By Rod Hensel, The Gayging Advocate
I had been puzzled since we started it in the Spring. We decided to set up a ”Seniors Healthy Lunch Program” once a month for LGBT seniors in the Buffalo, NY area as part of our local Silver Pride Project activities that already included a program night and a very popular monthly coffee hour.
I had been trying to come up with ideas to get the area’s LGBT seniors to come out and mingle more, realizing that isolation was the cause of many problems facing gay seniors. We had started working with the local Senior Services Department, and they had federal dollars on hand to prepare balanced healthy meals for seniors, but delivered almost exclusively through community senior centers around the area.
For a host of reasons — fear of discrimination, a lack of grandchild pictures to swap, and no one talking about last week’s episode of RuPaul — I had maintained that senior centers were not places that would be popular with the elders of our community. So we hatched an idea to have a local gay-owned restaurant prepare a luncheon with nutritional supervision to meet guidelines, and we would try it out one day a month to see if anyone showed.
In the past we had tried some “buy your own from the menu” dinner outings that had pretty much flopped, except for our Christmas Day Chinese buffet. So I figured it would take awhile to get people to try the lunch idea and thought we would be lucky to get five or six.
This program had one benefit I didn’t think much about: it was practically free to the participants. Everyone gets a small envelope at their place setting they can put in a box with any amount they want to give, from no dollars to $3. That way there’s “no free lunch” unless you genuinely can’t afford it, and no one knows anyways. I didn’t think cost was a factor since everyone in our group seemed of “normal” income and no one looked like they had been sleeping on a park bench.
I was shocked when 19 people came for the first lunch. Well, I thought, it was after all the first such lunch and we made it a big deal, with local officials and the TV news people on hand. People were probably curious and surely next month the numbers will sink like a rock in a pond.
They didn’t. The next month was 20, then 21, and the numbers have ranged from 20 to 25 for the last five months. Wow. But why?
The answer — at least a partial one — didn’t occur to me until a few weeks ago when the New York Times reported on a newly released study with the headline “A Hunger Crisis in the LGBT Community.”
A report by the Williams Institute found one in four people in the LGBT community could not afford to feed themselves in the last year, compared to one in six in the general population. That number jumps to one out of two for LGBT African-Americans and one in three for LGBT Hispanics.
Although it used a data sampling of 20,000 the report, as we have come to expect, didn’t breakout LGBT seniors. It did say that hunger in the gay community was highest among minorities, women, the unmarried, bisexuals, those without college degrees, younger people and those with children in the home.
But we know seniors have to be among those who are hungry. A 2013 study, also by Williams Institute, shows 50% of LGBT seniors who live alone are at or near the poverty level. At the time they entered the workforce, homosexuality was considered a crime in most states, as well as a psychological disease. This stigma reduced overall earnings during their work career, resulting in little or no savings for retirement years. Incomes are further reduced by unequal treatment in laws pertaining to Social Security, Medicaid, Veteran’s Benefits, inheritance laws and tax qualified retirement plans. A 2015 Harris Poll survey shows that 51% of LGBT seniors are concerned about having enough money to live on as they age.
So if they are dependent on Social Security alone, in 2016 the average monthly check was $1,341. Deduct rent, utilities and medical bills and there’s not much left for food.
Some of them, at least, surely came because they were hungry. And because many LGBT seniors of our generation lack support of family, friends and religious groups, because they fear discrimination in government assistance, they have no one to help. Maybe they weren’t down to eating the cat food, but a good lunch at $3 or less along with a chance to be in a safe space with friendly company surely sealed the deal for many.
This report should be an eye-opener for us all. Our community groups need to start to worry a little more about assisting LGBT people in real need. Maybe our A-list gays who have achieved success will stop giving millions to their alma maters and general community foundations to direct more funds to their aging LGBT brothers and sisters who, in many ways, made their success possible.
Did you know there are more millennials than baby boomers? That means we need to build mechanisms for helping our seniors now, because the number is going to keep growing. The LGBT elders put up with all kinds of crap so today’s LGBT people could have things better, a world with less discrimination and the freedom to love. The reward for those brave acts shouldn’t be loneliness and hunger.
All of us have to do more.
Rod Hensel is based in Buffalo, NY where he was a gay activist and Mattachine Society chapter president in the ’70’s and ’80’s. He later co-founded Stonewall Democrats of Western New York. He is currently helping to organize the SIlver Pride Project of the Pride Center of Western New York to address issues of concern to LGBT seniors, and writes on LGBT senior issues for Buffalo’s Loop Magazine. You can find him at facebook.com/rodney.hensel.