Wednesday was not a normal lunch day at the North Berkeley Senior Center.* Many seniors left their tables to dance along with live band Niecey LivingSingle & The Obamas. The four-piece was in attendance to mark “Gay Day,” the 17th rendition of the annual senior LGBTQ Pride celebrations.
“For me, I’m celebrating that I’m a big old dyke!” said Leslie Ewing during her short address as keynote speaker.
“For me, I’m celebrating that I’m a big old dyke!”
Ewing, 70, is the executive director of the Pacific Center, a Berkeley-based advocacy center for the LGBTQ community. The center runs free group therapy sessions for older queers every Friday.
Ewing fixed me with a warm smile as we sat down to discuss the day’s affairs. She was subtly but assuredly decked out in the pride rainbow — I couldn’t help but notice the vibrantly polychromatic lining on her white sneakers.
“Berkeley has a strong history of supporting LGBTQ”, she said. “We don’t hide who we are.”
The city has achieved a number of firsts over the decades in its support of LGBTQ rights. In 2012, Berkeley became the first US city to proclaim a Bisexual Pride and Bi-Visibility Day. It was also the first to establish a system for registering domestic partners, including same-sex couples, implement specific training for its police department and endorse marriage equality.
The city customarily flies a rainbow flag over City Hall in the month of June, which is Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBTQ community around the world. LGBTQ Pride month. On Tuesday, a proclamation brought to the City Council by council members Ben Bartlett and Lori Droste, as well as Mayor Jesse Arreguín, renewed that custom not only for 2019, but every year following. The Berkeley Police Department also hangs a rainbow flag in its building, and many officers march in the SF Pride parade in uniform. (Watch the Berkeleyside video story on the 2018 parade.)
Not everyone attending did so as purposefully as Ewing, however.
“As a senior, if you get out for anything that isn’t a doctor’s appointment you’re doing good!”
— Sam Lee
“I’m here for the food, mainly,” said Sam Lee, 72. “As a senior, if you get out for anything that isn’t a doctor’s appointment you’re doing good!”
Lee, however, was every inch behind the message. “Kind of being a senior overrides someone being gay at this point,” she said. “What difference does it make?”
Also in attendance was a contingent from San Francisco Pride, the nonprofit behind the annual parade set to take place later this month across the Bay.
“Seniors get excluded from communities … pulled off stage,” said Samira Salame, a representative for the group. “Education doesn’t stop, awareness doesn’t stop at any certain age.”
Gay Day was arranged as part of Pride Month. Berkeley has some of its own celebrations on the horizon, including a drag show, Pride on the Plaza, set to take place downtown June 27. Other, smaller events are taking place too, including a Pride comedy night at Freight & Salvage on June 23.
One man at the senior center Wednesday was a little skeptical, however. Luis De La Garza, 65, sporting rainbow-colored glasses, was visiting the center for the first time.
“I thought it was gonna be jumping!” he said. (There were about 50 people at the center.) De La Garza, from his wheelchair, explained that for LGBTQ people who are handicapped, the obstacles to building community are high. And for some in the older generation, coming out of the closet simply carries too much stigma.
But for Ewing, showing her pride is worth it, whether or not the message gets through to everyone.
“They showed up here for some reason — curiosity, something they’re struggling with, you never know,” she said. “We do this because it’s the right thing to do.”
* The North Berkeley Senior Center is operating at 1900 Sixth St. while its usual location at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Hearst Avenue is under construction.