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October 10, 2013

The Power of Stories

Today’s post is by Nayoung Woo, who was placed at SAGE in spring 2013 through the Coro Fellows Program. She interviewed a number of LGBT couples for a SAGE Story marriage equality project. Nayoung’s experience illustrates the power of stories to move people on important issues. We hope after reading her story, you’re inspired to share your own—and now’s the perfect time to do it. SAGE has launched a nationwide contest to gather stories that relate how LGBT older people combat and conquer isolation, building the support systems we all need to age well. Enter today!

On my first day at SAGE, I ran into Pat and Barbara. An hour later, I found that they had so captivated my attention and imagination with the story about how they had met that I was squatting on the floor with a painful case of pins and needles in both feet.  

At one point in the conversation, Barbara asked me how old I was, and when I answered, “23,”she pointed at her shoes and said, “My shoes are older than you!" Everyone within hearing distance at The SAGE Center cracked up. That is the memory of SAGE that I will carry with me: of people who lived through magical relationships, both told and untold, and embraced all aspects of their identities, from being LGBT to being older.

But I also know that implied in that rose-colored memory are the pains of a collective that has fought for basic human rights for almost a lifetime, and even after that. For the sake of the legacy they have left me, where I can freely use the words "my partner" without fear of physical harm or legal offense, I will not only remember, but also take action.

Lynne & Cathy

For example, as a Christian, even though I had been an LGBT activist for a while, I had gone back and forth on the notion of same-sex marriage. I would see friends who would, and already do, make the best of spouses and parents, but the Word of God would always stare at me point blank in the face. But one day in April, I took a phone call interview for SAGE, and sobbed through almost an entire hour along with the interviewee, Lynne. She recalled for me the recent experience of losing her partner, and then losing most of the belongings and savings they had gathered together because federal law did not (yet) recognize their decades-long relationship.

After that phone call, I had to change how I thought about basic human rights: no God would have wanted such unfair and unnecessary suffering. When Section 3 of DOMA was eventually repealed in June, I celebrated full-heartedly, for the first time without any guilt from my faith, and I leveraged my conversation to educate and convince other Christians about the importance of legal, and perhaps in the future clerical, recognition of same-sex unions.

In small ways, I took action on my own belief system and of those around me for the sake of the pains that I learned about just by being around SAGE constituents. Now I can no longer consider marriage equality or other LGBT aging issues as contrary or irrelevant to me.

My hope is that I continue to collect valuable stories about a population that has, arguably, some of the richest stories to tell, and that one day I will no longer hear from the interviewees a short pause, a slight sigh, possibly accompanied with a forced grin, saying, "It is how it is," and "What can you do?" Rather, I want to hear more thundering and laughing, much as Barbara had done when she told me how she met Pat, because all their wisdom, survival, courage (and knitting) should be held with great respect.

Nayoung Woo served SAGE as a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs and is currently a Master's in Public Health Candidate at Columbia University.


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