By: Clara Lefton/TRT Reporter—
BOSTON, Mass.—In the last decade, a variety of gatherings centered around food have attracted members of the elderly LGBT community in Massachusetts. These groups’ formats range from potlucks, supper clubs, meal sites, brunch groups and more throughout all parts of the Commonwealth. While food is their common ground, these interactions serve as a basis to create a much larger community for those who might be looking for friends as they enter later stages of their lives.
“As a result of joining this club, I have met many interesting and fun loving people,” said Carol Xavier, a frequent attendant of the Fairhaven Council on Aging’s LGBT Supper Club. “Becoming a member of the dinner club has led to other activities such as socializing, traveling and dining together. By having friends in the LGBTQ community, I don’t feel that I’m just living in a so called, ‘straight world.’”
Although food gatherings like these have long been common among the general elderly public, no LGBT-specific meetings existed in New England as of 10 years ago. The first gathering was organized by Ethos, the Boston-based elder services organization that has served the elderly and disabled since 1973, as a federally funded congregate meal program. It took place at the Emmanuel Church in Boston in 2004 with no religious affiliation required. The location is easily accessible by a subway that includes handicap access (the Arlington T Stop on the MBTA Green Line). [pullquote]“LGBT elders are generally now acknowledged as being at greater risk for premature aging, being institutionalized, etcetera,” said Dale Mitchell, executive director of Ethos.[/pullquote]
“LGBT elders are generally now acknowledged as being at greater risk for premature aging, being institutionalized, etcetera,” said Dale Mitchell, executive director of Ethos. “So we embarked on this experiment and we had no idea what to expect, if anybody would turn out, and if this was a need we were addressing or just some windmill we were tilting out.”
Initially, Cafe Emmanuel had a low attendance, but once Ethos did some outreach into the community it brought in more attendees. Specifically, Ethos sought help via the LGBT Aging Project, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the quality of life of LGBT seniors, which has since merged with The Fenway Institute at Fenway Health.
“It sent the signal that this straight organization called Ethos is cool and can be trusted,” explained Mitchell.
Currently, the cafe meets every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and suggests a donation of a $1.75 from seniors. These gatherings often include music recitals with performances from local students at both the Boston Conservatory and the New England Conservatory of Music. Although Cafe Emmanuel continues to be an overall success today, the site has always been heavily popular among men.
“It was frustrating that it was all men, but we had an opportunity to do a needs assessment with older lesbian, bi, and trans women [in the area],” explained Fenway Health’s Assistant Director of the LGBT Aging Project, Bob Linscott. “The reality was these women were still working, [while] the men are all happily retired, so they didn’t have the luxury to come play at a cafe in the middle of the daytime.”
Ethos then started another group called Out2Brunch to combat this inequality and reach out to a female demographic. The very first meeting took place in December 2007 in the Roslindale House, located at 120 Poplar Street in Roslindale, Mass. This particular spot in a community room of an elderly housing complex has brought in the community of women to which Ethos was hoping to appeal.
Today Ethos runs more than 20 elderly-focused cafes in various locations around Boston, with three dedicated specifically to the LGBT Community. Ethos is one of 27 Aging Services Access Points (ASAPs) that provide services like this to the Massachusetts public. Each caters to specific geographical needs of areas in the state, and others include the Cambridge Elder Services. LGBT congregate meal sites run by these different ASAPs are similar to Ethos, although not all meet as frequently as once per week. Many are held monthly or every other week.
“We were looking for ways to reach out to older LGBT adults, especially ones [who were] 60 and older—in this case [those] who were isolated or who were nutritionally challenged,” said Ben Labonte, an LGBT peer worker at Elder Services of Worcester Area Inc. “So it’s the same as the lunches who are served at the senior centers, but our population isn’t fond of the senior centers. They don’t feel welcomed there and if they do go, they don’t announce that they’re a member of the LGBT community. So, this way they can get together, be comfortable, and not have to come out, because everyone else is [a part of the LGBT community] too!” [pullquote]“So it’s the same as the lunches who are served at the senior centers, but our population isn’t fond of the senior centers. They don’t feel welcomed there and if they do go, they don’t announce that they’re a member of the LGBT community.—Ben Labonte, an LGBT peer worker at Elder Services of Worcester Area Inc.[/pullquote]
The Worcester LGBT Elder Network also holds education programs and activities to help build the community. Their every-other-week congregate meals serve as a great way to introduce seniors to other services that are available to them outside of community building, like health related issues.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” said Gail Donahue, an attendee of the Fairhaven Council on Aging’s LGBT Supper Club. “It feels like family and everyone is friendly. Several of us have formed a subgroup from the group and get together monthly at each other’s houses for a potluck supper and lots of laughs. It is so nice to have a group to rely on and who care about each other.”
Despite being LGBT-specific, all congregate meals are also open to those under 60 as well as allies to the community. To see a full listing of the LGBT meal groups in the New England area, visit The Rainbow Times Calendar at www.therainbowtimesmass.com/calendar. For more information on Ethos, visit www.ethocare.org.