Metro Vancouver’s LGBTQ seniors fear bias as health declines (with video)

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People forced to hide their sexual identity for most of their lives shouldn’t be pushed back into the closet as they age, concludes a report released Monday in Vancouver.

The discussion paper called Aging Out is the result of conversations between lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) seniors in Metro Vancouver with staff of the Qmunity resource centre in Vancouver’s West End.

“There’s a deep level of self-closeting in our older generation,” says Dara Parker, executive director of Qmunity.

“This is a generation that when they came of age, it was illegal to be who they were.”

Someone who is 75 today was 30 years old when Canada decriminalized homosexuality in 1969 and 34 when it was removed from U.S. medical guidelines as a mental illness in 1973, the report notes. By the time discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was made illegal in Canada in 1996, he or she was well into middle age at 57.

As a result, common fears around aging, illness, hospitalization and possibly moving into seniors’ care are heightened among people who have felt vulnerable most of their lives.

“They grew up in a generation where they weren’t treated very well. Most people didn’t accept them and they’re aging with that same generation who’s going to be in the same care home,” explains Parker.

“The challenge is that their legal rights have not translated into lived equalities. So the day-to-day experiences and the culture that we live in still prevent people from being fully included and feeling a sense of safety.”

And because few lesbian and gay couples had children in past generations — and many were rejected by their relatives — they are often alone in old age or relying on a circle of friends that differs from a traditional family.

The report makes two recommendations: that health authorities add questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to their intake forms for publicly funded residential facilities; and that seniors be given more than 48 hours to accept or reject a bed when it comes open so they can determine whether it’s suitable.

Health officials were consulted during research for the report and Parker said the most common reaction was that it’s an issue they never considered.

For that reason, no one really knows how many LGBTQ seniors are in care. Finding out could improve their treatment, she says.

“If we start talking about it, people will start thinking about it and people will start dealing with it.”

Qmunity says previous research estimates that nearly seven per cent of the population are “out LGBTQ,” representing about 25,000 people among 362,000 seniors living in Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health authorities. But hard numbers are not available.

Following a major stroke four years ago, Glen Saunders moved into Haro Park in Vancouver’s West End — considered the most gay-friendly seniors’ care facility in the province. Saunders, 65, is a member of its LGBTQ committee which looks into complaints from residents who think they’ve experienced discrimination.

He says he’s in favour of health authorities collecting information on sexual orientation.

“There are a lot more LGBTQ people out there than society is prepared to admit. It’s a way of documenting how many people there are. I think that’s a desirable thing.”

Saunders says Haro Park is generally progressive, but when he goes for a walk, he is still sometimes called a “faggot.”

“We’re an easy target.”

For Donna Bell, a future in care creates fears about not being accepted. Born a male 70 years ago, Bell told The Sun she began her transition to becoming a woman in her early 60s, after marriage, raising a family and caring for a wife paralyzed by multiple sclerosis.

But Bell is now in a loving relationship with a woman — “I’ve always related to females. Most males I never got along with,” she says — something as unexpected as it is uplifting.

“I’m happy and joyful expressing these emotions that I always believed in, but I never felt for myself,” she says.

Yet her health is deteriorating so she can see more medical treatment or long-term care in her future.

“I know that the time is close at hand to be in a care facility. You hear the horror stories of gay people being forced to deny they’re gay. It’s tragic for them if they fear they’re going to be rejected,” says Bell.

“I don’t want to be cross-examined, belittled or ridiculed.

“I just want to be; just to live.”

The discussion paper took two years to complete and was funded by the Vancouver Foundation. It can be found at


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