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New West's Senior Gay Straight Alliance turns 10

The Senior Gay Straight Alliance — a first in Canada in 2012 — has hosted a safe space for people for the last decade.

A good old-fashioned hoedown might seem like an anomaly in an age where TikTok's 'slap dance' kick-starts a trend.

But on the afternoon of Aug. 9, about 70 people showed up to Century House for a line dancing event organized by the Senior Gay Straight Alliance.

The hoedown is how the group celebrates Pride every year. It has been doing so since 2015. 

But this year was extra special. Besides supporting Pride Week (Aug. 5 to 13), it also marked the 10-year anniversary of the club.

The local group became Canada’s first gay straight club set in a seniors’ centre.

What inspired the founding of Senior Gay Straight Alliance

Club chair Robert Hughes, who has been a member since the beginning, said the idea for starting a group that's inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities was inspired from a 2010-released documentary called Gen Silent.

The one-hour movie threw light on the discrimination that some LGBTQ2S+ seniors faced because of their sexuality.

“Several people from Century House Association went to a conference in San Francisco and saw the documentary. They then arranged to have it shown at Century House. Out of that, came a call to have an activity group,” said Hughes. 

The first co-chairs were the late Vance McFadyen, founder of Royal City Pride Society (now New West Pride) and Patricia Smith, recalled Hughes. McFayden helped organize the first New West Pride Festival in 2010. 

There were about a dozen members in the original group. Now, there are as many as 60. 

“We kind of follow the same model that gay straight alliances follow in high schools. It's supposed to be a safe space. People don't have to declare their sexual orientation or gender identity when they come.”  

The group meets up every second Wednesday of the month — either online or face to face.

“Roughly, maybe, about half of the people that come do not identify as LGBTQ2S+, and are straight or cisgender. It's a place where everyone can meet.”

They gather to watch educational documentaries, engage in activities with LGBTQ2S+ youth, and collaborate with New Westminster Secondary School.

Advocating for LGBTQ2S+ seniors

In 2017, the group did a survey of care facilities in New Westminster. The questionnaire highlighted the issues of aging in the community — particularly among LGBTQ2S+ seniors in certain care facilities. 

“That was kind of groundbreaking. We had face-to-face meetings with the management of those facilities, and they were all very open to recognizing that they could improve.” 

The project gave a platform for the members as well as other seniors in the community to discuss LGBTQ2S+ issues with Isobel Mackenzie, Canada's first Seniors Advocate.

For Hughes, personally, being part of the alliance has helped broaden his mind.

“One of the things that I can think of is that some of the education that we've had on transgender issues has been really helpful and clarified some things for me,” he said.

On a lighter note, it has helped him polish his dance moves. “Before we started the hoedown, I had probably danced 50 years ago when I was in high school.”

But the event is less about how well you can roll away or do a half sashay and more about letting your hair down and celebrating.

“It [the dance] is open to everyone, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression." So is the 10-year-old club.

"Everybody's included, and welcome.”

To join the events and meet-ups organized by Senior Gay Straight Alliance, check out the Century House website.

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