Advocating for Petaluma’s LGBT seniors

Workshops, trainings aim to aid an often isolated demographic in Petaluma and the greater Sonoma County.|

Gary “Buz” Hermes has spent his entire life carrying the burden of fear and isolation.

The 77-year-old has hidden from police who once raided gay bars in San Francisco, escaping through back windows and fearing he’d be jailed. He’s been the victim of a gay bashing and lost a job because of his sexual orientation. He’s dreaded being disowned by his family and friends, hiding his sexuality for years. Growing up in Napa in the 1950s, he says it was difficult for him to accept that he was homosexual, and he struggled with the idea that being anything other than a straight man made him a criminal or signaled he was mentally ill.

“I had this very bad image of myself as someone that was flawed, and it took me a long, long time and lot of work and the culture changing to accept it and to realize that I wasn’t alone and that there were lots of people like me,” he said.

Hermes, who will serve as the facilitator for “Aging Together with Pride,” an eight-week discussion group to be held from June 4 to July 30 at the Health Center in Petaluma, said he’s heard countless other stories from an aging demographic in Sonoma County who have faced the same challenges - many of whom continue to exist in isolation despite a widespread societal shift to a larger acceptance of an increasingly vocal LGBT population.

He said many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors who have faced discrimination during their lives are more likely to be hesitant to seek social services, including affordable housing or in-home care, for fear of discrimination from caregivers or peers.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging, up to four million Americans ages 60 and over identify as LGBT. As part of a recent needs assessment survey for Sonoma County, the Area Agency on Aging held focus groups and interviews, which revealed LGBT seniors felt geographical and social isolation were a barrier to health care, also expressing a desire for service providers to value diversity.

“There are two things happening,” said Hermes, a Sonoma resident, who’s also a co-facilitator for the Sonoma Valley LGBT Seniors group. “Being a senior in our culture means that you are kind of left in the dust. We are such a youth-focused culture that just being old leaves you kind of invisible and not having a sense of place. And then add another layer of being LGBT, where you didn’t have a place, and you really had to fake it to make it for a long time, it compounds in isolation.”

The group, which is intended for those 60 and over, addresses shame, acceptance, and cultivating interdependence as well as how to seek out resources to be prepared for the future, he said.

Hermes has teamed up with Nancy Flaxman, a Novato-based cultural competency and aging services consultant, to administer a one-year program titled “Reaching Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Seniors in Sonoma County,” leading four discussion groups across the county and working with local agencies to instill best practices using a $13,500 grant from the Sonoma County LGBTQI Giving Circle of the Community Foundation Sonoma County along with funds from the county’s Adult and Aging Services Division.

Part of paving the way for LGBT seniors to feel comfortable accessing services is by training the providers and program participants to be culturally competent and sensitive, said Flaxman, who has led trainings at the Petaluma People Service Center, the Adult and Aging Services Department and the Council on Aging.

A 2011 National Senior Citizens Law Center survey of LGBT older adults in long-term care facilities shows that only 22 percent of respondents felt they could be open about their LGBT identities with staff, while 89 percent predicted that staff would discriminate based on their sexual orientations or gender identities.

“Most LGBT seniors are in the closet - they don’t talk to anyone about who they are, from family members neighbors to service providers to doctors to therapists,” Flaxman said. “They’re not accessing the service, but also when they do access services, they don’t talk about their lives, and they’re compromising not only the quality of the service they’re getting, but also their physical, emotional and social wellbeing.”

At Petaluma People Services Center, which provides resources including case management, adult day care, meals and transportation for more than 300 seniors, the training for about 40 staff members and 30 seniors has created a valuable discussion, according to Director of Senior Services Anita Tanenberg. She said the organization already puts into practice many LGBT-friendly tactics, including using messages of inclusivity in its promotional information, adding that celebrating diversity has long been a part of the center’s culture.

Flaxman said her training programs, which include bringing in LGBT seniors to share their stories, are “non-threatening,” and she doesn’t try to change people’s beliefs.

“What I compare it to is when you’re trying to reach monolingual Spanish speaking seniors but you don’t have anyone on staff who speaks Spanish,” she said. “You’re basically teaching people how to speak gay and how to do all the things that let LGBT seniors know you’ve thought about them, you care about them and you want to include them.”

Diane Kaljian, the county’s Adult and Aging Services director, said the programs play an important role in working to ensure quality of life for all seniors.

“We don’t want how people identify themselves to be a barrier for services,” she said.

Hermes says he hopes the group will give Petaluma seniors a safe and supportive place to share their stories and to celebrate their identities. To register for the group, which will be held from 1-3 p.m. Saturdays, call Hermes at 227-6935.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at On Twitter @hannahbeausang.)

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