Noelle Swan

Posts Tagged ‘LGBT’

Back in the Closet: “Gen Silent” Explores Challenges Facing Gay Seniors

In Civil Rights, Social Issues on June 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm

This article first was published by Spare Change News on June 1, 2012.

Photo courtesy of Stu Maddux Productions.

“Long ago we decided, to hell with hiding,” Sheri Barden told a small group gathered at the Fenway Community Health Center last month for a screening of the documentary film Gen Silent directed and produced by Stu Maddox.

The 78 year-old South End framer and her partner, Lois Johnson, have recently become public voices for LGBT elders, many of whom seem to have fallen silent.

When it comes time to seek assistive care, “they end up going back into the closet really hiding who they are and often times being very fearful of what would happen if someone found out,” says Scott French, program director for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders, or SAGE.

Gen Silent was first released at the Boston LGBT Film Festival in 2010 and has been screened across the country since in an effort to draw attention to issues facing LGBT elders. On Thursday June 14, the Cambridge GLBT Commission and Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services will be sponsoring a free screening at the Cambridge Public Library.

As Maddux lays out early on in his film, today’s LGBT seniors lived through the McCarthy era, when gays and other groups of Americans were blacklisted as Communists, coming of age at a time when being gay could be a ticket to a psychiatric facility. They saw the Stonewall riots of 1969 force gay rights onto the national stage for the first time. They survived the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and have seen six states legalize gay marriage.

In the 1960s, Barden and Johnson were active in the Daughters of Bilitis, the first American lesbian rights organization, and have been politically and socially active in the LGBT community ever since. They say their participation in the film was a natural progression for the work they have been doing to for the past 50 years.

However, they say that many who marched at their sides have retreated into the closet in their final years for fear of reprisal from hospital and nursing home staff.

In the film, they talk of their friend Bill, an openly gay man who became so fearful of being mistreated by nursing home staff for being gay that he cut himself off from all of his friends.

Later in a telephone interview, Barden elaborates on their relationship with Bill in decades past saying he had helped them find their house in the South End and had taken them under his wing.

“The funny thing is he was one of the founding members of a group called Prime Timers for older gay men” she said, still trying to wrap her head around the dramatic shift he had taken. “But when he had to go into the nursing home he got very fearful of people finding out and how he would be treated.”

Afraid of being found out, he refused visitors, letters, and phone calls from all of his friends and died alone, Barden says. “We didn’t even know he had died.”

Barden says that she suspects Bill’s fears were largely unfounded but adds that whether the threat is perceived or validated, such fears can become paralyzing.

Such threats can come in many forms, from whispers and verbal insults from other patients to neglect and physical abuse from caregivers. In states that have not legalized gay marriage, partners may be barred from visiting each other in the hospital and excluded from the decision making process.

French says that in his work at SAGE in New York, he comes across individuals who refuse to enter into assistive care for fear of losing contact with their partners.

Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage and partners are afforded visitation rights.

For Gen Silent, Maddux says in an interview that he chose to focus on individuals living in Massachusetts, in part to demonstrate that equality in policy does not necessarily translate to equality in practice.

When Maddux interviewed KrysAnne Hembrough, a male-to-female transgendered woman, she was already suffering from Stage IV lung cancer. Her family had stopped speaking to her when she underwent her gender transition after living more than 50 years as a man, she told the camera. Single and alone, she was managing but already fearing what would happen when she could no longer care for herself.

In the film, she tells the story of what happened the night her lung collapsed and she was rushed to the hospital. The 911 recording reveals the EMTs awkwardly asking each other about her genitalia. Frightened and alone, she wondered if they would be afraid to touch her.

The film also features Lawrence Johnson, who recalls watching his partner, Alexander (Alexander elected not use his last name publicly), a strong and confident man 20 years his senior, descend into fear as Parkinson’s disease claimed more and more of his faculties.

Johnson retired early and attempted to care for Alexander in their home. As therapists began to visit to assist with Alexander’s care, he demanded that Johnson make the home look “as straight as possible.”

As Alexander’s disease progressed, it became unsafe for him to stay at home with Johnson. After an incident in which the two nearly fell down the stairs, Johnson reluctantly brought Alexander to a nursing home.

Johnson says he noticed whispers right away and feared that Alexander was being abused. He spent months searching for a nursing home where he and Alexander could feel comfortable together, where he could kiss him hello and goodbye, rub lotion on his hands, or rest his head on his shoulder.

Creating a welcoming environment takes more than passing a law, says Lisa Krinsky, director of The LGBT Aging Project in Jamaica Plain. Founded in 2001, The LGBT Aging Project works with health care and assisted living providers to create more welcoming environments for LGBT seniors.

Krinsky spends time initially talking with the senior management at facilities throughout Massachusetts, pushing for an organization-wide commitment to acceptance of diversity.

Krinsky says many hospital administrators say they “would be” accepting of any LGBT individuals that sought them out for care. But she insists that it is the responsibility of the provider to open the door and convey that message.

With senior management on board, Krinsky leads workshops for employees. She offers them language to communicate with patients about their orientation.

She stresses that accepting diversity does not have to mean accepting values. Instead, she reminds participants that the responsibility of the caregiver is to provide compassionate and consistent care to patients regardless of their beliefs.

Creating a tolerant space takes work on the part of the caregivers to not only provide an equal standard of care for all patients but also to communicate to staff, patients, and visitors that tolerance and diversity are expected and accepted values of the program, Krinsky says.

While some organizations place a rainbow sticker in a conspicuous place as a symbol of tolerance, Krinsky challenges institutions to do more and cautions prospective patients, families, and friends that a sticker does not mean all staff and residents will be welcoming.

She urges families looking for accepting care for LGBT seniors, or care for seniors with LGBT family members and friends, to spend time visiting each facility in person and talking with staff and residents.

She recommends looking around the facility for other signs of diversity. Are there events posted on the bulletin board for LGBT groups? Is Bay Windows, a free Boston LGBT newspaper, available with other community bulletins? Are there welcoming statements posted?

Further, Krinsky advises families to ask directly if there are any LGBT residents already in the program and to speak with them directly.

NOELLE SWAN is a writer and editor at Spare Change News.

No Direction Home: When Coming Out Means Kicked Out

In Civil Rights, Poverty, Social Issues on March 21, 2012 at 9:05 am

This article first appeared in print in Spare Change News on Friday, March 9, 2012 and online at on the same day.

Diamond McMillion mugs for the camera at a Harvard Square cafe before heading to work in the kitchen at
Youth on Fire.

At 16 years old, Diamond McMillion was too young to check into a shelter. As a lesbian, she felt unwelcome at home and frequently slept in an elevator shaft with three friends.

“We would ring every buzzer in the building until somebody got tired of listening to it ringing and would let us in. We’d disconnect the elevator for the night and reconnect it before we left in the morning,” said McMillion.

Echoes of McMillion’s story can be heard across the country. Kids rejected by their family for their sexual orientation and turned out into the street are left to fend for themselves.

Sassafras Lowrey was kicked out of her home at 17 while she was in her senior year of high school in rural Oregon. Her mother pled guilty to assaulting her for coming out of the closet. At the time, she says that she felt isolated and alone. Ten years later, she published Kicked Out—a compilation of stories told by current and past lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) homeless youth. She believes this is a national epidemic.

“It’s happening in every community, every urban center, every suburban neighborhood, every small town,” said Lowrey.

A recent study from Children’s Hospital Boston published online by the American Journal of Public Health reports that 1 in 4 gay and lesbian and high school students are homeless, compared with just 3 percent of heterosexual teens.

In general, young people have few options if they are unable to stay at home. Other than going through a lengthy emancipation process in the courts, young people under the age of 18 are expected to be in the care of adult family members or the foster care system.

“At the age of 16 in Massachusetts, you can consent to sex, you can emancipate yourself, you can drop out of high school, but you can’t check into a shelter,” McMillion said. “The only thing you can do is latch onto an older person, who may or may not take advantage of you.”

For McMillion and many others in similar situations, her 18th birthday did not come with a place to belong.

Ayala Livny, director of Youth on Fire, a drop-in center in Cambridge for young people experiencing homelessness, stated that although anyone over 18 can stay in a shelter, young people are not safe in this environment and become easy targets. “Young people in general don’t really go into the shelters,” Livny. “They stay outside. They couch surf. They try to blend in and find creative ways of housing themselves. That’s even more true for our queer identified youth.”

Quianna Sarjeant, a member of Youth on Fire, addressed a gathering of advocates at the Massachusetts State House for the Leap into Action to End Homelessness, Legislative Action Day on February 29. She explained some of the reasons that general population shelters are inappropriate for young people. “When I was 18 staying at the shelters, I found myself witnessing things that an 18-year-old should not have to witness,” said Sarjeant. “I saw men masturbating and people being rushed away in ambulances after overdosing on drugs.”

Following Sarjeant’s speech, she, McMillion, Livny and others from Youth on Fire walked the halls of the State House making the case for the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act currently being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee.

Donna LoConte, budget director and scheduler for Senator Anthony Petruccelli (D), listened intently as the group shared snippets of their lives on the streets.

“So how long can one stay at Youth on Fire?” LoConte asked.

Livny has been asked this question before. Quietly she explained that Youth on Fire is a drop-in space, open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. “When we close, folks go wherever it is they are going to go,” said Livny.

Slowly, the point that Livny, McMillion, and Sarjeant have come to make began to sink in. “I would have thought that folks at Youth on Fire could connect them to the services that they need,” LoConte said.

“Currently in Boston there is only one emergency shelter dedicated for young people,” said Livny. “It has twelve beds.”

LoConte’s face fell as she realized the implications of Livny’s words. She looked at the paperwork that Livny passed her, a fact sheet detailing several bills currently being weighed by the state Senate regarding housing and homelessness. She said Petruccelli was familiar with (and in support of) all of them she said, except the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act, the one that Livny, Sarjeant, and McMillion came to highlight. She looked around the room at the faces of Youth on Fire, and said: “But now. Definitely. We’ll be talking about this one.”

The bill holds potential to improve services for all homeless young people, but there are still special challenges facing homeless LGBT youth.

Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) says that she has heard numerous reports of LGBT youth becoming targets for violence inside shelters. “We have heard stories of young men who become victims to adults in the shelter. Either they are found out to be gay and become targets of violence and harassment, and/or they become set up for sexual violence.” She says that she also heard significant reports of young people being victimized by staff.

McMillion says that she and her partner experienced discrimination from staff members at some area shelters. She says that she and her partner were forbidden from hugging, sitting too close together, or using the multi-stall bathroom at the same time. She recalls attempting to study with her partner for a course they both were taking at Bunker Hill Community College. The two could only afford one copy of the textbook and read together. A staff member at the shelter approached them and told them they had to take turns reading the book because they were sitting to close together. McMillion said that upon refusing, she and her partner were barred from the shelter for three days.

Stowell says that BAGLY and other organizations have been focusing on trying to connect shelter staff with cultural competency trainings, but has found it to be an uphill battle.

“Training’s not going to do anything. There needs to be more homosexual and transgender staff. There need to be workshops with clients on how to report mistreatment without fearing repercussions from other staff members,” said McMillion.

Today, McMillion has her own apartment in Quincy. Out of those four kids that slept in the elevator shafts of apartment buildings, she is the only one still alive. One of them, her girlfriend at the time, died in her arms of an asthma attack. McMillion said that she counts herself lucky. She says she feels compelled to become a leader and a voice of change. Right now, that looks like that might be through social work, but she’s open to possibilities. For now, she says, she can take a deep breath, let it out, and say, “I’m okay.”