For many older LGBTQ people, entering long-term care can mean going back in the closet.
That is, people who may have been out for decades often set aside central parts of their identities in fear of discrimination or stigma as they seek places to live in senior housing, assisted-living centers, or nursing homes, says Les Geller, who helped start the Raleigh affiliate of the New York-based organization SAGE, or Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, in 2011. (The local SAGE affiliate was previously called Gay and Gray.)
Given the need for affordable housing for older LGBTQ people, Geller helped found the SAGE Raleigh Senior Housing Initiative last year. Allied with a national effort called UC Homes, it's designed in part to avoid the wrenching syndrome of LGBTQ people having to deny their sexuality.
"Federal civil rights law says you can't have housing for LGBT only, but you can make it welcoming," Geller explains. "There are two parts to the effort. One, there's the actual desire to build or buy housing to live in. Two, there's an educational element, where we go out to facilities to talk to administrators about these people's situation. We have gotten a very positive reaction."
Geller says he's seen examples in the Triangle of people who enter long-term care but break off relations with their LGBTQ friends and no longer identify themselves as gay to the people they're around every day. In addition, sometimes fellow residents with dementia and/or "no filters" can use demeaning and hurtful language.
There's more than anecdotal evidence that LGBTQ baby boomers can run into trouble in medical and long-term care environments. A 2006 study by the MetLife Mature Market Institution called "Out and Aging" found, "Gaps in knowledge and education of healthcare providers appear to correlate with perceptions shared by the older LGBT patient population. More than a quarter of older LGBT adults report great concern about discrimination as they age."
Geller, a seventy-one-year-old New Jersey native, has lived and worked in Raleigh since 1994 and has been a key figure in the community since before the formal founding of the LGBT Center in 2009.
"I heard that there was a group of people that were starting an LGBT center in Raleigh," he says. "I wanted to be there so that senior people would have a place at the table."
Geller was educated at Syracuse University and had a background in architecture and high-end retail. Two decades ago, he and his then-partner decided to leave New Jersey; they explored up and down the East Coast before landing in the Triangle. Now married to Allan Feinstein, a realtor, Geller has experienced the ups and downs of gay acceptance in North Carolina.
In recent years, the harsh edges of bigotry and discrimination have made themselves increasingly clear in a state where tolerance once seemed to have the upper hand. Geller says his experiences in Raleigh have been almost entirely positive, but he's worried by what he sees happening statewide.
"When you see HB 2 and you see Amendment One, you wonder what is going to come down next," Geller says. "There is a fear that they're going to try to undo gay marriage."
As a low-key person—he recalls being a theater nerd in his youth—Geller says he's not the kind of confrontational spokesman who stages a sit-in at a legislator's office. However, LGBT Center board member John Hammond calls him "an extremely strong advocate for services for the aging [LGBTQ] community ... It is in his heart and soul," Hammond says in an LGBT Center video tribute to Geller.
Bobby Hilburn, former executive director of the center, says Geller grew in his role as a community leader. In time, "with that knowledge of himself, he became an amazing advocate," Hilburn says.
Geller changed his areas of concentration during his tenure with the LGBT Center. After Gay and Gray joined SAGE in 2011, he says, "We established a certain number of things we wanted to do for the first three years. So many of our seniors were isolated from their families, had no children, and had friends and partners who died from HIV."
The group hosts fairly standard activities: a downtown dance in the spring, cookouts for Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day, and a holiday potluck. SAGE also sponsors a Thursday morning drop-in at the LGBT Center.
But much of Geller's focus is on the housing issue. A recent feasibility study showed there was a need of 700 affordable units and 220 market-rate units for Triangle LGBTQ residents.
So his work continues: locating a developer who could help with housing and educating social workers in existing facilities about the ways discrimination can make long-term care a bad experience for LGBTQ folks.
"There should be recognition that we bring our needs to be recognized as opposed to being oppressed," Geller says.