Every summer, LGBT people across the country step out during Pride season to honor who we are, celebrate the progress we’ve made, and re-energize ourselves for the battles ahead. Yet in the midst of all the revelry and marching, older people are often overlooked. This summer, SAGE is celebrating some lesser-known “Heroes of Pride” on their blog. Read on for a profile of activist Sally Ann Hay.
So glad to talk with you, Sally! Could you share some of your personal story with us? Who do you consider to be your family members?
I’m married to my partner Dee Bird, and I would say my primary family is my family of choice. I have a brother and sister who are aware and accepting. My sister has early onset Alzheimer’s and I’m managing her care, which is somewhat of a challenge because she lives in Arizona. My brother is a born-again Christian which had me a little worried, but it turns out he’s accepting. I also have a wonderful nephew.
Tell me a little bit about your working life.
I’m a retired psychiatric social worker. I worked in an agency and then in a private practice for the last ten years of my career. I worked with a large number of LGBT people.
What led you to the work in the LGBT community that you’ve done?
I came out at 27 in 1977 and have been very involved in the feminist movement, the antiwar and civil rights movements–and those continue to be very important to me. As for the LGBT movement, I backed into it. When I first moved to Rhode Island I went looking for a lesbian community. I wrote and edited forOptions, the LGBT news magazine. The punchline is that it was mostly gay men, not many lesbians! But it was great entrée to community. From that, I was involved in helping create Equity Action, a philanthropic fund dedicated to LGBTQ issues. That activity led to me putting on an LGBT elder healthcare seminar, and that led to SAGE!
Also, my uncle was Harry Hay, who started the Mattachine Society.
Wow, really? That’s amazing!
Yes! I didn’t get to know him when I was growing up—but because he was a communist, not because he was gay! As I got to know him in the last years of his life, one of the things that hit me was that we are a sexual minority and it’s important not to fall prey to the temptation to assimilate. So that’s been my motivation for the last ten years—we are a wonderful people, we aren’t like everybody else. Marriage equality doesn’t solve it.
How did you find out about him being this incredible early leader in the movement?
I was probably in my late 20’s or early 30’s–around 1980. I was in therapy and my therapist said “you must be pleased about the book about your uncle.” And I said “what book?” And she was horrified I didn’t know – the biography about him was just coming out [The Trouble with Harry Hay].
I was desperate to get a copy, and it’s in the preface that he’s a communist and I thought—oh that’s why my father was so against it! And then reading the book…I wish for everyone that you have a famous relative. Because it’s just a trip to read your family history! I thought “Wow, ok! This makes so much sense.”
How did you connect with him finally?
I wrote an article about lesbian and gay social workers in the late 80’s. He read it and sent a message to my sister and said “please let your sister know I know she’s a sister.” Now, I didn’t understand. I wrote a scathing letter [to him] saying “my coming out story is mine and by the way my father doesn’t know and if he’s going to find out it’ll be from me.” The possibility of his sharing my orientation horrified me. One of his claims to fame is “my safety is dependent on your silence” so he knew the importance of that.
He once said “I’m the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the gay rights movement” and at the time I thought “you arrogant S.O.B.!” But in time I came to appreciate that he was at times an arrogant S.O.B. and that was part of what it took to be the leader that he was.
I came to really appreciate the personal relationship and got to know he wasn’t a perfect human being in the last 6 years of his life. For both of us it was important to have family that was family of choice andbiological. It was really special. Neither of us ever expected to have that.
So tell me more about your involvement with SAGE.
When I started I got involved it was because it was an important issue. But then I aged into the cohort and thought “Oh this is about me!”
When I first got involved my partner was like “Why should we care? We all get older.” I said, “Just imagine we have need for home health care and someone comes to the house and they’re not ok with LGBT” that kind of crystallizes it.
Those of us in this age group have lived for so long under the radar that we can’t even realize what we don’t expect for ourselves! I’m trying to convey to LGBT older adults that we have a right to demand that we have appropriate healthcare.
When we show [the film] “Generation Silent”, the thing that strikes me is that people make the connection of “Oh my God, who’s gonna take care of me?” We’re resilient, but there’s an ending where it could get ugly.
Your colleague Cathy Cranston said that “Sally is the glue that held SAGE Rhode Island together over the last dozen years.” What’s the magic formula for that glue?
I’m good at making relationships and knowing how to put something into practice. I went to [aging advocate group] meetings and stood up and said “I’m Sally Hay from SAGE” but I’m very non-threatening and for the first year and half there was a shock value—“oh wow didn’t expect that!” and so because my presentation is nonthreatening I was able to start creating relationships that paid off for SAGE very well.
With age comes wisdom and I’m now backing out of it—I remember that I retired for a reason!
Sounds like you’ve earned a retirement!
Well thank you! I love that proverb, “If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go with friends.” I don’t feel I’ve done this alone.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.