Over the Rainbow: Neighbourhood houses and service providers network to empower LGBT2Q+ seniors

April 30th, 2019

No support. No shelter. No escape.

When Karen McVeigh found herself experiencing domestic violence at the hands of her partner, she sought a way out through women’s shelters.

But instead of shelter, she found discrimination and barriers, since the support she urgently needed was not available in the case of same-sex partner violence.

Sadly, many organizations offering support and shelter to women experiencing domestic violence only serve women in heterosexual relationships. Today, as an older adult working in care homes, McVeigh knows first-hand how the dangers of discrimination and invisibility can worsen with age.

This instance of inequity for folks on the queer and trans spectrum is just one aspect of our social systems where change is needed.

That's why neighbourhood houses throughout Metro Vancouver are proud to help launch the new LGBTQ2+ Community Response Network for seniors in the Lower Mainland.

A new network to shine a light

The network aims to shine a light on issues faced by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and Two Spirit seniors—plus seniors of many diverse sexual orientations and gender identities—so they can experience wellness and support as they age, while living openly out of the closet.

Network coordinator Neil Fernyhough said he felt a special passion for ensuring the safety of members of the LGBTQ2+ community—one which comes from personal, lived experience.

"Our queer community is at its best when we're caring about and for one another, especially those who are most vulnerable and isolated," he says.

"This launch is a tangible marker of that care and concern—and a message to at-risk LGBTQ2+ adults that you are not alone."

Network launch brings community together

The City of Surrey hosted the network launch this spring, with Over The Rainbow—a collective discussion about reducing vulnerability to abuse, neglect and self-neglect among LGBTQ2+ seniors.

More than 80 people took part, including seniors and their allies from younger generations, from the community and from service providers. Many of those who attended are queer-identified.

Dr. Claire Robson, a longtime activist, and academic from the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, facilitated the event.

Robson reminded participants that LGBTQ2+ rights were never handed over willingly.

"We fought for them. And by 'we,' I mean seniors—those of us who lived through these times of great change, and those of us who understand, in our hearts, minds, and bodies, what it was like to be queer back in the day."

Today, said Robson, the community is tired. Tired of being ignored and invisible.

"Though we are greatly at risk for abuse of all kinds, by kids, by institutions, and yes, by our partners, we have often felt that no one as noticed and no one has cared."

Joining Robson at Over The Rainbow was Kevin Kelly, husband of Kwantlen First Nation’s hereditary chief Marilyn Gabriel, as well as acting mayor of Surrey, Councillor Laurie Guerra.

Kelly stressed the importance of working together and honouring people’s differences, instead of focusing on what divides us.

Keynote speaker and activist Dr. Jen Marchbank—also from SFU’s Department of Gender, Sexuality, & Women's Studies—joined the group as a researcher and teacher on a wide range of gender-related topics, and as co-founder of the LGBTQ2+ group, Youth For A Change, in Surrey.

Marchbank also worked with Robson and others to create Canada's first education materials about elder abuse in LGBTQ2+ communities. Now she and Robson are collaborating to further their knowledge of elder abuse.

Sharing personal stories and collective knowledge

Bringing attention to the importance of collective knowledge, Over The Rainbow participants took part in a world café style exercise, exchanging their stories, hopes, and ideas for change in small, informal groups.

Falcon O’Hara, a poet and senior participant, shared his experience of having his talent for drawing crushed, after a schoolteacher shamed him in class when he was just 11 years old.

That one moment meant he never pursued his visual artistry. But now, in a room full of peers, he drew a picture that everyone could appreciate and celebrate.

Until that moment, he never realized the full significance of the ridicule he had suffered. Tearfully, he said he made this drawing now "because I can."

Falcon’s story demonstrates how narratives of shame can retain their power for many decades.

His experience of being censured at a young age is not unlike being pushed into the closet—a lived experience that impacts many queer and trans-identified seniors throughout their entire lifetimes.

Federal focus on social isolation of LGBTQ seniors

The launch of the network comes in the wake of a 2018 report issued by the federal government: "Social isolation of seniors–A focus on LGBTQ seniors in Canada."

The report recognizes that despite increasing acceptance of LGBTQ2+ communities in Canada, the effects of past discrimination have had a huge impact on seniors.

Today's seniors, who grew up before these social and legislative changes, have had different life experiences with regards to their gender identity and sexual orientation, the report states.

Today’s youngest seniors had turned 15 years old before homosexuality was decriminalized just 50 years ago, in 1969—and some older seniors may have been imprisoned before this legal change.

As young people, many LGBTQ2+ seniors also risked emotional and physical hurt if they took the brave decision to come out, and even then, many never told their parents.

A history of rejection, opposition, and oppression

As Susan Moore, Regional Mentor with the BC Association of Community Response Networks, explained at the network launch event:

"For many LGBTQ2+ older adults, being 'out' was dangerous. Homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness and criminal.

"Many men and women couldn't be 'out' because of their work. Those who served in the military or on police forces were at particular risk.

"Some men and women tried to live heterosexual lifestyles, because that was 'what you had to do.' Others who 'came out' or who were 'outed' were rejected by their families."

Despite decriminalization and the rise of the Pride movement, seniors continued to face opposition and repression when they were younger. Some were driven to contemplate suicide.

As a result, according to the report, "many LGBTQ people have grown older convinced that it is better to keep their sexual orientation or gender identity a secret to assure their wellbeing."

The need to stand up and be counted

In 2014, three per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 59 self-identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. But there is no data for Canadians aged 65 and older.

As Marchbank noted, this lack of data makes it difficult for advocacy groups to get the financing they need to make a difference, which is why her research is so important.

"We can't get funding to support people if we don't count them," said Marchbank. "So let's start counting them!"

The federal government report points out that the discrimination faced on a day-to-day basis by LGBTQ2+ seniors can have short-term effects in terms of social isolation—but even worse, past discrimination can have long-term effects if these negative perceptions are internalized.

"Among homosexual or bisexual seniors, for instance, this phenomenon—referred to as homonegativity—is associated with a negative image and the invisibility of homosexuality in society," the report states.

All of which can lead to issues of abuse, neglect, and self-neglect of at-risk LGBTQ2+ adults.

'You are seen, loved, and honoured'

But there is hope. As Susan Moore puts it:

"I want to acknowledge those of you who have chosen to stay in the closet, who have gone back into the closet, who are considering 'coming out' and those who are living their lives out and proud: you are seen, loved, and honoured for all you have done and all that you are."

There are individuals and organized groups supporting the rights of older adults regardless of sexual or gender identity.

And the new network hopes to make even greater progress, by bringing together a wide range of community and government groups across the Lower Mainland.

A diverse network for a diverse community

Members include LGBTQ2+ seniors and their allies, senior and LGBTQ2+ service providers, municipal governments, health authorities, consumer groups, neighbourhood houses, universities, and cultural faith-based organizations.

The new network will cover the Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley Regional Districts, as well as the Sea-to-Sky Corridor and the Sunshine Coast.

Working together, the network hopes everyone can contribute to a province-wide movement to see a socially connected, equitable and safe future for queer and trans seniors.

As Kevin Kelly says:

"The world is for everybody. Our elders are our teachers. Don't ever forget that."

Neighbourhood Houses at the LGBTQ2+ Community Response Network Table