When it comes to our center, we refer to our members as family, cheesy as it sounds. Queens Center for Gay Seniors, a program of Queens Community House, is a drop-in senior center in Jackson Heights, Queens. LGBTQ seniors and allies can take classes, exercise, and enjoy a warm meal. Many of our members have known each other from the Queens LGBTQ scene for years, and continue to support one another through the challenges of aging. Even on days when our center has no programming occurring, seniors still come to sit and talk with friends for hours.
“Being a gay man, I found myself having nothing in common and often isolated and unwelcomed at senior centers,” one senior wrote to me for this article. “At QCGS I was welcomed and at home amongst new friends. Gay seniors no longer need to be isolated without a place to be themselves and to feel comfortable among their peers.”
Isolation and depression become serious issues as we age and our center is the main tool for elders to combat these concerns. When the news came that we had to shut down all programming due to COVID-19, it was devastating. Our staff of three was left trying to stay in contact with 500+ members and scrambling to figure out how to connect meals back to seniors.
When the elder check-in phone outreach project started, it was only 10 volunteers making calls to a handful of members. We had connected with a professor at Hunter College who helped us build the initial group. Volunteers were responsible for informing seniors of the rapidly changing emergency meal policy. It wasn’t until we partnered with We-Work and NYC Dyke March that the project evolved and expanded. Our volunteer pool went from 10 to 150 people, all wanting to connect with LGBTQ elders. What started as a few emails changed into a full-fledged intergenerational network.
Seeing so many young LGBTQ folx come forward to help keep seniors safe and connected was moving. We had tried for years to create intergenerational programming with varying levels of success. It was often hard to reconcile differences to build lasting connections between youth and elders. These barriers, combined with the fact that American culture often ignores or forgets elders, made successful intergenerational work difficult. This group is dedicating their time to shift the intergenerational dynamic. The virus was tearing NYC apart at the seams, but through the phone project, our community felt more connected than ever.
Volunteers shared that they were relating to seniors on a multitude of topics, from LGBTQ movies to favorite recipes. Differences that once made this work so challenging felt small amid the crisis. Many were feeling degrees of isolation when this program started, so not only did seniors benefit, but younger LGBTQ members were able to feel a new sense of community. “I never met an elder queer person before. These calls gave me a sense of what my history was, and what my future could be,” one caller wrote.
Volunteers were also able to share important center updates and food resources. As the program took off it started to become abundantly clear that seniors were struggling without the center’s meal program. With the help of Green Top Farm, Love Hallie and Queens Together, we were able to form an emergency meal delivery service. The two organizations helped us fundraise to buy meals for seniors from vulnerable local restaurants. Every Friday a team meets to deliver meals to members throughout Queens. This food program has become a saving grace for senior health while the city works out gaps in its system. Volunteers making calls assess food needs and update the delivery team with the information needed to support our community directly. Without this team of volunteers making outreach calls, we never would have been able to reach the number of members we have today. These calls help make sure no member falls through the cracks and that our family can stay connected through this turmoil.
When asked about the project one senior wrote: “To me, The Queens Gay Senior Center is a place where I can be myself. I am able to feel comfortable and happy with people that are also gay. During COVID I was able to have food delivered to my home and weekly calls which took away a lot of stress. It means that someone is always checking on me to make sure that I am doing okay. Living alone during these very difficult times it has meant a lot to have them. With so much going on in the world today, I love and appreciate Queens Center For Gay Seniors.”
As we move through June, this incredible showing of support and care across generations makes us hopeful for what the future of the New York queer community will look like moving forward. The bonds we’ve built through this program feel uniquely strong and nuanced. I hope we can continue to develop a network that supports and celebrates all generations of the LGBTQ community.
COMMUNITY CHECK is a series about mutual aid and taking care of each other in the time of coronavirus.