WILTON MANORS, Florida—The hottest party in South Florida doesn’t happen in a Miami nightclub. Hell, it’s not even on a weekend.
It happens every Tuesday. At 10 a.m. In a room packed full of LGBT seniors.
When I visited the Coffee and Conversation happy hour at the Pride Center in Wilton Manors—a Fort Lauderdale suburb proud to be known as the “second gayest city in America”—I could barely find a parking space. Eventually, I stowed my car on a patch of grass in the back and joined the stream of gay men rushing toward the building as if there were a private Cher concert happening inside.
Alas, there was no Cher but instead an endless supply of coffee, bagels, and donuts in a hall so filled with the noise of chatty seniors that my voice recorder was useless.
“It’s crowded today,” Gene Majka, an adjunct nursing professor with snow-white hair and sparkling blue eyes, told me as we hovered awkwardly between tables.
Majka started coming to the Coffee and Conversation program after his husband died 18 months ago. He attended a bereavement group led by Reverend Anne Atwell, whose local congregation is primarily LGBT, and discovered the event through her.
By “a bunch,” Majka means at least 150 people, most of them men—a reflection of the demographics of Wilton Manors—with one table of women, where I sat with Reverend Atwell. According to SAGE, the nation’s largest organization for LGBT seniors, the Pride Center’s Coffee and Conversation program is one of the largest weekly gatherings of its kind in the country and it could not be more essential.
Seniors are already at high risk of social isolation and depression, and those problems are exacerbated if you are LGBT. According to a 2010 report from SAGE and the Movement Advancement Project (PDF), LGBT seniors are “more likely to be single, childless, and estranged from biological family” than their non-LGBT peers. They have also survived multiple generations of bigotry only to encounter echoes of that prejudice in doctor’s offices, assisted living centers, and nursing homes.
Against that backdrop, a simple thing like an hour or two of weekly conversation can be “life-changing,” Serena Worthington, SAGE’s Director of National Field Initiatives told me.
“Everybody wants to hang out,” she said. “Everybody wants to learn and grow and contribute—and LGBT elders are the same as everyone else.”
Hanging out is indeed the main order of business at Coffee and Conversation. For a full hour, there is—pointedly—no programming whatsoever. The vibe is somewhere between bingo night and gay bar in the best possible way. During that time, ex-marine Thomas “Tomcat” Pence, president of a local organization that holds gatherings for “mature men and their admirers,” circles the room, assuring each table that they are his favorite.
“These people are beautiful,” Tomcat told me after he had made his rounds. “These are the people who fought in Stonewall.”
The unstructured quality of the Coffee and Conversation program was the brainchild of Bruce Williams, the Pride Center’s senior services coordinator who came to Florida from Houston, Texas, where he had spent 25 years in a top position at a retirement facility. Well, almost 25 years.
“A month shy of my 25th anniversary, the company had sold and I was fired by homophobes,” Williams, now 70 years old, told me.
After relocating, Williams started coming to Coffee and Conversation as an attendee but there were only “about 20 to 25” people there every week, he estimated, because the organizers were dominating the microphone instead of making time for mingling. Once Williams took over, that all changed.
“I have real serious mic restrictions—we don’t go on that mic until 11 o’clock,” he told me. “They come in and you can see that they just bubble talking with each other and it’s in a no-pressure situation.”
Under Williams’s tenure, attendance skyrocketed to the point that they got in trouble with the fire marshal for filling the room beyond capacity. (“Isn’t that a nice problem to have?” he joked.) There are often lines out the door, especially when the snowbirds are in town. And the event is now a “nationally renowned” model for other LGBT senior care providers, as South Florida Gay News reported last fall.
When Williams finally took to the podium on the day of my visit, the crowd was caffeinated and punchy. After telling some jokes that would have fit right into a late-night monologue, he welcomed each of the first-timers—“virgins,” they were called as if we were at a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The Pride Center’s CEO, Robert Boo, came over to give an update on an affordable housing project, and everyone booed—not, apparently, because they hate him, but as a pun on his last name.
And Williams, I discovered, has devised an ingenious way to cut costs and help his attendees through the aging process at the same time. Each week, a sponsor helps to provide the treats and, in exchange, gets a few minutes at the podium. (This week, it was a local dentist who touched on the importance of oral health for HIV-positive people.)
“I sneak it in this way,” Williams confessed to me later. “They come in, they enjoy their company with one another, they enjoy the coffee and the goodies. And every week, whether they know it or not, they’ve been introduced to a doctor, to a dentist, or to a long-term care facility manager.”
The 2010 SAGE report (PDF) noted that “LGBT elders are more likely to delay getting needed care” so connecting this demographic with LGBT-affirming physicians serves a valuable purpose.
Although Coffee and Conversation at the Pride Center is certainly a unique event, LGBT seniors nationwide can build similar communities. SAGE provides programming through 30 local affiliates in 20 states—even a thinly-populated one like Maine where Worthington says LGBT seniors participate in regular group phone calls, just to catch up. Last year, SAGE also launched a hotline to help LGBT seniors find peer counseling and local resources.
After the crowd at Coffee and Conversation thinned and before I fetched my car from the grass, I stopped by Williams’s office where he sat beneath a poster that said “Growing Old Is Not For Sissies.” It was there that the cheerful master of ceremonies waxed serious about the importance of this simple Tuesday morning activity.
As an outside observer, I had seen dozens of people share a cup of coffee and disband. But Williams knows them all—and he sees firsthand what it means for them to have a weekly milestone.
“It helps to keep everybody alive and kicking and active,” he told me. “It’s a raison d’être. We all need a reason to live.”