SAGE helps seniors of color celebrate amid support


By Catherine Shu

Growing older in a youth-oriented society can be a difficult process. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people of color, however, face discrimination on multiple levels and aging brings with it complicated — and often painful — challenges.

“Take someone who has lived for 40 years as a woman who suspects she has colon cancer. She might be seen as suspect if she goes as a woman to a clinic that treats male issues,” explained Eshey Scarborough, a community organizer for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders, or SAGE.

For L.G.B.T. people of color, these challenges are often exacerbated by isolation. About seven years ago, the staff at SAGE, a West Village-based organization, noticed that there were very few people of color in attendance at their events.

Last Friday’s Celebrando Diversidad en SAGE at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on W. 13th St. was the result of SAGE’s ongoing efforts to bring L.G.B.T. seniors of color into their community. Billed as SAGE’s “first-ever People of Color Pride celebration,” the evening was a mixture of speeches, songs, spoken word performances — and good, old-fashioned socializing.

“Our organization has traditionally served people in the southern part of Manhattan and that traditionally means white L.G.B.T. people,” said Terry Kaelber, executive director of SAGE. “But older L.G.B.T. people are everywhere and we want our organization to reflect the diversity of everybody. One way to do that is to celebrate diversity during Pride Week.”

Emceed by Betty Weems, a former SAGE board member, the performers at the event included Donna Redd, a singer and the executive director of Sistahs in Search of Truth; Alliance and Harmony, a lesbian support organization; drag queen Kitt Holiday; poet Yoseli Castillo Fuertes; playwright Ira Jeffries and the Jazzy Randolph Dancers.

Fuertes, a young activist who was born in the Dominican Republic, wrote about finding acceptance from her mother and her community. She read from one of her poems, which used her hair as an allegory. “Since I was born my mom wanted me to be straight. But I was curly,” Fuertes recited.

Describing the regimen of chemical relaxers and straightening irons she was subjected to, Fuertes declared “to be straight was not worth all this pain” to cheers from an audience of approximately 200 people.

There is still a significant level of discrimination against L.G.B.T. people in many communities of color, said Kaelber. “One of the great challenges is that family and churches are centers of support for many communities of color,” he explained. “They can be supportive places, but they can also be very unwelcoming to an L.G.B.T. person in the mix.”

Donna Redd, 43, an African-American singer, agreed, but said L.G.B.T. people of color should reach out to one another across generational lines.

“Now young people see us as old, but we can be mentors,” Redd said. “We can be companions who tell our history. Young lesbian women need mentors, and we need each other to know that we are not alone.”

Many L.G.B.T. seniors, regardless of their race or ethnicity, suffer from loneliness and depression. Furthermore, many L.G.B.T. seniors are so wary of discrimination that they refuse to get medical treatment until their health reaches a crisis stage, Kaelber said.

Many of their fears are well founded. A survey conducted in 1994 of New York State’s Area Agencies on Aging (the regional centers that distribute federal funds for senior services) found 46 percent reported that openly gay and lesbian seniors would not be welcome at senior centers in their area. Kaelber said these statistics continue to hold true 10 years later.

Without spouses or children, many seniors also lack built-in support systems that can advocate for their rights and help them make important life decisions.

As part of their ongoing outreach efforts to L.G.B.T. seniors of color, SAGE created Harlem Elders Advocating for Themselves (Harlem HEAT) a year ago. The group, whose office at 125th St. and St. Nicholas Ave. is due to open next week, is meant to extend SAGE’s services and build community among L.G.B.T. seniors in Harlem, East Harlem and the Bronx.

Scarborough — SAGE and Harlem HEAT’s community organizer — said the group would help L.G.B.T. seniors help themselves by “teaching seniors how to advocate for themselves with social work agencies, medical care providers — in general, how to speak up for themselves.”

The name Harlem HEAT was chosen, Scarborough explained, as she busily collected phone numbers and business cards for the group’s roster, because it did not mark them as a specifically gay group.

“SAGE is already well known in the city. Harlem HEAT gives seniors a chance to be known as seniors first, and then as gay seniors,” Scarborough said.

The group, however, has already received an enthusiastic response from within their new community. Though not an L.G.B.T.-oriented group, the Jazzy Randolph Dancers, a senior dance troupe based at the Beatrice Lewis Senior Center in Harlem, eagerly signed up with Harlem HEAT.

“I think there is a need for Harlem HEAT,” said Catherine Robinson, 74, a member of the Jazzy Randolph Dancers. “Gay people are people, too, and as they get older they, like anyone else, need their issues to be addressed.”

At the beginning of the evening, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields presented a proclamation to Kaelber commending SAGE for its services to the gay community. In his speech, Kaelber reminded the audience that the battle for L.G.B.T. senior rights is ongoing.

“Our community should step up. We want to make this issue our issue,” he said, “Hopefully, we’ll all get older, and if we don’t work hard then we’ll all be facing the same issues.”