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SAGE Centers Where LGBT Seniors Find Community Will Expand to 5 Boroughs

 SAGE, Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders, will bring a version of its Chelsea senior center to each of the outer boroughs this year.
SAGE Seniors
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CHELSEA — Charles Cole first walked into SAGE five years ago after a brutal winter. His husband had left him, he'd been fired from his job and his brother had died.

Seeking skills to help search for a job, Cole joined a computer class at the nonprofit, which serves LGBT seniors. He soon gained not just job skills but a sense of community he hadn't felt in years.

“I came off the elevator feeling like this is the first time I can remember where being an older gay man doesn’t seem like I have two strikes against me,” said Cole, 65, who has lived in Chelsea for the past 35 years.

Those "strikes" are badges of honor at SAGE — which stands for Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders — a group that offers an array of programs, from meals to tai chi to help for aging gay New Yorkers.

SAGE has run programs in Chelsea and Harlem for years. Now, thanks to a recent $1.5 million boost from the City Council, the group will open centers in all five boroughs within the next six months.

Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, who pushed for the funding, said the generation of LGBT New Yorkers aging now had “known a world of cruel indifference,” enduring discrimination, violence and the height of the AIDS epidemic.

“Some of them lost more friends in that decade than we’ll lose in a lifetime,” said Torres, who is gay.

Studies show that LGBT seniors are more vulnerable to poverty than their straight counterparts, partly because of employment discrimination throughout their lives. 

SAGE estimates that there are 100,000 LGBT seniors in the city, 32,000 of whom are low-income. LGBT seniors are twice as likely as straight seniors to be single and to live alone, according to the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.

SAGE's centers offer case management, legal help and $2 hot meals, plus free or inexpensive classes in bridge, tai chi, acting, reiki, creative writing, photography and more. There are movie screenings, concerts and karaoke parties, as well as plenty of hanging out and socializing.

Dorrell Clark, 62, a retired train operator for the MTA who lives in Highbridge in The Bronx, said SAGE is a safe space for her to be out as a lesbian. 

“It's really not an easy thing to be in life anywhere. It’s not really as easy as people think it is,” she said.

“Things are a lot better," she continued. "But improvement depends what time you’re out. I don’t like to go out too late at night and being a senior I worry about being attacked.”

Since the Bronx Pride Center was shut down after a corruption scandal in 2012, Clark has trekked to SAGE’s Harlem center whenever she can to attend the women's group.

“Now we have nothing in The Bronx,” she said. “We don’t have a gay center. The membership was pretty high, maybe 20 people a night. We had facilitators, we just played games. It was fun.”

SAGE has not yet announced where exactly the soon-to-open centers will be, but the group is currently looking at spaces and potential partners in The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, said Catherine Thurston, SAGE's director of programs.

"This isn't going to be a one-size-fits-all," Thurston said. "Every borough has their own culture, every community has their own culture."

While SAGE does serious work, the vibe in the centers is laid-back and fun. 

At a recent Tuesday karaoke event in Chelsea, Cheryl Adams, a biologist from Midwood, Brooklyn, who had traveled an hour and a half to be there, launched into "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Others in the audience joined in.

Another singer, who belted out a number from the musical "Gypsy," had come in from Flatbush.

“I’m not really out in my neighborhood because I don’t need to have people bother me in the street,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “I don’t go around telling people I’m gay. It has to be safe and appropriate.”

Cole, too, discovered SAGE as his haven. It's also where he works after his job hunt five years ago landed him a gig as the lead receptionist. His face is now the first people see as they get off the elevator and he also hosts a regular movie night, playing his favorites from old Hollywood.

“I worked for a dermatologist for eight years and my biggest accomplishment would be that I got someone in for their emergency Botox,” Cole said.

“Here, every once in a while, someone will leave and they’ll say, 'You know, it was the first time anyone smiled at me in a week.'”