When Sue Higginbotham first realized she was lesbian, not only was her sexual orientation socially frowned upon — it was illegal.
It was 1956, and Higginbotham, then a high school student in Toronto, thought there was nothing she could do about the feelings she had towards women.
“I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and in those days — we called it ‘homosexuals’ — it was next to homicide,” she said.
“I knew at 14 that something was wrong. But I made myself go out with men. Then I started secretarial school — because in those days you went to secretarial school — and I had a girlfriend, and we kept that under cover for five years. We told nobody.”
They fell madly in love, until one day her girlfriend decided to become straight. Higginbotham was heartbroken.
“I was so devastated, she was the one person in the world who I could talk to,” she recalled.
Unable to voice her despair, Higginbotham resolved to do what many others in her situation already had — she married a man.
They were together for 10 years, and by the time their marriage dissolved, the rights of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people were starting to take form. In 1969, ‘homosexuality’ was decriminalized in Canada, and in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed it from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Finally, at the age of 35, Higginbotham felt she could acknowledge her identity publicly — something that not all LGBTQ people in her generation were able to do.
“Looking back, words like isolation, alienation, bullying — very broody defamatory language — would be tossed around,” she said. “It’s way more open now, it’s way more accepting.”
However, for many LGBTQ seniors, discrimination still exists.
“LGBTQ seniors have faced a lifetime of systemic discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identities. This discrimination, particularly within the healthcare system, has led to many LGBTQ seniors lacking trust in mainstream health care providers,” the report states.
“Consequently, many LGBTQ seniors live in secrecy, hiding their identities and intimate relationships. Additionally, this history with the healthcare system means that LGBTQ seniors are often hesitant to disclose unless specifically asked. This history also means that most LGBTQ seniors are fearful of entering facilities where the setting, health providers and peers may be similarly damaging.”
Qmunity estimates there are 13,725 LGB and 643 trans seniors living in the Fraser Health Authority area, and 9,651 LGB and 452 trans living in the Vancouver Coastal Health area.
Most of these seniors have spent the majority of their lives facing discriminatory policies. The B.C. Human Rights Code, for example, did not have sexual orientation added until 1992, and it wasn’t until 1995 that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that sexual orientation is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The following year, sexual orientation was added to the Canadian Human Rights Act and in 2003, same sex marriage was legalized.
“They [seniors] have not benefited from the recent legislative, policy and attitudinal changes that younger queer and trans youth and adults have,” the report states.
“LGBTQ seniors are not as comfortable to be out or disclose the true nature of their identity or relationships. Therefore they are unlikely to strongly challenge existing policy or practices, and may continue to live closeted lives. The result is that we have to create safe environments for them to come out into.”
Higginbotham — who, after secretarial school, went on to complete nursing school, an undergraduate degree in psychology, a bachelors degree in social work and a masters degree — is now retired and a volunteer counsellor. Through her work she has seen firsthand the isolation that some LGBTQ seniors face.
“I would go into residential care homes and the people, they just couldn’t talk about it. And if they lost their partner, there was nobody they could really share it with,” she said.
“It can be very isolating. And a lot of these older people have never been able to come out and share, because of the fear from back then of what would happen and the humiliation.”
To help change this stigma, Higginbotham has spearheaded a new social group for LGBTQ seniors in Langley. The group, which had its first meeting at Timms Community Centre in Langley City on Jan. 22, was created in partnership with Langley Seniors Community Action Table and Langley Division of Family Practice.
“It’s simply a social group. We want it to be group consensus, talking, sharing, coming up with what the group would like to do,” Higginbotham said.
“It’s about reaching out to those people who are particularly isolated. And, of course, with aging there could be some disabilities or there could be some mental health issues, so (we offer) absolute total acceptance.”
Those interested in learning more about the group can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Meetings will take place at the Timms Centre from noon to 2 p.m. on Feb. 26, March 26, April 23 and May 28.