Mark Raymond is 80 and living in a low-income North Miami Beach nursing home, recovering from both a broken back and hip. His three best friends died years ago of AIDS and his older brother — age 90 — has nothing to do with him because he’s gay.
“He’s homophobic,” Raymond said. “He doesn’t talk to his younger brother.”
Raymond — his professional name as a younger man — doesn’t want anyone at the nursing home to know he’s gay.
“I feel I’ve been closeted most of my life. I’m tired of it already. ... Working and being closeted, it’s awful,” he said. “But here, they’re yentas. I’m living here and there’s no reason they have to know.”
Raymond said he “would be happier with his own people,” but that he can’t afford to live in an LGBT-friendly adult living facility in a place like gay mecca Wilton Manors.
“I’d love to be with my own kind. At 80 years old, don’t you think I should be?,” he said. “But how can I be comfortable when I have a brother who’s homophobic at this stage of the game? You want to go out for dinner, go to a show, go anywhere and not being ashamed or afraid of anyone attacking you because you’re gay. You want to enjoy the rest of your life.”
It’s for people like Raymond that the national group SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders) exists. And on Wednesday, SAGE will announce its newest affiliate: Miami-Dade County.
“You need two things to improve the quality of life for LGBT elders,” said Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE in New York. “You need the kind of national advocacy that SAGE does through its policy reform and training work. And you need local services on the ground. Local services on the ground will be what the new SAGE affiliate in Miami is all about.”
SAGE is the country's largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults, according to its website: “From arts and culture, to health and wellness, and much more, SAGE's innovative services and programs support thousands of LGBT older people in communities around the country.”
Including Miami, the group’s “SAGENet” is comprised of 30 affiliates throughout the United States. SAGE estimates there are 43,000 LGBT older adults in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
On Tuesday, the Pride Center at Equality Park in Wilton Manors announced it is partnering with nonprofit Carrfour Supportive Housing to develop The Residences, a 48-unit project that will become Florida’s first senior housing development with services specifically designed for the LGBT community.
Broward’s SAGE of South Florida affiliate has existed for years at the Pride Center. As of this week, there are 398 active members and about 175 LGBT seniors attend weekly “Coffee and Conversation” get-togethers.
At last, SAGE has sanctioned an affiliate in Miami-Dade County.
“I agree it’s taken a while, but we’re pleased at this point we’re moving forward,” Adams said. “We have a very rigorous process before we will partner with a new SAGE affiliate. That process includes a local-needs assessment. It includes a work plan for services that will be created. And a wide array of training to make sure the affiliate knows how to do the job right.”
Fred Stock, CEO of North Miami-based Jewish Community Services of South Florida, said his organization has invested $160,000 and worked closely with SAGE and national and Broward leaders to develop a program for the Miami area.
“There’s a sizable LGBT community in Miami-Dade County and most of the focus in this community has been on the younger LGBT community,” Stock said.
After getting to know SAGE, Stock decided Jewish Community Services was “a natural” to sign on as an affiliate.
“JCS has had a significant footprint in both the LGBT community and the senior community,” Stock said. “All of our services are really nonsectarian for the entire community. We serve folks regardless of the race or gender, religion or economic status. All of our programs are designed to be affordable.”
Stock said the Miami affiliate’s “goal is to create an environment for seniors to live at home as long as they want to.”
“What’s unique about Miami-Dade County is that because it is so large and spread out, there are pockets of LGBT seniors isolated and real lack of family support,” said Stock, who is a licensed nursing home administrator and formerly ran Douglas Gardens geriatric hospital for Miami Jewish Health Systems. “This is the pioneering generation. Very few of those people had children and a lot of those folks were ostracized by their families. They have that added challenge of not having that familial support.”
Longtime Miami-Dade lesbian activist Joan Schaeffer said the biggest problem for many LGBT seniors is “loneliness and feeling alone and not having support.”
The new SAGE affiliate will provide services for anyone 55 and older. “Fifty-five isn’t really old, but 90 is, so you have to cover a wide range of issues and ages,” Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer 64, and fellow LGBT activist Donna Dambrot, 58, of Fort Lauderdale are helping launch the new SAGE affiliate, which will operate in English and Spanish.
“Our seniors, our elders are experiencing a lifetime of discrimination and trauma. Going through in the ’80s and ’90s, the HIV/AIDS crisis, they were the pioneers of our community,” Dambrot said. “They lived through that and lost their friends who were their families.”
Many older LGBT people grew up in an era when it was not safe to live out of the closet. “We’re dealing with folks who have that experience. Some are still not out. They’ve gone to nursing homes and they’re afraid to come out,” Dambrot said. “There’s a gentlemen we heard about. He’s out in a nursing home and he’s alone and there are nursing assistants who put pink spots on him to make fun of him. He lived a life out and now he’s alone and vulnerable.”
Mark Raymond, the lonely older gay man with a broken back and hip, met Schaeffer and Dambrot through a discreet nursing home worker.
“They came to see me where I used to live. They called me, kept in touch. They told me about this new thing they are starting up,” Raymond told the Miami Herald. “Thank God. It was really wonderful.”