Spare Change News
“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.