Photo Credit: SAGE USA
Ruth Szilagyi and Carol Brownlow bear invisible scars from their many years of facing the challenges to LGBT people in America. Of course, today social conditions for LGBT citizens have vastly improved, and even in just the past few years they have experienced great progress.
But, complacency is out of the question for the two women who represent Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Equality (SAGE), and that is why they presented “Aging with Pride” at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center on June 11th. Their program was something out of the ordinary even for the center’s Living Well series, in which Living Well program director, Nicolette Hume’s objective is to “push the envelope” on issues for senior citizens.
In this case for LGBT older adult citizens, which includes lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, and other categories in this new age of fluid sexual identity. Such citizens are usually out of the spotlight when it comes to public attention on the gay rights movement, but for Szilagyi and Brownlow these issues are front and center as they have presented the SAGE Training and Services program throughout the Portland area over the past five years.
“We can get out there and beat the drum,” Szilagyi said. “That is why we’re here tonight.”
“When I look for housing I don’t want to go back into the closet,” Brownlow said. “I’m not going to do that anymore.”
Steeling Szilagyi and Brownlow’s determination to help senior gay people is their own long experience facing the prejudices against the LGBT community in American for decades and decades. Szilagyi said she has been with her partner for 41 years and that they have had to be wary of roadblocks that could suddenly be thrown up in their way.
“In 1980 I had to rush my wife to the emergency room in the middle of the night because she was doubled over in pain from appendicitis,” Szilagyi said. “If I had told the people at the emergency room our real relationship, I would have had to leave and she would have been left alone. I told them I was her sister.”
Brownlow said she was “in the closet” for 41 years, and the whole time she felt forced to keep her sexual orientation a secret. Brownlow had earned a doctorate in education and was a college dean, but despite her outstanding credentials, she said, “ I always thought “I could get fired today.’ You had to live on guard year after year after year. It was like being an alcoholic.”
“Coming out is not something that happens once,” Szilagyi said. “It happens every single day.” For many LGBT older adults heavy baggage from their past can sharply affect their life today.
“For all seniors the biggest challenge is isolation,” Brownlow said. “It’s exacerbated for LGBT older adults because so many of them don’t have children.” Making this sad situation even worse – “A lot of us came out as gay 60 years ago to our families, and our families kicked us out.”
Also high on the list of challenges for LGBT older adults is medical treatment.
“Some of us were treated pretty badly. There was a lot of ignorance out there,” Brownlow said. “Being gay was a hush-hush issue and it wasn’t really addressed. That is why so many gay people now are afraid to go to the doctor.”
This list of challenges faced by LGBT older adult citizens is pretty endless: discrimination by service providers, barriers to joining clubs and organizations, impact on employment, even something as simple as forms not having proper descriptions that apply to the LGBT community. Many people have been dishonorably discharged from the military for being gay, which caused them to lose their pensions and experience severe financial problems later in life.
Szilagyi noted, “9.1 percent of lesbian couples live in poverty. That is twice as high as heterosexual couples.” Even as legislation today seeks to make up for past injustice, there are still many anti-gay laws on the books.
“There is patchwork legislation state by state,” Szilagyi said.
The patches bar various kinds of discrimination in up to 21 states, plus Washington D.C.“That means there are 30 states with no protective legislation,” Szilagyi said.
Even in the Portland area, considered one of the most liberal spots on the planet, Szilagyi pointed out, “Oregon has had an equality act since 2007. Thirty-four years after is was introduced.” Despite ongoing success in the crusade for LGBT rights, the people of SAGE have no intention of taking it easy.
“Do not tell me everything will be okay,” Szilagyi said. “There are so many things that are not okay.”
For more about SAGE Metro Portland please contact:
Phone: (503) 224-2640