Pride vs. Prejudice:  Nonprofit helps LGBT older adults stand loud and proud


By on Mon, June 21, 2010

During Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month in June, one nonprofit is renewing its effort to inform coastsiders and other LGBT older adults in San Mateo County of a free resource that helps them stand proud and overcome prejudice. Family Service Agency of San Mateo County, a San Mateo-based nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children, families and older adults, provides free peer counseling to LGBT older adults age 55-plus through its groundbreaking Senior Peer Counseling Program. Launched in 2008, the Senior Peer Counseling Program trains volunteers to provide free one-on-one and group peer counseling to older adults in the LGBT community who struggle with a unique set of challenges particular to their sexual orientation and gender identity. The program—which serves the LGBT community and other clients in English and also provides counseling in Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Tagalog—is on the cusp of renewing a one-year, $283,140 contract from San Mateo County’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Division to continue through June 2011. As such, the Senior Peer Counseling Program is seeking LGBT clients to benefit from the counseling, as well as volunteers to serve them.

According to Family Service LGBT Coordinator Ellyn Bloomfield, Family Service’s Senior Peer Counseling Program for LGBT older adults is somewhat of an anomaly at a time when few resources exist for the aging LGBT population, even in the progressive Bay Area. Bloomfield points to a 1994 study of Area Agencies on Aging (AAA’s)—the local agencies established to administer funds under the federal Older Americans Act—which found that 96% of the AAA’s surveyed offered no programs tailored to gay and lesbian older adults. The same report found that 50% of senior centers funded by these AAA’s believed gay men and lesbians would not be welcome if their sexual orientation were known.  Although there has been some improvement in resources for LGBT older adults since the ‘90s, Bloomfield says, “LGBT older adults largely remain invisible and their needs unaddressed.”

Family Service’s Senior Peer Counseling Program for LGBT older adults aims to address their special needs—while also educating heterosexual people to be more culturally sensitive to the LGBT community. Based on principles of self-help and mutual aid, the program seeks to develop a bond of trust between people of similar age, experience, values, wisdom, and culture. Through peer guidance, the program supports community members in understanding, strengthening, and sustaining LGBT family members and friends. It connects older adults to LGBT community resources and provides education about homophobia and other oppressions, gender identity, sexual orientation issues, LGBT discrimination and harassment. 

LGBT older adults who seek help from Family Service’s Senior Peer Counseling’s LGBT component are coping with a unique set of challenges. “Many of our LGBT clients grew up in a time when they could have been institutionalized for their sexual preferences, since homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1973,” said Bloomfield. Coming from that perspective, she says,“Many LGBT older adults live with immense fear of being found out, and so, they are deeply closeted.” When individuals do take the brave step of contacting Family Service’s program, Bloomfield says common issues they encounter are struggling to cope with social isolation, fear, prejudice, and being closeted.

“These people are real survivors on so many levels; many have lived to see their friends die during the AIDS crisis in the 80s, or fall victim to gay bashings,” remarked Bloomfield. “They’ve dealt with minority stress and stigmatization over time because of severe prejudice.”

The prejudice all-too-frequently includes relatives; many LGBT older adults assisted by the program look to cope with unsupportive families of origin and a lack of acknowledgment by society of their chosen partners/families. This prevailing prejudice that LGBT older adults have shouldered for decades often has adversely impacted key areas of their lives such as their work, health, and housing. Says Bloomfield, “LGBT older adults often need to continue working longer than their heterosexual counterparts because of their life differences; discrimination that occurred long ago, such as not being hired for a particular job, or being passed over for a promotion due to being gay, has sometimes manifested in present-day poverty.” In terms of healthcare, they have dealt with extremely hostile medical, mental and social health services due to a system that reflects prejudices that are the norm. For example, an LGBT older adult’s partner may fall seriously ill, yet the hospital may not allow them visitation rights or other privileges commonly extended to heterosexual spouses. And a major issue for LGBT older adults in San Mateo County, says Bloomfield, is a “Lack of access to appropriate housing while on retirement incomes, as well as coping with eviction due to being gay.” Overall, Bloomfield says, “There’s a lack of services tailored to LGBT older adult needs; so by offering a free resource where this community can work to overcome a lifetime of prejudice and other major challenges, our program hopes to make a profound difference.”

Family Service is seeking volunteers age 50-plus who are caring individuals to serve as peer counselors for the program’s LGBT component. Volunteers will serve older adults living in San Mateo County, should have access to a reliable car, and should be willing to make a one-year commitment. Following volunteer training sessions, peer counseling takes place at a mutually agreeable location for the counselor and client. To volunteer, please contact Geri Lustenberg at 650-403-4300, x4389 or [email protected].
To qualify to receive free counseling through Family Service’s Senior Peer Counseling Program, LGBT older adults must reside in San Mateo County and be 55 years or older. Both individual and group therapy sessions are available.

Family Service Agency of San Mateo County is a private nonprofit organization that for 60 years has helped Peninsula children, families and older adults transform their lives through the provision of programs and services including: child development and education; supervised family visitation and exchange; older worker employment and training; support services for older adults; and family loans. Nearly 20,000 people in need are assisted annually. For more information, please call 650-403-4300 or visit