'Family of choice:' LGBTQ elders rely on each other
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Jasmine Gee started setting aside at least 15 minutes a day to practice her clarinet. She's sequestered alone in her studio apartment in adherence of the San Francisco order that all residents who are nonessential workers remain home to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus. She also works on various puzzles, whether crosswords or word finders, to pass the time.
Gee, 71, would also stream shows and movies, but only via her small cellphone screen, since she doesn't own a computer, nor did she have a television when the shelter-in-place-orders went into effect in March. But that changed this summer, after her friends were able to raise $300 via a crowdsourcing campaign to buy her a TV and an antenna to access a host of local stations and channels for free.
"I have my clarinet over there, that's keeping me sane. Otherwise, I'm glued to that tube," said Gee. "I also have email, Facebook, and Instagram to stay in touch with friends."
One donation of $150 came from a woman in Chicago who said she had heard of Gee and wanted to help. A small group of her friends surprised Gee with the TV as a birthday present in June.
"She was watching TV from her phone. I could not see watching TV from your phone," said Felicia Elizondo, 74, who spearheaded the fundraising effort.
Family of choice
The two women first met through LGBTQ activism about two decades ago. Both are transgender women. They grew closer after being teamed up in 2013 through the Friendly Visitor Program operated by Openhouse, a San Francisco-based agency that provides services to older LGBTQ people.
Elizondo called another friend of Gee's, Sue Englander, to pitch her the idea about purchasing the TV. A queer college history professor, Englander became friends with Gee eight years ago after they met at an event honoring a deceased trans nightclub performer. They grew close helping to plan an annual aging conference for older LGBTQ people where Englander serves as a main convener.
(This year's conference, which was to be themed "To Your Queer Health," had to be postponed to 2021.)
"[Elizondo] is very outgoing, generous, and thinks of others," said Englander. "She called me and said, 'I am worried about [Gee]. All she has for entertainment is her phone. Isn't that awful? Shouldn't we do something?'"
Due to the success of their fundraising efforts, Englander noted, they were able to also purchase a few supplies for Gee.
"We got her a nice TV, and we got her snacks and a few other things, just to make her life more easy and happy," said Englander. "We were pleased to do it."
The gesture was just one of the ways the women have been able to support each other through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elizondo lives alone like Gee, though she has her dogs Gypsy Rose Lee, a black Pomeranian mix, and Simon Cowell, a mixed breed cocker spaniel, to keep her company.
With a large majority of LGBTQ elders single and living alone, it's not uncommon to have formed "families of choice" with friends and neighbors for support and socializing. In a 2018 report on LGBTQ people 45 and older, AARP found that more than two-thirds of respondents have been, or are, a caregiver to an adult loved one, and three-fourths expect to be a caregiver or need one in the future.
While these connections have been strained by the health crisis, older LGBTQ people have found ways to continue to care for one another, either virtually or at a safe social distance, as they ride out the pandemic.
Gee, Elizondo, and Englander have all spent much of the last seven months in their homes, with their network of friends and neighbors to assist them with basic needs like groceries.
"We have had friends who have shopped for us. Initially, in the first few months, we did not want to go anywhere near a market," said Englander, 68, who lives with her spouse, John Durham. "It not only supplied us with food; it gave us the knowledge that people care. It was an act of love."
'I miss the freedom we had'
Elizondo has long lived by herself in a former motel turned apartment building in San Francisco's Lower Haight neighborhood. Other than going out early in the morning to run errands on occasion or taking her dogs for walks, she is largely housebound. Local nonprofits deliver food for both her and her dogs, limiting Elizondo's need to go to stores. Being HIV-positive, Elizondo takes greater precautions to limit her risk of contracting COVID-19.
"I have always been very active and involved in my community," she said. "It just is not the same anymore. I miss the freedom that we had, but I am dealing with it. I am OK."
Elizondo formed a social bubble with three longtime friends who get together for socially distanced activities, like grabbing a bite to eat. While stuck at home, Elizondo is working on gathering her life history.
As the holidays approach, one activity she is missing out on is performing with her musical drag group, the Tenderloin Queen's Revue. During LGBTQ Pride Month in June and throughout the holiday season, the group traditionally performs drag shows at venues accessible to older LGBTQ people, like SteppingStone Adult Day Health Care. The shows were meant to reach especially those unable to attend Pride events on their own or for those without family visiting them at Thanksgiving or the December holidays.
"As soon as we can, we are going to start again," said Elizondo.
'I really wanted to be there to support her'
Because Gee lives across town in the city's Polk Gulch neighborhood, she and Elizondo have not seen each other as often as before.
"We talk about once in a great while, but not as often as we used to," said Elizondo. "We are still friends from afar. After the epidemic came, we couldn't visit each other."
A prolific volunteer, Gee maintained a vigorous schedule even after being hit by a truck crossing the street near her apartment building last fall. She continued to pitch in at a soup kitchen, sing with a trio of choral groups, and venture out as much as she could. Due to her accident, which fractured several of her ribs, Gee now has braces on both knees and uses a cane to walk.
"I was always outdoors and volunteering," recalled Gee, who now practices with her choruses via Zoom rehearsals. "Talking on the phone is great, but face to face is best."
Due to Gee's accident, Englander makes it a point to stay in contact with Gee as much as possible during the pandemic.
"[Gee] has been more frail since the truck accident, so I really wanted to be there to support her," she said. "We talk on the phone, or sometimes I will walk by her house and she will come out on her balcony and wave at me."
Prior to the pandemic, they had a rotating list of their favorite eateries they would circle through when they'd get together. For the foreseeable future, their get-togethers will be few and far between, said Englander, but they plan to remain in touch as best they can.
"[Gee] is someone to celebrate," said Englander. "I would be celebrating her, and do celebrate her, COVID or not. She is someone special."
This story is a collaboration between the Bay Area Reporter and Next Avenue, a digital publication covering aging from Twin Cities PBS.
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