This year in celebration of International Day of Older People the team at SAGE, a MESMAC project, met in Roundhay Park to produce a series of stories following on from an earlier video storytelling project run with Lippy People and Queer Stories. This article was written by Keith from SAGE to reflect on the event.
“For many older people the ageing process can be very isolating, as mobility and other health issues arise. The loss of a partner can further isolate people before new patterns of living one’s life without ‘the other half’ are established, or before outside services are accessed, directly or through concerned family members or neighbours.
For older LGBTQ+ people isolation is particularly crippling as we frequently don’t have access to, or cannot rely on, the more traditional networks that older people access, such as children, siblings, neighbours, or former work colleagues. This is all the more likely if those networks are not supportive of, or don’t know about, our identities and personal lifestyle choices.
One reality that has been shared by all older people in the recent past is the ongoing COVID 19 epidemic, which has only added to their loneliness and isolation. For many of our members projects such as SAGE have been a lifeline. Meetings on zoom actually increased our contact hours each week compared to pre-COVID times. As COVID 19 restrictions eased, and face to face opportunities became available again, fortunately the contact hours remained high as we moved to a mixture of on-line and face to face events.
We thank our friends at Older Peoples Forum, in particular those organising the International Day of Older Persons, (#IDOPLDS) for the funding to make possible two new opportunities for two SAGE groups to meet up, interact and reminisce over stories of our joint history, a a way to reduce our isolation and loneliness.
The mixed SAGE group (men and women) met up in the amazing space that is Roundhay Park, giving us the opportunity to reconnect, to exercise as we walked, and to deliver an amazing backdrop for a photo op. To offset the benefit of the walk, Roundhay Park gave us a cake and a coffee and of course time to engage in some storytelling.
The next day the SAGE men’s group walked around the centre of Leeds, loosely guided by what remains of the Rainbow Plaque trail, reminiscing about pubs, clubs and discos that have long gone (as well as the few that remain) and chatted about experiences, good and bad, that came out of growing up in a time when being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was a very different story.
Both of these opportunities in Roundhay and in Leeds City Centre reminded us that storytelling has always been a significant part of the LGBTQ+ experience, as borne out by a couple of projects that have already documented some of our very varied life experiences. Take a look at the West Yorkshire Queer Stories Project on line https://wyqs.co.uk/ or some of the video stories made about loss within the LGBTQ+ community by the charity Lippy People (www.lippypeople.org) both of which document these experience brilliantly.
As new members have joined SAGE their stories have added to our combined experience. In Roundhay one of our newest members, Orji explained the extreme difficulties for the LGBTQ+ community in Nigeria where he grew up and how his experience of meeting people through SAGE has been life affirming for him. Violence towards the LGBTQ+ community in Nigeria is very prevalent and life is frequently lived indoors, out of the prying eyes of the public, adding to his extreme isolation and loneliness. In Leeds he can be himself.
In Roundhay we also heard that while many of us in the UK can count on our families for support this is still not the case for all of us. Shawn told us that his father still does not know he is gay, even though Shawn is already 50+ years old. While his mother does know, it is their secret and keeping this from his father is stressful and leads to much misunderstanding and consternation.
Many of us, however are lucky enough to be ‘out’ to all of our friends, neighbours and work colleagues and can draw on these networks when needed. That being said we are presented every day with opportunities to step briefly back in the closet if we feel the situation requires it. When we are looking for a birthday card for our partner and the shop assistant discovers this is someone of the same sex, we cannot be sure how they will react, so we may just go along with their heteronormative assumption that our partner will be someone of the opposite sex. When we are asked by the doctor’s receptionist if our husband or wife will be picking us up, do we say yes he or she is and ‘out’ ourselves at the same time or once again say yes they are, keeping our response gender neutral.
In some cases we may just laugh about the confusion, as happened recently when I bought two ice creams and the seller assumed the second one was for the woman next in the queue to me, rather than my partner who was not with me. The ice cream seller saw the funny side of the confusion as did the woman behind me. It could have been very different.
Sharing our stories with other members of the LGBGTQ+ community, especially younger members, can help give them skills to cope with these awkward situations. Sharing our experience can remind our friends that we are all in the same boat even those fully ‘out’ to the world around them.
We learned in Roundhay that several of us had made significant changes later on in our lives and that age was no barrier to these changes. Three of the SAGE group spoke had spoken earlier at a presentation for the AGE Proud Leeds Festival, recounting their stories of transitioning later in life, getting a degree from Leeds University in their 70’s or like Susan above taking on a new role as a foster carer.
Walking around Leeds to some of the former places the SAGE men had met up in the past reminded us of our shared history, of our shared loss as place after place closed, of an ever-increasing number of fiends who no longer shared the planet with us.
In Roundhay and as we walked about Leeds city centre, the sun had warmed us up, and we talked about what perfect days they had been weather-wise. Beyond the weather both days included so many elements of a perfect day; good coffee, something sweet, friends to share the experiences with, the opportunities to swap even more stories and to reaffirm who we are as people.
The only thing missing was a glimpse of those friends and family who were surely watching over us from where ever in the universe they live now, having recounted their last story many years before but who live on in ours.”