleviates the loneliness that often comes to gay elders. “That’s the secret,” he said. “And that’s the reason that these events are so wonderful for us.”
For more information about Lavender Seniors’ many monthly events, check out their March events or contact them at (510) 667-9655.