Rainbow Seniors on Parade
Elderly LGBT share safe spaces
Three years ago, Ed Sedarbaum created Rainbow Seniors in the Berkshires (rainbowseniors.org), with its first gathering at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown.
Photo by Peter Baiamonte
It was June of 2015 when the Supreme Court guaranteed the right of same-sex marriage. But for Ed Sedarbaum, who lives in Williamstown with his husband, Howard Cruise, his happiness was tempered by a sense of heaviness, loneliness. There was no gay-activist community in the Berkshires with whom to celebrate, as he once had around him in New York City.
“A friend of mine said, so go make one,” Sedarbaum recalls.
And so he did. Sedarbaum thought back to the ’80s, when he put together an LGBT senior center in Queens; maybe he could do something similar in the Berkshires. He submitted an op-ed to The Berkshire Eagle outlining the fright and secrecy that dominated the lives of LGBT citizens raised in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s that he used to announce a proposed group in Williamstown. Three years ago, 18 people showed up to the first meeting of Rainbow Seniors of the Berkshires at the First Congregational Church. It was the start of something bigger.
“It was really rewarding, mostly because I was discovering that there really was a need. People were showing up, and then more people were showing up,” Sedarbaum says.
Abby Turner is one of those people. “The Berkshires can be a lonely place for queer people,” Turner says.
Rainbow Seniors meetings are organized around potlucks and include varied presentations, such as talks given by Tony Award–winning composer William Finn and by a person from the asexual community. Group members also give presentations, like a demonstration of how ballroom dancing is taught, and a talk on the gender-based fractures of the gay community in the ’80s and ’90s. Sometimes they just get together casually, creating an open place “for as many kinds of people as possible,” says Sedarbaum.
“Meeting with LGBTQ youth has been a terrific way to get to know their concerns and to reach across the generation gap,” says Turner. “Their enthusiasm and insight have inspired me.”
Rainbow Seniors has changed all that for Turner and the others involved, not only providing a setting for conversations they wouldn’t otherwise have with people they might not otherwise know, but also giving the LGBTQ community a public face that makes a difference in the lives of people not in the group—especially across age barriers.
Sedarbaum came out when he was 33, in 1979, and found a place in the activist community in New York, taking part in political actions, including a secret storming of Gracie Mansion in the early ’80s. He has worked as a political advocate for hate-crime legislation and as a freelance editor, and held positions at the Anti-Defamation League and Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.
He moved with Cruise to North Adams in 2003, and that is when he began to realize the challenges of gay seniors in a rural region.
“Queer elders can be way more isolated than other elders, especially in a rural area where your support network is withering because people are too old to come help, or they can’t drive anymore, or they’re dead,” says Sedarbaum.
Many like Sedarbaum move to the Berkshires following retirement, effectively leaving behind their support networks. The main support institution for older citizens is the local senior center, but as Sedarbaum points out, that can be problematic for LGBT seniors.
“If you can imagine a secretive gay person sitting and listening to people reminisce—reminiscence is sort of the most important thing you do at a senior center,” says Sedarbaum. “You talk about the past, you talk about your life, you listen to other people
talk about their lives, and you go home and feel my life was pretty much worth living. If you have to sit and listen and can’t contribute for fear that you’re going to be ostracized, you may go home feeling quite differently about your life.”
His talk, “Straight Answers to Gay Questions,” given at senior centers with the purpose of straight seniors asking ques- tions about the gay community, has also enabled him to reach closeted gay people.
“I am interested in finding the most closeted people in the area who wouldn’t be caught dead walking into a room for gay people, and I have a little outreach flier that I give it to every person,” says Sedarbaum. The tactic has worked, and Rainbow Seniors has members who were previously closeted.
“It’s the first time they’ve ever been willing to walk into a place, other than a gay bar in a foreign city, to congregate with other gay people,” says Sedarbaum. So successful are his efforts that the group has expanded to five different meetings across the county as well as special events, including a support group called Talk And Listen, a women’s group started by Turner and another member, and a meeting in South County for those who can’t get to Pittsfield or Williamstown.