Energetic young activists may make the most noise, but with more senior citizens than any other borough in New York City, Queens has a thriving population of gay seniors, too.
The SAGE/Queens Clubhouse trolley rolls along through the streets of Jackson Heights.
By Jeff Feinman
Like any other senior citizens in our often youth-oriented society, many gay men and women in the later years of life have a tough time finding places that cater to them specifically. Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), created as a nationwide organization to help fill that vacuum, set up shop in Queens ten years ago and formed a partnership with the Forest Hills Community House. Today, with an office based in Jackson Heights, the center has a mailing list of 1,200 people and an active membership of about 400.
“A lot of folks I see are folks looking to be able to go some place where they can meet people their own age with similar experiences,” says SAGE Director Karen Taylor. “It takes a piece of courage to come through the door and see people on the other side that are just like you—some of whom have been out for decades, some out recently, some married with children, and some who have served our country.”
Originally operated from the basement of St. Andrew’s Church in Astoria, SAGE eventually set up its own office in Jackson Heights, a community densely populated with gays and lesbians. SAGE offers a variety of programs, including casework services for Queens’ seniors with health issues.
SAGE Director Karen Taylor (l.) and Assistant Director Mickey Helfand at the SAGE Center.
“Older people can be very isolated, “ says Denny Meyer, who is a member of SAGE, as well as the president and founder of American Veterans for Equal Rights New York. “When I had several operations and medical problems and was temporarily unable to take care of myself, the organization sent visitors to help me out. They’re really there for people in that situation. It also provides a great place to get together with others like yourself.”
About 65 percent of gay and lesbian seniors live alone and, for those afraid to visit doctors because of their sexual orientation, potential health problems loom. For members of SAGE, caseworkers are available two days a week to help those who are homebound. Many have been alienated from their families and loved ones. Others have been discharged from military service or have lost jobs because of their sexuality.
In the United States, 46 percent of agencies for the aging say that they will not accept gay seniors, Taylor says. Doctors may automatically assume that there is a family member available that will pick them up from the hospital.
Taylor has seen such biases first hand as the director of SAGE. “Sometimes, emergency response may not be as quick for a gay senior. There was once a man here who was having heart palpitations at the center, and when I called 911, he begged me not to tell them what SAGE stands for. He was afraid that they would not come as quickly as they would for someone who isn’t gay.”
Meyer, now living in Kew Gardens, has also noted such biases in the medical world, though he notes that the Veterans Association in New York is one of the best HIV treatment centers in the world. He said that the doctors at the VA are prepared for gay patients. In other hospitals, however, a warm reception for a gay person is not always the case.
“When you go to doctor, they have to know your sexual orientation,” says Meyer. “There is a great discomfort when they assume something about you and look at you in horror when they realize that you’re gay. All your information is there to see. Everything goes into a giant computer, which has been touted as a wonderful system except that your private information is there and any nurse can look at it. It can be a great loss of privacy and confidentiality.”
Meyer joined the Armed Forces and served in the Vietnam War because of strong patriotic ties and a desire to serve his country. At the time he was fully aware of his homosexuality, but kept it under wraps in order to avoid being discharged. In a homophobic environment, he says he was “serving in silence”—buttoning his lip and enduring homophobic jokes from other soldiers.
SAGE Assistant Director Mickey Helfand waves to the camera during one of the organization’s field trips.
For 10 years, Meyer served as a Sergeant First Class and then went on to take an international sales position. He criticizes the U.S. government for its homophobic attitude, especially when it comes to military service.
“41,000 gays would be willing to serve today in the military,” he says. “That would take care of all the army recruitment problems they’re having in an instant.”
Aside from health services and casework, SAGE focuses its energy on social outings for their members. There is a monthly social held, in which 50 to 60 people come out to meet others their own age. There are many trips to museums, lectures given by guest speakers, and health seminars given. They also offer writing and art classes.
“Many of our members might not feel comfortable in regular classes writing about their romantic experiences, so this is a good opportunity to express themselves freely,” says Taylor.
SAGE is located at 74-09 37th Ave. in Jackson Heights. To find out more about the programs they offer, call (718) 533-6459.