Jean Lalonde, 70, only came out of the closet six years ago.
Despite seeing sweeping legal advances in LGBTQ rights in his lifetime, Lalonde struggled to come out publicly as a gay man because he could not shake the perception that he would be treated differently once he did.
Lalonde is not alone. His story is common among LGBTQ people of his generation.
Though homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada in 1969, many LGBTQ people continue to confront rejection from their peers, family or religious community.
“Legally, things have really changed.” Lalonde said in an interview with CBC Montreal’s Daybreak.
“But mentalities don’t change that easily. A lot of people my age still live with that stigmatization.”
Lalonde now volunteers with Aging Gayfully, a program run by Fondation Emergence, which seeks to address the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ seniors in Quebec.
Creating safe spaces for LGBTQ seniors
Aging Gayfully, now in its 10th year of operation, works in particular to make seniors’ residences more welcoming for members of the LGBTQ community.
For some seniors, the prospect of being in an environment where they are surrounded only by people of their own age is anxiety-inducing.
“It’s not a normal social setting. It’s very homogenous,” said Lalonde, who as an Aging Gayfully volunteer speaks with staff at seniors’ residences around the province.
Many gay seniors wonder if they will be able to share their life experiences with others in a residence, if they will find a welcoming community there or if they will have to hide their identity from their peers, Lalonde said.
“It’s normal when you sit with an elderly woman to ask questions about her husband and her children. But that person might be a lesbian … and so she will invent a story,” Lalonde said, who himself was married and had children.
“I mean we’ve done this all our lives,” he added.
That’s where Aging Gayfully comes in.
It offers workshops that give residence workers the tools to make seniors’ homes more welcoming for the LGBTQ community.
These workshops include inclusive language training and explanations of some of the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ seniors.
Theme for Montreal Pride this year
The needs of LGBTQ seniors is one of the community concerns that will be highlighted by this year’s edition of Montreal Pride.
Even though LGBTQ seniors are estimated to make up 10 per cent of the population, Lalonde said the program faced pushback at first from some seniors’ homes that claimed they had no LGBTQ residents.
“A lot of them will say ‘no, it’s not necessary, because there’s nobody like that here.’ It just doesn’t exist,” Lalonde said.
“If we remain invisible, we will forever be invisible.”