86 and Opening Closet Doors at the Hebrew Home

RIVERDALE, New York — At the start of a recent meeting of the LGBT & Allies group at the Hebrew Home here, the group leaders Olivia Cohen and Liisa Murray reminded attendees of the ground rules, which they had written on a poster board.

Posted Updated
Queer Love in Color
John Hanc
, New York Times

RIVERDALE, New York — At the start of a recent meeting of the LGBT & Allies group at the Hebrew Home here, the group leaders Olivia Cohen and Liisa Murray reminded attendees of the ground rules, which they had written on a poster board.

“Treat others like you wish to be treated,” was one, and another was “what is said in the group stays in the group.” Participants are also urged to be nonjudgmental and to respect one another.

Such tolerance and open-mindedness about homosexuality was not what many in the group grew up with. “They lived through a time when being gay was illegal, when being gay was considered a mental illness,” said Murray, 34, a music therapist at the Hebrew Home and a co-leader of the group since its inception in April 2016.

“I was absolutely closeted,” said David Oscar, 86, who helped found the group with a social worker at the home. “I felt that the world in general was against who I was.”

From Stonewall to the AIDS epidemic to same-sex marriage, most of the participants have witnessed momentous change in societal attitudes toward sexual orientation. While only a handful of the group’s 15 core members openly identify as gay, all feel strongly about a person’s right to love whom they choose, and have found the group to be a welcome forum for discussing these issues.

“I led a very insulated life,” said Sara Mittleman, 68, a resident of the home since late 2015. “I love coming here because of the questions they ask and what that brings out in me.”

The Hebrew Home at Riverdale, which is 101 years old, has more than 700 residents from 51 to 107, and is known for its progressive approach to aging. But Zumba and yoga classes, and even the sanctioned use of medical marijuana by residents, don’t press the kind of generational hot buttons that this can (hence, the ground rules).

“There definitely are some frank conversations in this group,” said Cohen, 29, the home’s manager of therapeutic arts and enrichment programs.

Sharing of experience by gay and bisexual individuals such as Oscar and Mittleman, respectively, or by heterosexual members of the group who may have gay relatives, is part of what transpires during the hourlong meetings, generally twice-monthly in the home’s spacious Beiderman Library. The group has also watched movies with gay themes, such as “The Birdcage” and “The Imitation Game,” and read articles from the Gay and Lesbian Review and excerpts from an unpublished memoir by a gay World War II soldier.

At its June meetings, the group has been working on a table they plan to set up in the main corridor of the home on Wednesday, as part of Pride Month. Members of the group will staff the table where, in addition to literature on the group, they will also hand out Hershey’s Kisses with rainbow stickers on the bottom.

Cohen and Murray are both licensed musical therapists, and songs to stimulate discussion are often part of the group’s agenda. At this meeting, they played a recording of the 1986 Cyndi Lauper tune “True Colors” to a slideshow projected on a screen set up in the front of the library. The poignant images showed the marriage ceremonies of gay couples shortly after the June 2015 Supreme Court decision that expanded same-sex marriage rights to all 50 states.

The group was asked their reactions to the song and the images.

“I think it’s about being true to yourself and not being ashamed,” said Joan Blumberg, 85.

“Everybody seemed to be so happy. And everybody deserves to be happy,” said Chip Reis, 70.

Gloria Lutz, 66, pointed to one stanza in the song.

If the world makes you crazy,
You’ve taken all you can bear,
You call me up,
Because you know I’ll be there.

“That’s me,” Lutz said. “I’m quiet, but I’ll be there for you.” Sandra Feil, 81, had a different reaction to the song. “I was thinking about Cyndi Lauper with her pink hair and how now she’s doing ads for psoriasis,” Feil said. (Lauper has been in commercials for Cosentyx, a psoriasis treatment.)

This drew chuckles from a group that has its share of maladies: half of those in the semicircle for the meeting were using wheelchairs or walkers.

After listening to “True Colors,” Oscar described his attempts to hide his as a young man serving in the U.S. Army and later as an elementary schoolteacher in Brooklyn. “I had to act as if I were straight,” said Oscar, who moved to the Hebrew Home in 2013. “I even got a girlfriend at one point.”

Later in life, Oscar said, he found a male partner. But even then he felt that he could never let his guard down. “It was always as if someone was chasing you, as if someone was going to expose and destroy me,” he said, as the group listened intently.

“That’s what the oldest members of our current LGBT community have lived through,” said Michael Adams, chief executive of SAGE, a New York-based advocacy group for older LGBTQ adults (the acronym originally stood for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders). “Obviously their perspectives are shaped by those life experiences. Many of them have had to work very hard over decades to come out and embrace their identity as LGBT people.”

While most would agree that society has come a long way, the perceptions by some older heterosexual adults may be harder to change.

“The fact that our organization has an LGBT support group doesn’t mean that all the folks here have changed their attitudes,” said Daniel Reingold, president and chief executive of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. “There are still residents that are going to smirk or make faces about this.”

To address that, the Hebrew Home, along with about 700 other senior residences and health care agencies around the country, have participated in training sessions offered by SAGE to help the organizations become more sensitive to the needs of older LGBTQ adults. But Adams said he believed the Hebrew Home was the first to organize a regular discussion group focused on the issue of sexual identity among older residents.

“This is pioneering,” Adams said. He added that “one of the great things about this group was that it was started partly at the initiative of a resident.”

That resident, Oscar, downplays his role, but acknowledges that, even as he continues to be guarded about whom he tells he is gay — the LGBT & Allies plays a vital role in his life.

“Only in this group,” he said, “do I really feel able to express myself.”

Copyright 2024 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.