BY CAROL TANIS
First, it was coming out of the closet. Then, it was having the right to marry. Now, a documentary to be shown in Grand Rapids spotlights the next frontier in gay rights. The film documentary, “Gen Silent,” looks at some LGBT seniors who are going back in the closet because they fear abuse in care facilities by staff or other seniors.
“Gen Silent” will be shown Tuesday, Oct. 13 at Celebration Cinema North in Grand Rapids. There will be two showtimes: 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Both shows are free of charge and open to the public.
The video showing is presented by Plymouth United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids and co-sponsored by a number of local elder care providers and community organizations including Pilgrim Manor, the Area Agency on Aging of West Michigan, LGBT Fund of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Hospice of Michigan.
The date of the event was chosen in connection with National Coming Day, Oct. 11.
The title of the 60-minute film is based on a generation of LGBT seniors who are suffering in silence to avoid harassment or bullying. But now a growing number of people are working to keep LGBT people from aging in silence and not living authentically.
Following the showing, there will be a panel discussion and Q&A including as facilitator Rev. Doug Van Doren, pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ and long-time community advocate for inclusion and equality for LGBT people; Dr. Bruce Roller, Executive Director of the United Church Outreach Ministry, serving residents on Grand Rapids Northwest side and who also recently married his partner of 25 years; and Judy Lewis, a certified LGBT Older Adult Trainer and program administrator for the LGBT Older Adult Coalition and the Gay Elders of Metropolitan Detroit.
“People need to feel safe and valued for who they are, wherever they are, at all stages of life,” said Doug Van Doren. “This is often not the case for LGBT individuals. We believe that the ‘Gen Silent’ movie and discussion will stimulate training and result in real change in how institutions and caregivers welcome and care for aging LGBT persons.”
Judy Lewis says “Gen Silent” eloquently and dramatically illustrates the plight of many LGBT seniors who are mistreated by caregivers, or LGBT seniors who fear they will be mistreated by caregivers. She says because training requirements tend to be low for many caregivers at nursing homes and other facilities, many employees are not culturally competent when it comes to understanding LGBT seniors.
“There are stories of people who have been denied access to their friends because their friends are gay,” Lewis said. “Or they have been prayed for, to pray the gay away. There was a lesbian woman who lives near my area who was going into a facility and boxed up all of her photos and boxes in fear. So she had nothing to trigger a pleasant memory. The fact that she was a celibate woman in her 80s was a nonissue.”
Lewis added that transgender people are especially at risk and vulnerable especially if they have not had the surgery to conform their body to their gender identity. She cites one case where a transgender individual, who transitioned from male to female, had all of her female clothing taken away from her and was required to wear male clothing, though she for many years had not viewed herself as male.
According to national and statewide studies, LGBT seniors have higher rates of being mistreated by healthcare providers and other seniors within nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Research by the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging indicates 70 percent of transgender people and 56 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual people report mistreatment when their sexual orientation or gender identity is discovered. In some residential settings, not just the staff but also other residents “bully” or harass LGBT people, which leads to their isolation and going back into the closet.
The film asks six LGBT seniors in the Boston area if they will hide their friends, their spouses, basically their entire lives in order to survive in the care system. Their decisions are captured through intimate access to their day-to-day lives over the course of a year. It puts a face on what experts in the film call an epidemic: gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender older people who are so afraid of discrimination by caregivers or by other seniors that many simply go back into the closet.
The video discovers how oppression in the years before Stonewall now affects older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, resulting in fear and isolation. Many who won the first civil rights victories for generations to come are suffering because they are reluctant to ask for help and have too few friends or family to care for them.
In the film, while seated across from her partner, a white-haired lesbian says, “People like myself are hiding in nursing homes or whatever because they are scared to death.” A gay man whose partner is in a nursing home says, “You just know they don’t want you there.”
One health care professional in the film states, “LGBT elders are more likely than the general population to age alone, because many gay elders never had children, have not had great relationships with their families of origin. There would be a high degree of alienation and isolation.”
“Gen Silent” shows the disparity in the quality of paid care given from mainstream care facilities committed to making their LGBT residents safe and happy, to places where LGBT elders face discrimination by staff and bullying by other seniors. The panel discussion following each of the movie showings will provide useful tips for improving cultural competence, pitfalls that institutions can avoid and suggested resources for training and further information. The event organizers are encouraging area health care and elder care providers to send employees to the “Gen Silent: Caring for LGBT Seniors” program in order to be sure that they are serving this segment of the population appropriately and well.
Released in 2010, “Gen Silent” has been shown across the country by a variety of organizations including universities, colleges, hospitals, nursing homes, Fortune 500 companies, churches and community centers. It was produced by award-winning filmmaker Stu Maddux, who is known nationally and internationally for chronicling the lives of older LGBT individuals.
To learn more about the event, call 616-455-4260.