SAGE Center is country’s first, for LGBT elders
By Andy Humm
Tom Weber, the longtime director of Community Services for Services & Advocacy for Gay Lesbian Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE), notes that The SAGE Center is “the first municipally-funded senior center for LGBT people anywhere. We’ve been pushing for it for years.”
A senior center based on identity rather than geography, its mission is to serve LGBT people age 60 and up — but all are welcome. It came about when the Bloomberg administration decided to move beyond senior centers just placed on a neighborhood allocation, to establish “ten innovative centers” — one of which is The SAGE Center. “It represents New York City’s first formal recognition that the funding stream for older people needs to be LGBT inclusive,” said Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE. “It needs to be recognized by all local departments for the aging that older LGBT people have particular needs that have to be addressed by the whole system of aging services.”
While LGBT older people can and do use senior centers in their neighborhoods (including some particularly gay-friendly ones such as Greenwich House in the Village and Chelsea’s Hudson Guild), most say that it is easier to be themselves at The SAGE Center. An array of services and programs are geared to them, from counseling and consultations with a nurse to workshops on dance, art and writing. There’s a library and a lounge for unstructured activities. In what they call The Great Room, there is seating for up to 100 people to dine each weeknight for a nominal cost.
Roger Macon, 65, lives in Briarwood, Queens, but takes the train to The SAGE Center almost every day. “It’s like a family here,” he said over a hearty dinner of turkey Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes that is two bucks for those 60 and over and four for youngsters like me . “All my friends always lived in Chelsea and the Village. I have met people here that I thought had died and gone to heaven.”
SAGE estimates that 24 percent of those who use the new facilities are from Chelsea. Chelsea denizen Howard, 70 (who worked on the Gayellow Pages for years), is part of a group that puts together movie screenings on Friday afternoons. “I come here for the people, the community. Without this, I’d be home alone with my pets. Here, you can be yourself and be respected for it.”
Married two years ago in Connecticut, Barbara Police and Pat Slone have been together for 36 years. Police said the new SAGE Center “is like a second home,” a few blocks from their home at Selis Manor for the visually impaired — which also has one of the city’s new “innovative” senior centers, called Visions. “SAGE is family,” she said.
SAGE was founded in 1978 and some people have really grown along with it. Veteran lesbian activist Rosita Libre-de-Marulanda of Brooklyn, who still works in the city’s schools, is turning 67 this month and said that she has “been around SAGE since I was in my 30s. You never had to be a member to attend a workshop.”
Adams said, “The concept is that The SAGE Center is a place where LGBT older people can get a whole variety of services and opportunities in a place where they can feel at home.” Although SAGE maintains a drop-in space at the Village's LGBT Community Center (and has opened or plans to open satellite programs in Harlem and the other four boroughs), Adams hails Chelsea as “a significant part of where our historic constituency lives or spends a lot of time.” “We own the space and have decided to permanently plant ourselves in Chelsea.”
At The SAGE Center, “nutrition programs are very popular,” Adams said, “which includes meals, but also cooking and nutrition classes. We’re also seeing our cybercenter and computer classes as a big draw. There’s a big arts/culture track including classes in action, painting and dance. There’s a health and wellness track.” Many of the programs are run or aided by volunteers.
Adams noted that while a nurse is available for consultations, “SAGE isn’t a primary care provider.” There is an audio loop in the Center for the hearing impaired.
Weber said that SAGE also has partnerships with the McBurney YMCA, which SAGE members can use “at reduced rates” and that they also partner with the pool at the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center (at 1 Clarkson Street, at Seventh Avenue South).
CONTROVERSY OVER SAGE DROP-IN AT VILLAGE LGBT CENTER
In taking the great leap to open The SAGE Center in Chelsea and to expand into the boroughs — not to mention working with affiliated groups for older LGBT people across the country — SAGE was going to close its longtime drop-in center on the first floor of the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street, encouraging those who used it to trek 14 blocks Uptown.
Jerry Hoose, a veteran of the radical Gay Liberation Front that was born after Stonewall, said, “I was outraged. We weren’t going to tolerate it. I was willing to get arrested. The Village space is important because it is an LGBT Community Center and makes SAGE and the rest of us relevant when we go in there. Every time I walk in the building I feel like I’m making a political statement.”
Hoose organized the users of the informal, unstructured drop-in center where “it’s a social situation, people can get coffee, laugh like crazy sometimes, sometimes fight and leave as friends.”
A series of meetings with SAGE staff — including Adams — followed. “Michael was nice to us. He had not been aware how important the space was to us.” The drop-in will have to move upstairs while first-floor rooms are renovated for another use, but “we are guaranteed another year there and that fundraising will be done to keep us there,” said Hoose — fundraising that he will help with.
Hoose has no problem with the new SAGE Center, calling it a “great breakthrough.”
Of the controversy, Adams said, “It was an educational experience for me and the organizations. I learned why the space was so important to a number of people. Many of our folks are anti-war LGBT and feminist activists, and they did an amazing job.”
Libre-de-Marulanda is concerned that there will be less mixing of the generations with the drop-in upstairs at the LGBT Center, but it is a work in progress with another meeting on August 14 to work out details.
Longtime lesbian feminist activist Cheryl Adams, 65 (no relation to Michael), still works as a professor at York College in Queens and lives in Midwood, Brooklyn. For the past three years, she’s been a member of the SAGE Singers — through which she has made new friends. Adams thinks the new SAGE Center is “great,” but was part of the group that fought to keep a SAGE presence at the LGBT Center on 13th Street. Of The SAGE Center, she said, “There is nothing on this building or lobby” to proclaim that a big LGBT space awaits people on the 15th floor. “It’s a kind of closetedness.” But she said it is up to SAGE members such as herself to speak up. “Instead of complaining about what they have or don’t, people have to give input on what they want.”
While the city reserves some services at The SAGE Center to those 60-plus such as the $2 dinner, many are open to all ages. Amethyst Nemzoff, 66, who runs the Moonfire Empowerment and Spirituality Network, providing workshops on “empowerment, metaphysics and healing,” said of SAGE, “The only things I partake of here are the intergenerational activities. I have to temper being around older people with young people.”
Nemzoff, who ran the Lesbian Switchboard for three years back in the 1970s, said, “I discovered in my 60s that I like performing arts,” so she participates in “activities around performing and writing.” She works with the Mind the Gap writing workshop, sponsored by the renowned New York Theatre Workshop, where people in their 60s from SAGE write with teens from Youth Enrichment Services at the LGBT Community Center.
The evening I visited The SAGE Center, students from the Masters program in Applied Theatre from CUNY’s School of Professional Studies were there to perform a piece that they put together a few days after interviewing participants in The SAGE Center and Penn South’s senior center. Both groups of older people got to see the combined finished product separately, reflecting reminiscences about long ago hard times and issues of race, aging and sexuality. “We’re activist theatre makers,” said Carli Gaughf of the group, “who work with different populations.”
In the presentation, one of the female performers channeled a SAGE member: “The first time I was with another woman I said, ‘Do to me what you want me to do to you.’ ” That seems to be the spirit of The SAGE Center, where members are encouraged to suggest and run new workshops and programs rather than have options just presented to them.
HONORING A GENERATION THAT SURVIVED AIDS
Jay Kallio, turning 57 this month, is a member of SAGE’s Advisory Board and his LGBT activism stretches back to the early 1970s with Lesbian Feminist Liberation and now as a person of transgender experience. He said that The SAGE Center “is in the birthing stage. It’s going to be what people want it to be. What goes on at SAGE has to be open to diversity including transgender and all races and classes. I hope people will shape SAGE in a constructive fashion. I don’t want people limited to what staff can think of.”
As a member of the Advisory Council, Kallio is open to suggestions and noted that the council itself is soon going to evolve from an appointed body to include people elected from SAGE Centers around the city.
Kallio said, “It is an honor to serve the generation that survived AIDS, who never expected to see 60, lost so much in the 1980s and still suffer from chronic illness with the vicissitudes of age in a world where many are dependent on homophobic and HIV-stigmatizing elder services. For me, one of the most important things SAGE can do is to provide a safe and welcoming place for those who rightfully fear the future. I think SAGE should go international, there is such a need.”
One of the criticisms of SAGE, Kallio said, “is that well-to-do people don’t frequent it. I'd like to see an intermingling of donors to SAGE and those who use its services. It could be an enriching experience of what each other's lives are all about. People could be surprised." I saw a good mix on the night I was there, including people who are still employed and others I know to have solid pensions.
Michael Adams said that he and his spouse, Fred Davie, “are going to have dinner at the SAGE Center with a group of friends 60 and over. Those folks will come back.”
Shep Wahnon, a veteran gay and AIDS activist and longtime survivor of AIDS, said, “I just turned 60 in January so I am one of the youngest clients here. But there are quite a few people I know from around the community. I come here frequently because my computer died and they have a wonderful computer center all courtesy of David Bohnett, of course. The food is okay or good. There is always a vegetarian option.”
Wahnon is one those people in our community who is indefatigable in attending all kinds of LGBT forums and demonstrations, so SAGE is just one part of his new life as a senior. “They provide all kinds of classes and programs, none of which I’ve taken advantage of yet. SAGE also provides comp tickets to events around town, which I have taken advantage of.”
“We all know people who say, ‘I’ll never go to a senior center,’” Michael Adams said. “If people go once, they’ll come back.”
Copyright © 2012 - Chelsea Now
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