When CHHSM members team up with local UCC churches, extraordinary things can happen. A recent presentation of the critically-acclaimed film Gen Silent in Westlake, Ohio, highlights just how much a local community can benefit.
The free showing Aug. 25 of the documentary about LGBTQ+ older adults deciding whether to go back into the closet to survive a transition to senior living communities was a revelation to some in attendance, and provoked additional reflection and discussion.
The event was the brainchild of Gayle Donahue, recently-retired faith community nurse at Church of the Redeemer UCC in Westlake, who wanted to bring the film to the local church and its surrounding suburban Cleveland community after attending the Miami Valley (Ohio) LGBT Horizons on Aging Summit this past February. The summit was co-sponsored by CHHSM member United Church Homes, so Donahue reached out to the Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, director of the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging of United Church Homes for help. Long-Higgins arranged for the free showing, and served as facilitator for the day.
Long-Higgins, who has been showing the film to congregations since 2017, says she was eager to bring the film to Redeemer UCC — an Open and Affirming congregation that welcomes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities — in order to spread awareness about aging issues within the LGBTQ+ community.
“It’s a justice issue,” Long-Higgins told the WestLife newspaper. “Those of us who do not identify as LGBTQ+ need to be aware that people who are LGBTQ+ do not have the same protections as the rest of us throughout their entire lives.”
Pastor R. Brooke Baker, Redeemer’s senior minister, says that she was most surprised “that it did not occur to people that safety would be an issue to older LGBTQ+ adults when moving into an older adult community.”
Around 40 people attended the showing and subsequent discussion. Redeemer member Bonnie Hawver was surprised to learn of the complications that aging brings. “While I felt I had a more than average knowledge and understanding about the challenges faced by the LGBT community, Gen Silent provided a very poignant insight into the additional hurdles brought on by aging,” she says.
One scene in the film captures a man giving his partner a “very loving hand massage. His additional explanation of how he would have had to assume a more ‘clinical’ approach in a less understanding and accepting environment made me painfully cognizant of how even the smallest gestures of affection must be, at times, closeted,” Hawver adds. “How horrible to feel one’s love for another to be wrapped and taped, waiting for that secret moment to be opened and shared. I was enlightened by the obstacles each person faced and hope I have grown in my affirmation of all God’s children.”
Long-time Redeemer member Janet Kramer was surprised to find that the lessons from the film are applicable to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. Kramer, who lost her husband several years ago, says, “After watching the documentary, I was feeling some angst about my own situation and what I will do if and when I become incapacitated and no longer able to care for myself. We are an aging population, and must think about the time when we can no longer live independently. Gen Silent is relevant to everyone.”
Long-Higgins concurs. Older members of the LGBTQ+ community often are not seen, she says. “And as with older adults in general, this film helps to highlight the profound need for us all to have communities of support.”
Both Long-Higgins and Baker noted that a significant part of the post-film discussion centered on language. “There was quite a bit of conversation having to do with language and how it is always changing, particularly for the LGBTQ+ community,” says Long-Higgins.
One reason for the extended conversation might be that the event had few younger audience members, who often are more aware of language changes. “There was one millennial present,” Long-Higgins says. “In other congregations where we have shown this, there have been more people under 60 than over 60 to view the film.”
Baker says she found the openness of attendees during the discussion to be heartening, especially “the willingness of people to ask vulnerable questions regarding terminology and the willingness of people from the LGBTQ+ community to admit that we can’t keep up with changing letters either.”
Following the event, one attendee stopped Long-Higgins to share her story. “She was there in part because half of her grandchildren are LGBT,” Long-Higgins says. “We assume that [straight] older adults are completely opposed to conversations concerned with anything related to LGBTQ+. Many people also assume that everyone in the LGBTQ+ community has been ‘disowned’ by their families. The reality is that there are a lot of grandparents who love their grandchildren and know that love to be stronger than the phobias and fear perpetuated in the larger culture. They are more willing to learn and grow, to continue to share that love.”
For Church of the Redeemer UCC, hosting the Gen Silent event is one of the many ways the congregation is finding to live into its Open and Affirming covenant, and it proved to be educational for everyone.
“It is difficult to reach out to a vulnerable community if it doesn’t occur to us that they might be vulnerable,” Baker says. “As followers of Jesus, we are called to love our neighbor, but if we do not see the needs of our neighbors, it is difficult to reach out to them. This film introduced some of the challenges that older LGBTQ+ adults might be facing.”
Gen Silent, from filmmaker Stu Maddox, follows six LGBTQ+ seniors from Boston for a year, capturing their day-to-day lives. To learn more and schedule the film in your congregation, contact United Church Homes. Based in Marion, Ohio, United Church Homes is a faith-based, Open and Affirming provider of healthcare and housing services.
Church of the Redeemer United Church of Christ is an Open and Affirming and Just Peace congregation, welcoming to all, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.