LGBT pioneers who paved the way for younger generations are finding that the battle isn't over and that they're facing even more challenges in yet another stage of life.
Qmunity and Vancity's 10th annual International Day Against Homophobia breakfast, held at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver on May 16 and hosted by journalist and instructor Kathryn Gretsinger, presented a number of speakers addressing the theme "Gay and Grey".
Anita Braha of Vancity's board of directors talked about the special significance of aging in LGBT communities.
"Our grey hair is a badge of honour and it demonstrates that this grey hair and all of our grey hair is part of what has enabled us to do the kind of work that we have done and be as successful and fortunate as we have been in this country," she said. "It's allowed us to be who we are more openly and to love more openly and proudly today."
She noted that while great gains have been made by the LGBT rights movement, the generation of LGBT elders who fought for those rights are again heading into uncharted territory.
"We are now on the edge of a precipice," Braha said. "Never before have we had LGBTQ folks open, out, and grey….Research shows us that LGBTQ elders have a hard time finding community-based support for both physical and mental care, and this is a burden that we face based on the discrimination we have carried for so long."
Qmunity board of directors chair Morgan Camley pointed out that many LGBT seniors came out when sexual orientation and gender identities were treated as mental illnesses.
"In many ways, this is our first out generation of seniors," she said. "Sadly, the number of one fear among older adults in the LGBTQ community, as they age out of their homes and move into care homes, they'll be forced to go back into the closet. It's not right that the generation of pioneers who fought for my rights to live out of the closet are now going back into the closet."
Camley also noted that some LGBT seniors may have also experienced separation from their biological families as well as losing entire social networks of friends and loved ones during the AIDS crisis.
Isobel Mackenzie, who was appointed the first B.C. Seniors Advocate in March, elaborated further upon this issue.
While she said that the contribution of families to care and comfort of seniors is fundamental, recognizing different LGBT families is also paramount.
"For the [LGBT] seniors of today…their family dynamics are different. And I can tell you from my experience that the contribution of families to the care and comfort of our seniors is fundamental. The system would come crashing down without that small army of people out there…advocating on behalf of our seniors, out there caring for them. And we have to ensure that our system recognizes the difference and uniqueness of what that family might look like for our gay, lesbian, transgender, queer community that are seniors today."
As Braha had pointed out: "There are issues around families of choice versus families of origin, which do affect both medical and legal decision-making."
Mackenzie promised to be an advocate for LGBT issues in her role.
Other speakers at the event included Rev. Gary Paterson, who became the spiritual leader of the United Church of Canada and the first openly gay person in the world to have such a position; Paterson's partner Tim Stevenson, on behalf of Mayor Gregor Robertson, officially proclaimed May 17 as the International Day Against Homophobia; LGBT rights pioneer and activist Don Allison, who came out as gay in 1972 and who shared his personal story, which included marching in Vancouver's first Pride parade in 1978 (in spite of rocks being thrown at them); and Qmunity executive director Dara Parker.