Wednesday, July 1, 2009

LGBT Sonoma Valley seniors connect through new group

Spectrum's "LGBT Seniors: Getting Together in Sonoma" group was mentioned in the Sonoma Valley Sun newspaper this week.

Lesbian and gay Sonoma Valley seniors connect through new group

Gary Carnivele | Special to the Sun

Mainstream media typically offers a limited number of images of the members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. News footage of Pride parades feature the obligatory clips of twenty-something hunks wearing skimpy swimwear gyrating on floats and thirty-something women dressed in studded leather revving their hogs. A small number of forty-something activists of both genders occasionally appear on cable news channels. Unfortunately, few gays are seen who are older. It is as if there is an age limit.

Some local LGBT seniors are making themselves more visible by attending a meeting designed just for them. On the third Friday of every month, a number of them gather at the Sonoma Community Center for “LGBT Seniors: Getting Together in Sonoma.” The group is a project of Spectrum LGBT Center, which provides services to Marin County gay seniors and youth. The non-profit saw a need to likewise serve seniors living in Sonoma County. A sister group meets in Santa Rosa.

“Spectrum approached me about doing outreach in Sonoma County to create some sense of community for LGBT seniors and these monthly meetings gives them an opportunity to talk about their issues, which they may not feel free do in a mostly heterosexual setting,” said the group’s facilitator Gary Shepard, who lives in Sonoma with his domestic partner, Paul Besco. “I consider it a discussion group, but try to keep the group from becoming too cerebral. It’s not a support group or even a social group.”

The free meetings offer lively discussions, mutual support, the sharing of pertinent information, and an opportunity for the older segment of the LGBT population to tell their stories. Everyone is welcome to join the group. The group’s organizers promise the meetings are discreet and what is said by all participants is strictly confidential. Of the approximately 60 seniors who have responded to flyers advertising the group, a core of a dozen or so have become regular attendees.

“I was there for the first meeting, because I was missing the gay community that I enjoyed through Spectrum when I lived in Marin,” said Gary “Buz” Hermes, who was born in Napa in 1939 and moved to Sonoma five years ago when he was able to semi-retire. “We each have unique experiences, values, and perspectives to share, but there still seems to be an underlying LGBT connection that overrides our differences and creates a sense of community.”

Joan Brozovich and Sally Smith were thrilled to see the announcement in a local newspaper and jumped at the chance to make contact with other local LGBT seniors. They moved to their colorful home in Glen Ellen in 1998, but missed living near their lesbian friends who have been moving away from one another to the far reaches of the Bay Area. The couple has been together 27 years. They were married in Canada three years ago, at a ceremony attended by friends and family, including Smith’s grown son whom she raised with her husband before the two divorced.

Brozovich, who is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco, said, “Even though Sally and I made a life-long commitment to each other shortly after we became a couple, there was nothing that could compare to the joy experienced in having the wedding ceremony and turning around and seeing the tears of joy on our guests’ faces. All couples should be allowed to experience that joy.” Marriage equality for same-sex couples was discussed at one of the group’s meetings. Same-sex couples can now legally marry in six states, but not in California.

The group’s other topics, which are selected each month by Shepard, have run the gamut. Participants have discussed: the challenges of coming out; the role of spirituality in their lives; the meaning of friendships; and the relationship between older gays and the younger members of the LGBT community. Shepard strives to encourage a free exchange of ideas. He has invited the leader of a Santa Rosa-based transgender group to come to speak to the group and answer their questions about the “T” in LGBT.

“I moved here four years ago from Santa Cruz and I was shocked to find there were no LGBT groups or gathering places,” said Will Penna, who was a founding member of Triangle Speakers, who made presentations to schools and organizations is an effort to eliminate homophobia. “I was told by a few other gay men who lived here that they didn’t see any need for such. When I learned of this group last fall, I was delighted.”

The members of this group, as well as LGBT seniors all over the world, are redefining what it means to be a senior citizen and how they fit in the larger community. There are some serious hurdles. For the most part, gerontologists haven’t viewed sexual orientation as relevant to their work. According to a recent by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, most national health studies of older citizens fail to access sexual orientation. The tide is changing as of late and seminars about aging are tackling LGBT issues.

“Some people in assisted living facilities feel isolated and don’t feel safe talking to others in fear that they will be outed,” said Shepard, who left his work in broadcasting to work for non-profits like San Francisco’s Shanti Project. “I’ve contacted several local facilities and even though they say they are happy to accept LGBT seniors as residents their intake forms fail to identify them. LGBT seniors don’t have different aging issues, just different cultural issues.”

Shepard also serves on the Advisory Council of the Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging, which is responsible for planning and developing policy and advocating for the needs of seniors. The council advises Sonoma County Supervisors, allocates funds for programs as they become available, and makes certain public transportation is accessible. The agency will soon schedule training seminars to educate service providers about LGBT seniors and their specific needs.

Brozovich is excited about the prospect of joining a local LGBT group that is planning to march in Sonoma’s Fourth of July Parade, but Smith’s reaction is a knitted brow and pensive stare. Smith, who teaches French to seniors at Vintage House in Sonoma, seems a bit more reluctant about expressing her sexual preference in a public setting. Smith seems to soften to the idea when she talks about bringing her partner to a party at Vintage House and introducing Brozovich as her partner. And her students were fully accepting.

Shepard makes certain that all LGBT seniors feel welcome, regardless of how open they are about their homosexuality. Some seniors have been forced back into the closet because of where they live or where they work or which senior center they frequent. This generation remembers pre-gay liberation times, during which members of their community were forced into reparative therapy, kicked out of schools, fired from jobs, or otherwise disgraced when their homosexuality was revealed.

“I’m thinking of moving the meeting to the Sonoma Senior Center, if the group approves, so that we have a stronger presence in the senior community,” said Shepard. “The ultimate outcome of the group is when members make contact with each other outside of the group by sharing rides and helping one another out. There is a real need for such support groups.”

The Sonoma Valley Senior LGBT Group meets at 10:30 a.m. every third Friday of the month at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma in Room 210. Contact Gary Shepard, Spectrum Program Coordinator at 707.583.2330 or e-mail him at