Pride and belonging - queer seniors and social service agencies

Published 14, Dec, 2011
Author // John McCullagh - Publisher emeritus

The experiences of queer seniors living in long-term care homes or receiving services in day care and recreational programs hasn’t always been positive. In the second of a two-part series on the needs of older LGBT people, John McCullagh reports.

 Pride and belonging - queer seniors and social service agencies

In the first of these two reports from the Senior Pride Network’s (SPN) Opening the Closet on Aging conference held in Toronto at the end of November 2011, I wrote about what aging means for a generation of queer people whose activism was central to our current rights activity and how aging complicates issues related to sex, sexuality and our abilities to live open, out lives.

To help us begin to explore solutions to these issues, the 175 delegates in attendance at the conference took part in a number of workshops on a variety of topics: how to inspire a culture of change in building safe and accessible spaces for older queer people, how to access appropriate health care, issues of loss, resilience and personal empowerment, the concerns of older LGBT newcomers and refugees, sexuality in old age, aging with HIV and practical matters such as legal and human rights and making the most of social media.

One of the workshops that I found particularly interesting focused on the experiences and lessons learned when creating older LGBT-inclusive programs and policies in senior day care and recreational programs as well as in long-term care homes.

Unfortunately, the experience of queer seniors in such places hasn’t always been positive. LGBT seniors have reported negative reactions from staff, volunteers and non-queer clients that include rejection, discrimination, open hostility, harassment, excessive curiosity, avoidance of physical contact and breach of confidentiality. This results in many queer seniors living in isolation.

All the agencies who presented at this workshop acknowledged that a large number of their future clientele were likely going to be members of the LGBT community and that this meant they had to - wanted to - increase access and equity for queer seniors.

So the question is, how to do it? The good thing is that the wheel doesn’t have to be re-invented. Many social service agencies - and not just those working with seniors - have already learned what works when providing services to members of the queer community.


Of primary importance, we were told, is ensuring that an organization is welcoming of LGBT people, that it’s a place where they feel safe and secure. How welcoming is an agency to queer people - and not just to clients but staff and volunteers as well? Does it have images - rainbow flags, for example - and brochures that let people know that they’re welcome there?

But welcome signs, however important, are just the start. You cannot be welcoming without clear policies, procedures and programming to back it up. And that cannot be done without the involvement of members of the queer community to provide advice, support and feedback.

The workshop presenters were clear that education of management, staff and volunteers at all levels is crucial. Some may come to training with strong religious or personal values and assumptions that may make it difficult for them to fully accept queer people (including the special needs of those living with HIV) in a non-judgmental and supportive way. Experience shows, however, that most staff and volunteers in social service agencies value training that’s sensitive and respectful and that focuses on clients as people with individual needs.

Yet, at the same time, the organization must to be clear about the direction it’s going in - to be inclusive and accepting of queer people. And those who cannot accept that direction are not suitable people to work or volunteer there. But because we’re all human, undesirable or inappropriate incidents will occur so risk management procedures need to be in place to ensure that there’s a process to deal with inappropriate behaviour.

Training and good policies, however, aren’t enough. All the agencies who presented agreed that LGBT-inclusive programming was an important component in making an agency queer-friendly. Such programming could include discussion groups, outings to community events, in-house cabaret shows and, not least, the annual celebration of Pride week. By making such activities inclusive, so that those who attend don’t have to identify as queer, agencies have found that the their non-LGBT clients become more accepting of those who are. “I’m here to support my [queer] friend” was one typical comment.

Ken Miller is a resident of one of the City of Toronto’s long-term care homes, where the administration is working hard to make them LGBT-welcoming and inclusive. He moved his audience when he talked about how shocked yet pleased he was when his long-term care home organized activities in-house to coincide with Toronto’s annual Pride Week celebrations. “I came out all over again - with pride”, he said. This was a powerful statement from a man who came from a time when queer people didn’t have a voice. Miller’s experience of proudly living an openly gay life in a city-run long-term care home shows what’s possible when an agency delivers appropriate services for LGBT people in a positive and caring environment.


The agencies who presented at this workshop had clearly made great strides in making their programs and services inclusive and welcoming of queer people. I couldn’t help noticing, however, that most of the presenters at the workshop were self-identified queer people. It does seem - and this reflects my own experience in doing this kind of work in a child welfare agency - that, while we have lots of straight allies who are open and accepting of our needs, it’s still LGBT people ourselves who need to be up front and centre in ensuring that change happens.

So where do we go from here? About 60% of the people who were registered for the conference came from agencies that work with seniors. Many were LGBT community members, many were not. As such, service providers attended workshops alongside community members and had the opportunity to share experiences and to work collaboratively on activities and projects designed to enhance services for older queer people. As this work is necessarily ongoing, the SPN is hoping to plan additional capacity building opportunities and community events to address the topics raised in this two-day conference.

I left the conference with a feeling of hope - that together we are on the road to expanding appropriate and welcoming programs and services for older lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people, both in Toronto and throughout Canada.

Editor's note: We've added a trailer for the excellent documentary Gen Silent which covers some of the issues John has addressed here.


About the Author

John McCullagh - Publisher emeritus

John McCullagh - Publisher emeritus

John McCullagh is the publisher of He's an HIV-positive gay man who’s been active in Toronto's LGBTQ community since immigrating to Canada from his native Britain in 1975. A social worker by profession, he's worked in government and the not-for-profit sector in both front-line and management positions. His experience includes research, policy analysis, strategic planning, program development, project management, and communications.  

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, John was a counsellor at the Toronto Counselling Centre for Lesbians and Gays (now known as David Kelley Services), an organization he co-founded and which was one of the first agencies in Toronto to offer professional counselling to those infected with and affected by HIV. 

Now retired, John volunteers with the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and is a board member of CATIE, Canada’s national HIV and Hepatitis C knowledge broker.  

John regularly contributes articles to about his personal experiences of living with HIV and about issues relevant to Canada's HIV and LGBTQ communities.