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LGBT seniors face unique challenges in Sonoma County

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Special coverage: Sonoma Pride

There was the time the Napa draft board ordered Gary “Buz” Hermes, just turned 18, to register with police as a sex offender because he had told the truth: He was attracted to men.

Later, he left San Francisco after a bunch of kids ganged up and beat him with a BB-filled sock. That was 1967, the Summer of Love.

After moving to Mendocino, he lost his job with a nonprofit agency after a co-worker disclosed his sexual orientation to the board of directors. In the days between his outing and his termination, the local sheriff stopped by the home he shared with his partner, apparently to check out the situation. He had to relocate again.

Hermes, now a soft-spoken 77-year-old Sonoma resident, is glad he was never arrested. But he understands the residual wariness of many LGBTQI seniors — those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex — that prevents too many of them from seeking out the help they need as they age.

Despite new rights to marry and share benefits, LGBTQI elders came of age at a time of pervasive persecution, an era when they were widely considered sinners, criminals, mentally ill or legitimate targets for violence. They may find it harder than their younger counterparts to “live out loud,” as a result, scarred by decades in which survival meant keeping secrets.

Even those who took part in the movement for liberation and social justice launched in the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall protests may find they are less willing than they were to risk self-revelation, now that they are somewhat vulnerable and, perhaps, dependent on others.

“There’s this fear when you get older, and as an LGBTQI person, that you’re going to face homophobia again,” said J Mullineaux, founder of the Community Foundation Sonoma County’s 100-member LGBTQI Giving Circle. “These are the people, many of whom fought for years for civil rights and gay rights, and who may have been some of the first people to come out and be activist about it, and now they’re going back in the closet.”

A common consequence is that people who move to institutional settings, for instance, may limit their social, mental and physical well-being by hiding who they are to avoid real or perceived bias or moral judgment.

Mistrust and anxiety about revealing too much to health care, social service or other providers may interfere with adequate care or assistance, advocates say, contributing to the isolation that often also is a factor in their lives.

All kinds of complications can arise and have, advocates say, from clients or patients inadvertently being outed to family members who weren’t already in the know; confusion around family make-up and living situations; and inappropriate comments or questions that assume a given person is straight or gender-conforming.

“There are areas in which there is homophobia and transphobia,” said Nancy Flaxman, a Marin County-based consultant and trainer who has been doing work this year on behalf of the Sonoma County Human Service Department’s Adult and Aging Services Division. “But for the most part, it’s a lack of education.”

An estimated 2.7 million LGBTQI individuals 50 and older live in the United States, according to the LGBT+ National Aging Research Center. About 1.1 million are 65 and older.

Advocacy groups and researchers have raised alarms for a decade or more about specific problems confronting the growing population of LGBTQI elders, even in progressive regions like San Francisco and Sonoma County, which boasts Fountaingrove Lodge, the nation’s first LGBT retirement community.

Special coverage: Sonoma Pride

New studies of this group’s unique challenges reveal significant disparities in their emotional, financial and physical well-being, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.

Seniors in the LGBTQI population are at greater risk of physical disability, depression, a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and poor health, studies show. A significant portion live in poverty but may be reluctant to seek assistance or find out how. The range of challenges is often greater for those in low-income brackets and, particularly, for transgender individuals.

Social isolation — an issue for many seniors — is especially prevalent among people who traditionally have been denied the right to marry, who are less likely than heterosexuals to have partners or children, and who may have suffered rejection and estrangement from extended family, research shows. Though they may have had tight, supportive social circles at some point, there may come a point when it’s difficult to lean on one another, especially for those who can no longer drive or support themselves, experts said.

Even at senior centers, which exist to reduce isolation, LGBTQI elders trying to find community may feel uncomfortable amid people discussing their children and grandchildren, or the loss of longtime partners, Flaxman and others said.

Many seniors are so apprehensive about outing themselves to caregivers and resource agencies that they don’t ask for help, compromising their access to health care, social services, legal assistance and financial aid.

The challenges are all the greater because providing for elders so often requires crossing the normal lines of privacy through probing questions, intimate contact and scrutiny of everything from daily activities to finances, said Diane Kaljian, director of count Adult and Aging Services, which operates programs to improve the safety, independence and health of older residents.

“It’s really hard to be a senior who needs help, and if there’s an additional barrier — whether it’s a language barrier or a cultural barrier or a privacy issue — it’s really so hard to ask for help as a vulnerable senior,” Kaljian said.

But efforts are underway to address those problems, locally and nationally. Advocates are working to raise cultural awareness among service providers and to create opportunities for seniors to connect with each other and learn how to find help with confidence.

A key target of the movement is impressing upon medical, social service providers and other caregivers how much trust and confidence can come from being open about gender and sexual diversity, in part by refraining from making assumptions that someone may be straight or gender conforming and asking questions that leave room for people to be upfront about who they are.

LGBTQI elders also are often invisible to the general public, Flaxman said. If people think about sexual or gender identity at all, they are more likely to view it through the lens of young people and their challenges rather than grandparents trying to negotiate inter-generational family dynamics.

But doors can be opened by displaying something as simple as a rainbow pride flag, a written mission statement openly welcoming diverse clients, a readiness to ask new clients what pronouns they prefer or even reminding them information they provide is confidential, Flaxman said.

One consequence of the local discussion is a new LGBTQI section in the Adult and Aging Services’ online Senior Resource Guide, soon to be available in print, Kaljian said, part of a recent initiative to improve outreach.

At the Sebastopol Area Senior Center, Executive Director Terry Kelley said his agency serves all people but recognized the LGBTQI population was under-represented among their clients. In 2010 the center developed strategic planning goals to address that community’s needs. It has since hosted or sponsored several dances, an estate planning seminar and another session on understanding Social Security benefits for same-sex couples. It also screened “Gen Silent,” a documentary film about the challenges faced by aging LGBTQI individuals.

Using a grant from the Community Foundations LGBTQI Giving Circle this year, the county’s Adult and Aging Division also has hosted a series of four eight-week sessions in communities around Sonoma County.

The last “Aging Together With Pride” series starts June 4 in Petaluma and will continue Saturdays through July 30.

Hermes leads a monthly Sonoma Valley Seniors Group and helps participants reflect, understand available resources, develop individual strengths and build supportive connections.

“We all share having gone through that period of being considered ‘other,’” Hermes said. “It’s often called ‘minority stress.’ (But) it makes you more resilient and stronger in some ways. It’s made those of us who’ve been through that better able to cope with some of the aging challenges and be creative.”

Training sessions led by Flaxman at Aging and Adult Services, the Sonoma County Council on Aging and the Petaluma People Services Center, which serves low-income and other seniors, also could enhance the experience of LGBTQI seniors.

“I think sometimes what happens is people don’t know what they don’t know,” she said. “Look, we have a Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. We’ve made these great strides.

“So it would be normal for people to think, ‘Well, that’s behind us,’” she said. “But is racism behind us?”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed information about some of the challenges facing seniors.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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