For many of us, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of what writer and activist Sarah Schulman calls the “Queer Nightmare Season” — a period of time when many LGBT people either return to families with whom they may have strained relationships or are confronted with the fact that they are not welcome in their families of origin. This can be particularly difficult for LGBT elders, who may have been disowned by their parents or their children because they are LGBT. A recent survey found that 40 percent of LGBT older people report that their social networks have become smaller, compared to 27 percent of their heterosexual and/or cisgender counterparts. This means that LGBT elders are more likely to be isolated, and feelings of isolation or loneliness can be particularly acute around the holidays.
However, this time of year is also a chance to reflect on the strength and resiliencies to be found in our chosen families. At Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) we know the power of a community coming together to help its own. Started in 1978, SAGE is the nation’s oldest and largest organization working to improve the quality of life for LGBT older people. Whether it be a salsa class, bingo run by a drag queen, or annual Thanksgiving and holiday dinners, our LGBT SAGE Centers and SAGENet affiliates around the country are places where LGBT older people can find all the warmth and support (and sometimes the drama) of family.
We also recognize that community takes many forms. People need to know that they can pick up a phone or send an email and find support. It can also mean being in the same space and connecting with another person in real life. As much as I’d like to see an LGBT senior center on every corner, we recognize that not everyone lives near a SAGE Center or one of our affiliates. That’s why SAGE’s new strategic plan is focused on creating the communities that LGBT older adults need to thrive — no matter where they live, with many different ways to engage.
Now, for the first time in LGBT history, there is a hotline dedicated entirely to LGBT older people. The SAGE LGBT Elder Hotline lets isolated LGBT older people or those looking for services know that they can quickly and easily reach out to other LGBT people. Operated by the GLBT National Help Center and staffed entirely by LGBT volunteers, the hotline has more than 15,000 LGBT resources, making it the largest of its kind in the United States. Whether you’re calling for support, to ask about services and referrals, or just to hear a friendly voice, the hotline is live and ready to take calls at (888) 234-SAGE. It is open Monday through Friday from 4:00 p.m. to midnight Eastern Time, and on Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Eastern time. LGBT elders and those wanting to find support for them can also contact the hotline at SAGE@GLBThotline.org.
For those who prefer something face-to-face, next year SAGE is launching SAGE Table. SAGE Table is a special one-day event that encourages LGBT people and allies of different generations to sit down and share a meal. These intersectional and transformative conversations will form a strong foundation for folks to come together and look to the future as a whole community. The first meals will be shared Thursday, May 18, 2017, and people can sign up to be hosts or attend a dinner at the SAGE Table site. Maybe I’ll see you at the table!
Finally, SAGE wants every senior center or community space to be open and welcoming to our LGBT elders. Building those spaces requires training staff on LGBT aging cultural competency, which is why we’ve launched SAGECare — a credentialing and cultural competency program focused on changing attitudes nationwide. Appropriate for anyone who works with older people, SAGECare trainings equip providers and community members with the skills they need to create spaces where LGBT older adults feel welcome and affirmed. Organizations that meet certain training requirements receive a credential that demonstrates their commitment to LGBT older adults and lets them know they can come out and be proud.
We can only build community if we put in the time and energy to connect and support one another. If you want to get involved, please help us spread the word about the hotline, volunteer to host or attend a SAGE Table event, or visit our website for other ways to take action. We need to look out for each other, so please engage with SAGE to strengthen our networks and make sure that LGBT people of all ages have a family for the holidays.
TIM JOHNSON is the director of national projects for SAGE.