By April Magee, Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council

In mid-1960s Edmonton, Larry Jewell entered a men’s bathroom and happened upon a secret message. Scrawled haphazardly in marker on a cubicle wall, the message’s author asked where to meet gay men in Edmonton. Someone penned an answer the very next day. Prior to the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969 – and even after that – social isolation was a fact of life for LGBTQ+ people who were forced to communicate in secret. From an early age, Larry knew the importance of “closing in on oneself” as a measure of self-preservation.

Fast forward five decades and the struggle for LGBTQ+ seniors continues. Now Larry lives in a posh seniors’ residence in Edmonton’s core. When he recalled moving into his new home. Larry mentioned, “I was surprised at how difficult I found it to acknowledge openly and completely that I’m gay”. In assessing the attitudes of seniors’ organizations, Larry draws parallels to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy adopted by the US military between 1994 and 2011. This hushed attitude pervades seniors’ spaces and sets the stage for intense social isolation, shoving LGBTQ+ seniors back into the closet or keeping them there if they never made it out in the first place.

Homophobia faced by seniors was informed by the zeitgeist of the 20th century. According to fellow Edmontonian Alvin Schrader, “we grew up in an atmosphere when there were so many lies, distortions and misrepresentations of LGBTQ+ people”; these distortions incited a pervasive fear of persecution among LGBTQ+ people who closed themselves off and became socially isolated.

Today, Larry and Alvin are shaking things up to make seniors organizations welcoming and caring places for all people. Both gentlemen belong to the Edmonton Pride Seniors Group (EPSG)—a small but mighty organization that promotes LGBTQ+ inclusive policy changes by working with policymakers and governing members of Edmonton seniors’ organizations.

Additionally, the EPSG tackles important projects that help seniors directly. In an effort to reduce feelings of social isolation among LGBTQ+ seniors, the EPSG launched a telephone-based support group called Aging with Pride. On the first and third Wednesday afternoon of each month from 4–5 p.m., the phone line is open to LGBTQ+ seniors who want to connect with members of their community. The group has operated through the Edmonton Southside Primary Care Network’s Seniors Centre Without Walls (SCWW) program since January and is facilitated by members of the EPSG.

The support group does not follow a formal format and allows callers to talk about issues important to them. Because it is often challenging for LGBTQ+ seniors to come forward, Larry has a very clear message: “Take your time. This is a safe place. We’re not going to force you to talk. If you want to listen, that’s okay. When you’re ready to talk, we’ll listen.”

The program is still in the early stages but provides an important means of connecting LGBTQ+ seniors who are closeted and isolated. Larry has high hopes the support line will evolve as more people become aware of its existence. LGBTQ+ seniors and their allies are encouraged to call the Southside Primary Care Network at 780-395-2626 for more information and to get involved. The group is also seeking LGBTQ+ advocates and volunteers to support the group. Those who want to participate in the group but do not wish to disclose their identity can call in anonymously by dialing 1.855.703.8985 and entering the meeting ID 293.631.2402#.