Barb Webster remembers sitting in the parking lot looking up the eight steps it would take to enter the lesbian dance, thinking, "How can I do that? It's like the whole world is going to know when I walk up those stairs."
That was 20 years ago, and today Webster is among a group that wants to help make it easier for gay seniors in New Westminster to live openly, without the fear that she felt to walk into that building.
The 65-year-old Century House member is part of a team that is starting a gay-straight alliance group at Century House, a local seniors' centre. The inaugural meeting is being launched with a screening of the film Gen Silent, a documentary that chronicles the lives of a handful of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors in America.
"I think if we say it's a gay support group nobody is going to show up," Webster says, explaining why they chose to screen the film. "I'm thinking of the older gay person who had the bigger troubles and often are more closeted."
Webster knows how tough it is to live in the closet and to come out of it.
Coming out isn't a one-off experience, where you tell your friends and family, wipe your hands of it and go on in the world.
Every time Webster meets someone new and they ask her about herself, whether she has a family, is married, etc., Webster has an internal conversation about how much to say.
"Well, I have to do the immediate assessment of what am I going to do here. Am I going to just say no, or am I going to say who I am? At this point in life, it's not like I have a bunch of stuff to lose, but there's always the decision-making process, so it's not a one-time deal."
Webster saw the film, Gen Silent, at a seniors' conference last year, which she attended on Century House's behalf. She shared the details of her trip and the film with Century House members when she came home.
"They were really interested," Webster says. "One of them looked at me and said, 'Well, why don't we have a support group for gays at Century House? We have support groups for everything else.' Now this whole group is straight, except me."
Webster has a number of partners in this venture, including well-known New Westminsterite Vance McFadyen, who is a Century House member and the man behind the concept for the city's annual gay pride festival.
Also on board is Alexandra Henriques, a community developer for the Generations program, which serves lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered adults aged 40-plus.
Henriques provides advocacy and training for agencies that serve seniors.
"There's the continuing assumption that there's no LGBT adults, that everyone LGBT is young," Henriques says. "One reason is this association between older adults and sexuality, and LGBT issues are always associated with sexuality."
Henriques says that not every gay senior living in a home is out of the closet. In fact, the majority aren't.
The estimate is four per cent of the gay population is out, but according to Alfred Kinsey's research on human sexuality, 10 per cent of the population is gay, Henriques says.
"You can have people any age who are not out and who don't intend to come out. But with seniors, the situation is a lot of these seniors realized when they were very young that they were gay, they lived through the '40s, '50s, the '60s - very oppressed, very terrible social conditions, where if you were found out, you would lose your job, you would be evicted, disowned. If you had security clearance in a government job, you would lose that. It was a terrible time. People were very secretive and they found each other, and you couldn't come out, so a lot of people are still keeping that mindset, so they are never going to come out, and other people have progressed with the times, so people are all different."
The number one concern for aging gay seniors is going into a home and having to go back into the closet, Henriques says.
The group at Century House is hoping that gay seniors don't have to make that choice.
There will be two screenings of Gen Silent at Century House on Thursday, March 29, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. There will be a panel discussion following the film. Century House is located at 620 Eighth St. Everyone is welcome, but please RVSP to 604-519-1066.