Thriving social scene emerging for LGBT older adults in Western Mass.

Mapping Our Identities, Sharing Our Journeys: Fourth Annual LGBTIQA Intergenerational Gathering
Lisa Middents [left] and Kelly Richardson-Wright at at the “Mapping Our Identities, Sharing Our Journeys: Fourth Annual LGBTIQA Intergenerational Gathering" in Greenfield, Massachusetts

[This story appears in the March|April 2017 issue of Boston Spirit magazine. Subscribe for free today.]

Decades ago there were sizeable migrations of LGBT adults moving to larger cities where people found strength in numbers. In these newly established gay meccas, LGBT people could develop community and build families of choice to make up for strained relations they left behind.

Today, many older adults find themselves facing a serious problem. The costs of city living have skyrocketed, especially in those same gay meccas like Greenwich Village, the Castro and Boston’s South End have skyrocketed, forcing older adults to move away in their retirement years. This becomes a difficult choice, especially when so much of their social networks revolve around gay neighborhoods. Others find city living more and more challenging as they age.

Yes, the grass is always greener and the air is cleaner on the other side of the fence. Many people romanticize about the small town living that they were forced to leave behind so many years ago, but they feel it is impossible to return. Many feel they need to stay in urban areas because of the fear that the only social and educational programs for gay people exist in the larger cities.

One of the pioneers changing the perception about gay life in Western Massachusetts is Ed Sedarbaum, who lived most of his life in the heart of New York City’s gay community. By age 58 he longed for a simpler life in the country. He and his partner vacationed in North Adams. Sedarbaum knew there wasn’t much of an established gay community in that area, but he knew he could help build one. Using his years as an activist, he approached this effort like a campaign. He met with local politicians, city councilors and directors from all the local councils on aging, gaining support from everyone he met.

In 2015 Rainbow Seniors was born. The group meets twice a month, once at the Athenaeum in Pittsfield and also at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown, which has adopted the group. One meeting is strictly social, centered around a potluck; the other, social and educational, centered around a speaker or program. Rainbow Seniors has over 150 members ranging from 56 to 88.

Western Massachusetts may soon be known as the land of many rainbows. The Rainbow Elders Group entered the scene a few years earlier in 2012. Unlike the grassroots origins of it Berkshire’s counterpart, Rainbow Elders started from within a mainstream elder service agency. LifePath, formally Franklin County Home Care Corp., spent a number of years working with The LGBT Aging Project to deliver cultural competency training for its staff on LGBT aging issues. From the beginning, Executive Director Roseanne Martoccia was committed to reaching out to the LGBT older adults in LifePath’s catchment area, which includes Greenfield and surrounding communities. She approached Dave Gott, an older gay man and former activities director at the Greenfield Senior Center, to help develop a group within LifePath specifically for LGBT older adults.

Now in its fifth year Rainbow Elders sponsors four annual events. In January, it hosts a breakfast for LGBT older adults, and in April, an intergenerational dinner with students from a local LGBTQ youth group and students from five nearby colleges. There is a social picnic every July and the program is rounded out with an educational program in October. Rainbow Elders has a diverse membership of over 200 people. This may be related to the diversity of their steering committee, which includes gay man Dave Gott, lesbian J. R. Raphael, trans woman Leah Pronovost and retired bisexual woman Donna Liebl in addition to staff members from LifePath and allies.

It is not surprising that this growth is occurring in Massachusetts, given the support LGBT aging has received from the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Massachusetts also has the distinction of being the first state to launch a federally funded LGBT congregate meal program. Ten years after that launch, there are now 17 LGBT community meals across the state, but until recently there were not any meal sites west of Worcester. Last November, after months of consultation with The LGBT Aging Project, WestMass Elder Services and The Holyoke Senior Center launched Western Mass’s first LGBT Community Meal Program, aptly named The Rainbow Supper Club. This monthly supper club meets on the first Wednesday of every month at The Holyoke Senior Center.

In addition to all of these groups and organization there is another layer of informal social and support groups that host regular outings and potlucks for LGBT adults in the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires. Some of these have been in existence for over 25 years.

In addition to these larger groups, there are a number of smaller organizations for specific audiences. The national organization, OLAC (Old Lesbians Organizing for Change) launched a chapter in the Pioneer Valley in 2012. Its chapter meets twice monthly, once for a organizational meeting and the other, a social gathering around a movie. For transgender older adults there are a number of groups in Western Mass such as The Franklin County Area Trans Support Group.This group was started by Leah Pronovost, also from Rainbow Elders, who got tired of driving into the city to connect with other trans people so started a group in Western Mass. Now in its second year, the group welcomes people of all ages and has over a dozen members. There is also a robust group of older gay men who meet weekly at the Northampton Senior Center. They are currently working with the Senior Center staff to host the first LGBT senior dance to coincide with Northampton Pride in May.

There are even more programs on the horizon. This spring The Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging and The LGBT Aging Project will host a regional training and invite all Western Mass Senior Center Directors to a workshop to learn how to develop LGBT-friendly programing.

So, if a quieter life is what you seek, just know that thanks to these amazing pioneers and their allies, you will be in good company in Western Massachusetts, the land of many rainbows!

Bob Linscott is assistant director of The Fenway Institute’s LGBT Aging Project.