Respect Your Elders: SAGE of the Bluegrass and Queer Senior Advocacy

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by Lucia Burton

What is the point of representation if some are left out of the narrative? What about those who came before us? This question is exactly what drives SAGE, an organization satisfying the need for services and community for LGBTQ+ older adults. With 30 smaller affiliates across the country, Kentucky is proudly home to one of them.

Based in Louisville and Lexington, and brain-child of the Fairness Campaign, SAGE of the Bluegrass provides services and advocacy programs for queer seniors in Kentucky. They exist at the crucial — though often overlooked — intersection of age, gender, and sexuality. Acting as both a voice and an ear for queer older adults in need of representation, community, and solidarity, they assert such seniors’ visibility in the ongoing discourse of queerness.

Maggie Carnes, Organizer for the Fairness Campaign, has taken SAGE under her wing. Around since its beginning stages, Carnes has seen SAGE from a mere application to the blossoming group it is now: one that holds monthly SAGE suppers, volunteer events, paint nights, “Coffee and Conversation” at Vint, and Medicare information sessions.

The SAGE suppers are their most well-known and well-attended gatherings; usually averaging around 20 people, it is a time for community building, chatter, sharing thoughts, and, of course, food. At last year’s Thanksgiving-themed supper, they saw double the attendees, as well as invited individuals from the Louisville Youth Group, another Louisville non-profit designed to serve queer Kentucky youth. Such an event built an intergenerational bridge not only between people, but between the differences existing in their lived experiences.

Behind these events, behind SAGE itself, is the ideology that proves why this representation is vital and needed: according to Carnes, queer seniors are twice as likely to be single and live alone and four times less likely to have children. In a focus group conducted during the SAGE affiliate application process, many reported not feeling safe, discrimination, harassment, housing discrimination in assisted living care, and fear of sharing who they are. With isolation and loneliness already being a massive problem for older adults, the severity of such solitude is compounded when a senior is a part of the LGBTQ+ community. A layered identity creates a layered experience.

Additionally, while “queer-friendly” spaces in Louisville exist, it is not merely enough to simply accomodate for marginalized members. While Louisville does not even have a physical LGBTQ+ center that is designed and used solely by queer community members, most social spaces are are bars, clubs, and other non-sober spaces that are not marketed towards seniors. With a lack of programming and a lack of space, SAGE of the Bluegrass is fundamental in the effort to protect, honor, and recognize the older queer generation.

While the need of their services is constant, SAGE of the Bluegrass is more crucial now than ever before. While millions have quarantined themselves in their home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (thank you!), the organization’s efforts to continue to create community — in the midst of rampant social isolation — among queer seniors is no small feat. Carnes has said they are restructuring their programming to begin weekly “coffee chats” over Zoom, and also plan on providing tutorials on exactly how to operate the video platform.

Loneliness and isolation of seniors is its own rapidly growing issue. Add to that the marginalization of LGBTQ+ individuals. Plus being in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Queer older adults are at the bullseye target of it all, and cannot be forgotten. As SAGE of the Bluegrass is dusting off their seat at the table and recognizing their compounded experience, they continue to assert the well-being, belonging, and visibility of LGBTQ+ seniors. After years of growing up in decades where they were forced into silence, queer older adults are now able to be loud. SAGE of the Bluegrass is showing us how to listen.

Stay on the up&up! Follow SAGE of the Bluegrass on Facebook at facebook.com/SAGEbluegrass.

For those interested in volunteer opportunities, the national SAGE organization has implemented SAGEConnect, a program that joins a volunteer and LGBTQ+ senior through a weekly phone conversation for six weeks. SAGE of the Bluegrass is in need of volunteers to assist with phone banking for the primary election. Both of these are able to be completed remotely. If you would like to donate, go to their website or email Maggie Carnes at maggie@fairness.org.

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