They knew their work was cut out for them when they were asked to reach out to an invisible population.
But a dozen volunteers supported by Jewish Family Services have accepted the challenge of trying to find gay senior citizens who have spent a lifetime in hiding and are now in desperate need of fellowship, medical care or other assistance.
It’s an overlooked group for whom problems are compounded as they grow older, said Gizelle Jones-Williams, executive director of Jewish Family Services. She has been leading the agency through the development of new goals aimed at the area’s aging demographic.
In discussing potential services for residents of all faiths, age 45 or older, Jewish Family Services staff learned of the unusual challenges of being gay and a senior.
In a state that does not recognize gay marriage, they often face financial hardships when their partners die because they are not entitled to pensions, spousal Social Security or other benefits that their heterosexual contemporaries enjoy.
They also can regress socially — forced to grieve the loss of a partner in private and with little chance of replacing the most supportive and nurturing person in their life.
“Nobody thinks about that,” Jones-Williams said. “Nobody talks about that. We’re a youth-oriented society, and seniors are isolated anyway. [Being gay] adds another layer to that.”
Jewish Family Services received a $5,000 grant from the Gay Community Endowment Fund, managed by the Akron Community Foundation, to give some attention to this neglected segment of society, Jones-Williams said.
But if Jewish Family Services hopes to renew the one-year grant, it needs some success stories. And there is an inherent problem with finding folks who have perfected the art of hiding in plain sight.
That’s where Susan Revak comes in.
Counselor offers help
Jones-Williams turned to Revak, a counselor by profession, to use her personal experience in running the program.
“I already know what it’s like to lie, to be scared out of my wits, and to eventually be OK with who I am,” said Revak, who had “homosexual” stamped on her discharge papers from the U.S. Navy and has had to convince nurses that she was her partner’s “sister” so she could stay with her at the hospital.
Revak recently drilled her army of volunteers on Ohio law as it relates to the gay community, noting the challenges that remain but also pointing out the progress made by the courageous generation preceding her.
“You guys advocated for me; now it’s my turn,” she said.
Revak’s volunteers have been posting fliers about their outreach effort on community billboards. She has accepted speaking engagements at nursing homes. And group members have accompanied social workers to retirement complexes to spread the word.
In addition to helping isolated seniors find their voice again, Revak hopes to recruit them as volunteers to give them purpose in their lives.
That’s something Eric Floyd knows about.
Floyd, 72, said he and his late partner lived “an open secret” that was known to family and friends, though no one spoke of it.
When his partner died in 1997, Floyd decided there was no reason to hold back anymore. He became an activist after having ostomy surgery — creating an opening in the body for the discharge of body wastes — and launched a support network for other gays and lesbians who were suffering from the stigma of the procedure.
He has heard from patients who felt they were treated poorly by medical professionals because of their sexual orientation, so he has a pretty good idea of why gay seniors — instead of being empowered with age — end up retreating.
“Once you’re dependent on other people for your well-being, if you’re afraid they will react negatively to your sexual orientation, the more you just go back in the closet,” Floyd said.
Partners speak out
Jack Brady, 63, and Andrew Rossi, 61, have been partners for 33 years, a time in which they have never truly worried about being themselves around friends, family or co-workers.
“We are both very lucky,” Brady said. “We never had to hide.”
But the pair acknowledged that growing up in Boston — “a bastion of liberal voice,” Rossi said — made it easier to be gay.
They moved to Ohio three years ago for access to medical care Rossi needed, and although Ohio turned out to be far more conservative than they were accustomed to, they decided to stay.
After his medical condition was dealt with, “we came here [Jewish Family Services] to see if we could be of service,” Rossi said.
He and Brady said there is no alternative to being surrounded by people who care about you.
“It’s the same as if you’re straight. It’s no different. It’s human love, period,” Brady said.
That’s why they are set on offering friendship to those who have lived a life of fear.
“Some of them have been living so closeted all their life, they could be out and about every day and still not know how to make contact” with people in the gay community, Brady said.
Gary Kaufman, 63, is both a target of the program and a volunteer.
He said he joined Revak’s crusade a couple of months ago because he was lonely. His parents are gone, he doesn’t feel he can be open with even his closest family members and trusting others has been a lifelong issue, he said.
“I’m terribly afraid to be exposed,” Kaufman said.
And yet he is discovering a new strength in himself, he said.
“I like myself more since I’ve been coming here because I know these people like me for who I am,” Kaufman said.
As Revak had hoped, Kaufman is an example of how volunteerism is adding to his perspective.
Kaufman started to explain his efforts — “Right now we only have word of mouth” — and then he interrupted his own train of thought.
“There I go saying ‘we.’ I could never say that before,” Kaufman said, “but now I feel I’m part of something.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the gay senior outreach effort of Jewish Family Services may call 330-867-3388.