This post originally appeared in The Advocate.
For 25 years, DC Black Pride has been a Memorial Day weekend tradition of celebration and education for Washington, D.C.’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Taking place Friday through Sunday at the Washington Grand Hyatt hotel, this year’s event will see several thousand converging for parties, workshops, and live entertainment. For the first time, this year’s festival intentionally includes older adults in its programming. It also highlights a cause near and dear to my heart: Mary’s House for Older Adults, the first of its kind LGBTQI-friendly residence in D.C. for people age 60 and over.
This hasn’t always been the case. I remember my first DC Black Pride. I was in my 30s and almost everyone else around was younger, or so it appeared. The entertainment was geared to younger people; lots of brash male comedy, amazing drag shows, dancing, dancing, and more dancing by folks with bodies to die for. Folks would walk around Banneker Field to see and be seen. It was a great place to be — outside, not hiding, and with my tribe — black, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. At the time, I was a member of Nubian Women, a group of lesbians of African descent over 35. The organization was founded by Evelyn Glass and Joanna Banks because there was no place for “older” women who loved women to “go and be.” We had a table on Banneker Field and I was one of the women to staff the table.
My tablemate and I would laugh, chat, and flirt with everyone who came by. Older women (35+) thought it exciting to have a place for “older” women to go. Younger people would come by for the candy and maybe buy a T-shirt with the cute Nubian woman on the front. We would occasionally see an old drag queen; I can’t remember ever seeing older lesbians or any older gay males. I remember the workshops as fun, informative, and targeting people just like me.
Now I am a part of the group of invisible older lesbians, gay men, and trans, bi, and queer folk. We see the youthful, hot, sexy bodies of our past in the Pride advertisements of fun and excitement. We wonder, where do we now-older black people go to celebrate our LGBTQ proud selves during Black Pride? We wonder if the experiences will be truly comfortable or if people will snicker and whisper because we have the nerve to bring our AARP card-carrying selves to the party — that, by the way, begins at 11 p.m. — or that workshop about sex (yes, we still do it). It’s like our issues, like us, have been invisible. There is no mention of our shifting health and wellness issues; impending retirement; Medicare, isolation; caring for an aging partner, spouse, parents, adult children; or re-creating oneself.
DC Black Pride’s sanctioning of Mary’s House events will help raise awareness on a local and national level of the plight LGBT elders face in terms of living a quality life in the face of ageism and homophobia. Many LGBT baby boomers are childless. Who will take care of them in the final years of their lives? It is the work of Mary’s House to speak up for these members of our community and to advance their cause. Right now they may end up having to leave their longtime homes to move closer to extended family members with whom they are not out. One of the ways we advance social justice is to create citywide and national awareness of the housing and relational needs of LGBT elders. No one should have to go back into the closet just to get their basic needs met in the last chapter of their lives. All elders deserve to live their golden years by bringing their “whole selves” to the table.
Aging, in and of itself, renders many elders invisible. LGBT elders of color can have additional challenges based on sexism, ageism, and racism that create a loss of self and engender isolation and depression. We seek to eliminate these social injustices by creating welcoming living environments that feel like “home.” Creating such spaces helps dismantle the systems of oppression based on race, ethnicity, and economic status.
The first Mary’s House communal living structure will be built on property that I own in the Fort Dupont neighborhood of southeast D.C. While we are known as “LGBT-friendly,” everyone is welcome at Mary’s House. But Mary’s House is more than a brick-and-mortar project. We create awareness of the issues LGBT seniors face in trying to live their lives and procure safe and decent housing environments. In addition to the first six-unit studio residence, we are setting up a home share program, which will match LGBTQI seniors and allies with available living spaces in LGBTQI-friendly private homes in all eight wards of our city. If we can help LGBT elders find places to live, they will be less isolated and more free.
DC Black Pride’s sanctioning of our events helps raise awareness on a local and national level of the plight LGBT elders face and the simplicity of the housing model we envision. The biggest challenges to Mary’s House thus far are twofold: (1) to find grantors who are friendly to the LGBT population and LGBT elder housing concerns, and (2) once found, grantors who want to help build a different model of housing focused on a communal, family-like setting, unlike large institutional housing developments.
Community celebrations like DC Black Pride are a perfect opportunity to showcase the work of Mary’s House for Older Adults and to foster multigenerational awareness of the socio-economic issues facing our population as it ages. The 25th annual DC Black Pride will be both a celebration of our community and an opportunity to better the lives of our elders in the last chapter of their lives.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.