'Rainbow Seniors' Programs Offer Connection and Resources for Older LGBTQ People
Across the U.S., groups for LGBTQ older adults are tackling issues, forging chosen families and changing the lives of people who often feel invisible
While growing older can often lead to isolation and unmet needs, LGBTQ older adults encounter additional barriers when they try to access community services, make social connections, obtain suitable housing and otherwise live well. Within the older LGBTQ community, trans folks, people of color and those who live in rural areas deal with even more obstacles.
The statistics are stark. A 2022 AARP study found that 85% of LGBTQ older people worry about discrimination, and nearly that number don't know whether they'll have enough support as they age. As SAGE notes, they are also twice as likely to live alone.
85% of LGBTQ older people worry about discrimination.
Scott Fearing, a board member at large at Rainbow Seniors ROC in Rochester, New York, explains that LGBTQ older adults often lack traditional supports. "[For most older adults], it tends to be their children, grandchildren, their spouses, family of origin, faith community, possibly neighborhoods," says Fearing, who is 63 and lives in Rochester. "A lot of these LGBTQ seniors don't have that."
Across the U.S., groups for LGBTQ older adults are tackling these issues, forging chosen families and changing lives of people who often feel invisible. Three of these groups are in Rochester, New York; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Palo Alto, California.
Rainbow Seniors ROC, Inc. — Rochester, New York
Rainbow Seniors ROC, a group for LGBTQ older adults in Rochester, New York, hosts lunch-and-learns, yoga, card nights, holiday parties and more. Members take part in the city's annual Pride events and organize the Rochester Pride Picnic. Sometimes the conversations at these events have more impact than the activities themselves, explains Board President Beth Bloom.
"It could be about nothing more than, 'What did you pay this year to get your driveway plowed?' or 'Did you hear so-and-so is sick?'" says Bloom, who is 66 and lives in Irondequoit. "That connectiveness is underrated, and it's probably the most important thing as an organization we provide."
Before Kathy and Phyllis Clayton moved to Rochester from Memphis, Tennessee, recently, they lacked the kind of social links that Rainbow Seniors ROC makes possible. "Older gay people in the South aren't very out or really connected," says Phyllis, 56.
Phyllis says the group is inclusive, welcoming and accepting, and adds, "We have made some great friends and do things [with them] outside of the group."
At the community level, Rainbow Seniors ROC works with organizations serving older adults. "By partnering with other agencies, we don't have to be experts in everything," says Bloom. "We can be experts at finding people who know what they're talking about and [can] help our members."
Fearing emphasizes that the organization's work is about more than alleviating isolation and breaking barriers that come with age and health issues. They aim to bring fun, create awareness, and enable activism.
"[LGBTQ older adults] were the 'radical outsiders' who stood up against systems … that wanted them arrested, locked up, and cured," says Fearing. "They were the pioneers of change. We need to build more cross-generational conversations and reminders of the ugly past these people lived through and the change they brought to our society."
Older Rainbow Community of Albuquerque (ORCA)
Formerly known as SAGE ABQ, the Older Rainbow Community of Albuquerque is a SAGE affiliate and a program of the Equality New Mexico Foundation (EQNM). Under its original name, ORCA was founded 11 years ago by two trans women, Sheila Mink and the late Katherine Palmer, says Paul Oostenbrug, chair of the group's steering committee.
"We're building connections through community."
When he explains the value of ORCA, Oostenbrug, who is 73, cites the fact that Americans have been spending more time alone. "What I was pleased about, having been to an oversubscribed men's coffee [group] yesterday, and hearing stories about the number of people that have been coming to some of our larger events, is we're building connections through community," he says.
Besides the men's discussion group, ORCA offers a women's group, game nights, and parties and outings to cultural events. Members also march in (or watch) the city's Pride parade and gather at a member's nearby home that day. Oostenbrug says that most participants are in their 60s and 70s.
ORCA also builds connections through … dessert. In 2016, former program coordinator Havens Levitt created Pie Palooza, a now annual fundraiser on or close to Pi Day, March 14. Attendees enjoy a pie buffet and can bid on whole pies to take home. "It's a lot of fun and a great time to meet people and enjoy pie," says Melissa Alexander, 64, who calls ORCA "a wonderful organization."
Alexander, who once led ORCA's Trans Intersex Non-Binary Support group (TINS, now on hiatus) recently hosted her own event. For her Holiday House tours, Alexander filled the home she shares with her wife, Paula Prichard, with 17 Christmas trees, each with its own theme, and invited members to see them.
"We went through a lot of discrimination and a lot of hatred."
Due to the traumatic experiences older queer adults have faced during their lives, says Alexander, these opportunities are vital. "We've been through a lot of the battles," she explains. "We went through a lot of discrimination and a lot of hatred, and sometimes even violence, and being afraid to tell people who you are and … who you want to be with."
Looking to the future, Oostenbrug says ORCA seeks to expand its reach. "Ultimately, we want to provide value to not just the LGBT community but to the community."
Avenidas Rainbow Collective — Palo Alto, California
Avenidas Rainbow Collective, a program of the Palo Alto, California, organization Avenidas, ran into bad timing right out of the gate. After holding monthly potlucks since June 2019, the group received funding in January 2020 to grow its activities, says its program manager, Thomas Kingery.
When the pandemic put an end to indoor events two months later, Kingery, who is 52, turned to safer options, such as masked, socially distanced outdoor walks and an online pen pal program that eventually grew to more than 100 participants.
Today, most activities are in person, and offerings include a women's social group, a walking group, and game and movie nights. The organization also provides queer older adults with case management, transportation assistance and a mental health fund.
"I feel safe here."
"The walking group is one of our most successful groups because it aligns with the mission of the program, which is to see the older adults in our community, to celebrate them, to support them in developing these relationships," says Kingery.
Citing the decades of oppression endured by LGBTQ older adults, Kingery says, "They deserve some time in their life where they're accepted and they have a space that they can feel safe in."
Sometimes the members themselves create those spaces. Robin Barber, 66, observed that firsthand at a party he hosted with his partner, Eddie Green, 60. Before leaving, one attendee told Barber, "I feel safe here."
Besides throwing the occasional party for Rainbow Collective, Fremont residents Barber and Green coordinate the walking group, and Green once led POZitive Living (currently on pause), a group for people with HIV and AIDS.
Outside of groups like Rainbow Collective, Green and Barber say that LGBTQ older adults often feel invisible. "A lot of people forget, we're still alive, we're still here," Green says. "We can still do a lot of the things that we did when we were young, just differently, slowly. And it's just important that we don't get forgot."