By Jean Lotus
They were the first generation out of the closet, recognizing their sexual orientation when homosexuality was still illegal in many states, when it was still classified as a mental illness by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II).
LGBT seniors, ages 55-and-up, were a vanguard generation, who forged close family-like friends in the 1970s and 80s, only to lose many of them to the AIDS epidemic.
Today, they face the same issues as any seniors — baby boomers and up — but also have issues that are unique to them. Who will care for them if they don't have children? How will a partner have a say in health decisions? What will happen to them in a nursing home?
"Sometimes there is a distrust of mainstream service providers," said Eric Vironet, social worker for Forest Park's West Suburban Senior Services.
A year ago, Vironet proposed an informal social group for LGBT seniors at WSSS. But at first, the health organizations that support the group didn't really believe there would be any interest in the near-west suburbs.
"There was skepticism that there were any LGBT seniors in the area at all," said Vironet. "We had to prove there were seniors who might benefit from the resources."
It's been around since last July and the group now draws around 25 seniors weekly. They come from Oak Park, Cicero, Forest Park, Brookfield, Berwyn, Chicago, Darien and even Clarendon Hills. On Mondays they gather for a crafting club. There's a Friday lunch and social hour and monthly movie nights. There are plans for a game night and ballroom dancing classes. The group started small, building from a weekly social gathering at Holy Covenant Metropolitan Community Church in Brookfield and another informal group in LaGrange.
"There was camaraderie at Holy Covenant and a safe space," said participant Anne- Marie.
In Chicago, the Center on Halsted offers activities for seniors through a national organization called SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders). But participants in Forest Park say Boystown can be a long way away when you're older and the larger groups can be "cliquey." Vironet has applied to affiliate the group with SAGE, which is pending.
So far, around 60 LGBT seniors have dropped in for activities in the past year, said Vironet.
The Friday lunches are the most successful events held by the group. For three hours, participants relax, eat and take turns chatting about their week.
"It's not a therapy group," insists participant Bob. Even so, there is an atmosphere of confidentiality and an agreement that, "what's said here stays here."
Vironet sometimes invites guest speakers to give talks on topics such as Alzheimer's, legal issues, living wills, medical directives, power-of-attorney and resources for seniors.
"We look out for each other, mentally," said David. "If we see someone slipping we let them know."
Vironet is also arranging care-giver sensitivity training for nursing homes and senior care providers.
Participants say they often don't feel comfortable at other senior-related events, such as bingo, pinochle groups and senior travel excursions offered by the Forest Park Community Center.
"Feeling safe is a big issue," said Joni.
"I don't like the idea of being a single man surrounded by women who, if they find out you were gay would think they could change you," laughed David. "We have a real comfort zone here."
The comfort and family-atmosphere is evident in the monthly birthday potlucks held the last Friday of the month. Partners Bob and Lance from Cicero brought a homemade golden butter cake.
But on the serious side, many participants say they worry about growing older, many without children or family to look out for them.
A large fear is spending final days in a nursing home that is not LGBT-sensitive.
"You have to go back into the closet," said David. "And if you have a partner, they don't necessarily have a say in your care."
"I would like to see a LGBT-affirming nursing home," he said. The concept exists in California and there's talk in the beginning stages of a possible gay senior housing project in Berwyn.
"I don't want to be back with the people who bullied me all my life. I'd like to be at a place where they kick the bullies out instead of the gay person out."
Anne-Marie spoke of the 1970s and a furtive phone call to a "Gay Horizons" hotline 40 years ago, and the group marveled about how things have changed.
"When we were growing up in Cicero there was pressure to get married, to carry on the family name and have children," said Bob. Some WSSS participants were formerly married and have children.
"Hopefully some of the pressure is off for younger people today that they don't have to endure an unhappy marriage," he added.