Concerns over public safety, social isolation, and whether the city should offer programs specifically designed for LGBT seniors were among the topics that surfaced Monday night at an LGBTQ Town Hall Meeting sponsored by the D.C. Office on Aging.
About 50 people turned out for the meeting, including nearly a dozen D.C. government officials and city contractors involved in senior programs. The event took place at the city’s Hayes Senior Wellness Center at 500 K St., N.E.
The sentiment of most of the seniors who attended could not be determined because they chose not to speak. But among the half dozen or so who spoke, most expressed concern that the Office on Aging was not doing enough to reach out to LGBT seniors to inform them of the office’s programs.
Laura Newland, the office’s executive director who served as moderator of the meeting, told of her efforts over the past two years since she began her tenure as director to ensure that the office and all of its programs would be safe and welcoming places for LGBT seniors.
“I think it was really productive,” she said in assessing the 90-minute meeting after it ended. “It was a first step. I was really pleased with the amount of community members who came, the number of providers who showed up,” she said.
“So I think really for us it’s a great community effort for where we need to be,” Newland said. “So I look forward to working together with the community on doing better and doing more.”
David Mariner, executive director of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and a longtime critic of the Office on Aging, emerged during the meeting as the office’s most vocal critic, saying it has not improved its services for LGBT seniors in the nine years he has been observing its programs.
Mariner said his main concern was what he called the Office on Aging’s longstanding reluctance to create an LGBT specific congregate lunch program similar to the daily lunch programs it offers to other constituency groups such as Latino and Asian American seniors.
Newland has said the DCOA sponsors or arranges for 50 congregate lunch programs in locations throughout the city. Most are open to everyone and are not specific to a constituency group. She told the Blade in an interview earlier this month that DCOA employees and contractors that carry out DCOA programs have been given LGBT-related competency training and have become sensitive to the specific needs of LGBT seniors.
The office has worked hard to create a “safe space” for LGBT seniors in all of its programs, Newland said.
But Mariner pointed out at Tuesday’s town hall meeting that information he obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request last year shows that less than one percent of the seniors involved in any Office on Aging programs identified as LGBT. He said that in most other major U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, a much higher percentage of LGBT seniors participate in senior programs similar to those offered in D.C.
Nearly all of the other cities, Mariner said, have adopted LGBT specific congregate lunch or meal programs for LGBT seniors.
“It’s offensive to me as a gay man to be told it is appropriate to do something in the Chinese Cultural Center, it is appropriate to do something in the Hispanic Cultural Center but doing something specifically for gay people or for LGBTQ folks – no, hands off,” he said.
Newland said she has discussed this issue with Mariner in private conversations and has informed him that she and the DCOA are open to considering creating an LGBT specific congregate meals program if it can be shown that a significant number of LGBT seniors are interested in such a program.
She noted that some LGBT seniors have told her they prefer different types of programs and don’t necessarily favor an LGBT specific congregate meals program.
“So the conversations that you and I have had have been if there is a real need and desire for a congregate meal site in this city then let’s have a commitment, let’s see the number of people who are interested in this,” Newland told Mariner.
“And then based on the numbers let’s talk about location, let’s talk about what might make sense,” she said.
Newland also took exception to Mariner’s claim that less than one percent of LGBT seniors attend Office on Aging programs.
“LGBTQ seniors do go to our programming,” she said. “The question is whether they are out and whether they feel comfortable being out. So I don’t agree with you. There are people who don’t identify, and that’s a problem. I want them to identify…I’m committed to saying how can we support a safe space specifically for LGBTQ seniors.”
On a separate topic, a senior in the audience who said he was a transgender man expressed concern about his physical safety while walking in his neighborhood in Ward 6 near the Southwest Waterfront. He said other LGBT seniors he knows are uncomfortable talking to D.C. police officers out of fear of being subjected to ridicule.
D.C. Police Officer Joe Morquecho, a member of the department’s LGBT Liaison Unit who attended the town hall meeting, urged anyone encountering public safety issues to contact the commander of the police district in which they live.
James Sweeney, a member of the local LGBT Catholic group Dignity Washington, told the meeting at least two gay seniors associated with the group committed suicide in recent years. He said social isolation of LGBT seniors is an issue he and other Dignity members have become aware of. He suggested that the D.C. Office on Aging consider creating a telephone hotline for seniors who need someone to talk to as a suicide prevention measure.
Newland called the suggestion an excellent idea and said she would take immediate steps to look into creating such a hotline. She said she liked Sweeney’s suggestion that it be staffed by volunteers consisting of seniors.
Wes Morrison, an LGBT adviser to the American Association of Retired Persons, told the meeting many LGBT seniors were unaware of the DCOA’s services and activities, including the town hall meeting. He suggested that DCOA officials post notices about their program in locations frequented by LGBT seniors, including gay bars.
Gay senior Donald Hughes, who said he is a resident of Ward 7, said services for LGBT seniors in the city’s east end where he lives have not been good. He said he was faced with a bureaucratic runaround from a DCOA staff member in Ward 7 when he inquired about a city program for enabling seniors to continue to live in their homes.
“It’s very hard to maintain your dignity,” he said when it appears you are being treated in a patronizing way.
Newland said she was aware of some staffing related problems associated with that program and pledged to take steps to correct those problems.
“What I can tell you as executive director of the D.C. Office on Aging is that I am 100 percent committed to culture change, no matter how long it takes, no matter how hard it is, no matter how many hurdles we have to go through, no matter how many staff we have to go through,” she told Hughes.
“And sometime that can take longer than we want, but I am in it with you for the long haul,” she said.
Newland said a number of DCOA employees and members of private non-profit groups that provide work for the DCOA under city contract attended the town hall meeting.
Others attending were Sheila Alexander Reid, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs; Terrence Laney, deputy director of the LGBTQ Affairs Office; James Slattery, director of the Mayor’s Office of Correspondence; David Meadows, chief of staff for D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At-Large); and George Kerr III, a member of the board of the D.C.-based Mary’s House for Older Adults.