Challenging the Standard: Two women shed light on overlooked LGBT groups
By Sheryl Kay
Coming out can be difficult in Kyrgyzstan, says Anna Kirey. Families in this small independent Turkic state—once part of the Soviet Union—are slow to accept their lesbian daughters, and sometimes inflict physical abuse and psychological damage in an effort to "change" them.
"We know of cases of beatings, rape, house arrest, disowning and kicking [children] out of the house," says Kirey, a 31-year-old activist who was raised there. "We live our lives somewhat quietly." Kirey herself, though, has done anything but live her life in silence.
At 16, Kirey was an exchange student in America, where she got her first taste of social justice, read her first book about lesbian women and fell in love with her first girlfriend. Feeling empowered she returned to Kyrgyzstan and in 2004 helped found Labrys, the leading LGBT advocacy group in her country.
Labrys addresses a wide variety of issues, including education, health and legal initiatives, both in Kyrgyzstan and in other parts of Europe and Asia. Now the senior advisor and chair of the board, responsible for research, international advocacy and fundraising, Kirey's done it all—from working on legislative agendas to making late-night visits to the police station to help those arrested for LGBTrelated "offenses."
Today, Kirey finds herself back in the U.S., where she has received a merit assistantship from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is doing coursework in Russian, Eurasian and East European studies with a focus on gender, sexuality and history. "I really want to make academic texts more accessible to activists and activists more interested in research and cooperation with universities," she says. "The more I dive into academia, the more I realize how much history and social context matter in addressing injustices. My contribution…is learning more about my post-Soviet region, its history and culture, in order to find culturally sensitive ways to get LGBT rights on the government agenda and to become part of the human rights discourse."
Serena Worthington's career in activism began through art. Having spent several years as an art therapist, she was building a successful treatment program for seniors at a nursing home in Chicago when she was asked how the facility could be improved. Worthington immediately thought to increase attention to and programming for the LGBT population.
"I realized that there were LGBT residents in nursing homes all over the country, and some were most likely living in isolation—or worse, experiencing discrimination, neglect and even abuse," she says. "Then I searched the Internet and discovered, to my surprise, a whole LGBT aging field."
One educational conference later, she landed a job at the Center on Halsted, Chicago's LGBT community center, as the founding director of the SAGE program (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders).
During her tenure, the SAGE program grew from about four programs a month to 40, and the number of elders taking advantage of its services grew to over 125 a week.
While there, Worthington also learned that many lesbians experience a lifetime of discrimination. In turn, she helped create comprehensive programs that addressed those challenges in substantial ways, through job training, access to benefits, managed care for chronic health conditions, and estate and health-care planning.
Today, Worthington is director of Community Advocacy and Capacity Building at SAGE's headquarters in N.Y.C. Given our demographics—the composition of our society—Worthington sees much work ahead.
"As the Baby Boomer generation enters the next decades, this country will become increasingly older, and that will include the first generation of [openly out] LGBT people," she observes. "We have an important opportunity, with the upcoming reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, to ensure that LGBT older adults are explicitly recognized by the federal government as a community in vital need of services and support."