Why I volunteer with Opening Doors - the only dedicated national charity connecting LGBTQ+ people over 50 - by HM
When we talk about diversity and inclusion in the LGBT community, there’s no doubt that one of the prejudices we need to confront as much as any other is age.
There’s been a subset of jokes among gay men for years that have made light of ageism within the community – the suggestion that gay life ends after 30, for example, or that gay years are like dog years. But what belies such apparently light-hearted, often jokily self-recriminating, quips is a serious problem with how we as a community have valorised youth at the expense of proper respect for our queer elders and fulfilling inter-generational dialogue.
Thankfully, anecdotally at least, these kinds of ageist stereotypes are becoming less prevalent. But while that is welcome, that does not redress the core issues with how older LGBTQ+ people are treated – or neglected – by society: where older people as a whole are vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness, that is especially so for LGBTQ+ people, who are more likely to live alone, and have lower levels of contact with relatives. What’s more, the impact of discrimination, both historic and present-day, can mean older LGBTQ+ people often feel they have to hide their sexuality in healthcare and social care settings.
Which is where the charity Opening Doors London comes in: a unique organisation which has been going since 2008, it provides services specifically for over 50s LGBTQ+ people within the capital. These include a range of events and group activities and a befriending service, in which users are paired with a volunteer befriender for regular one-on-one phone conversations and/or face to face meet-ups.
This is what I signed up to be a part of in late 2018: having recently gone freelance in my career, and looking to begin a new life chapter, I decided that now was the time to pursue one of the things I had really wanted to do for a while, above and beyond my professional life. I had long wanted to sign up for Opening Doors, in part for altruistic reasons of giving more back, but also for more selfish ones too, perhaps.
During my twenties, starting out my adult life in London, I struggled a lot with being gay, and where that placed me within society; I had few queer friends, and I felt that somehow I simply wasn’t a “good enough” gay person to be accepted by my peers: that I didn’t hang out in the right places, or know the right people. However, as I have got older, and reckoned with my own sexuality, I have more than ever wanted to engage with a real sense of queer community, that transcends generations and youth-centric hedonism and is founded in a much richer sense of a shared history – and Opening Doors, in building friendships across generations, seems to me a true embodiment of that.
I have to say that, having now been a befriender for over two-and-a-half years, it has been more enriching than I could ever have understood beforehand. Before the Covid pandemic, my befriendee and I would typically meet once every two weeks for a walk, a cup of tea and a chat; during lockdown, we then moved to speaking on the phone once a week; and now, as the world returns, we are still speaking weekly, though now mixing in face-to-face meetups again, including dog walks with my new dog Ripley.
As a befriender, what I have learned is that I am not there to wave a wand and make someone else’s life magically better, which is, if I am honest with myself, the naive sense of undertaking I went in with. Instead, whether we’re chatting about what we’ve watched on telly or sharing serious stories about life experiences, what *we* offer each other is mutual support and empathy at a time when many of us have needed that more than ever. What’s more, I can only speak for myself, but in each fostering a relationship with someone outside our usual personal and social orbits, I like to think our friendship has made both of us more open to the world at large.
It’s also shown me that being part of the community is not only about more than who you kiss and what clubs you go to, but also about more than rainbow flags and pride parades, which, as valuable as they are, may not be for everyone. Community is about recognising our shared history, but also our differences, and being there for each other, however our gender or sexuality fits into our identity. If you’re looking for a deeper connection with your community, then I would recommend volunteering with Opening Doors to everyone and anyone without hesitation.
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