Every summer, LGBT people across the country step out during Pride season to honor who we are, celebrate the progress we’ve made, and re-energize ourselves for the battles ahead. Yet in the midst of all the revelry and marching, older people are often overlooked. This summer, SAGE is celebrating some lesser-known “Heroes of Pride” on our blog.
Today we’re talking with Sally Ann Hay, a 65-year-old cisgender lesbian woman from Lincoln, Rhode Island, about her history with activism, her involvement with SAGE, and about a notable relative in her family tree.
So glad to talk with you, Sally! Could you share some of your personal story with us? Who do you consider to be your family members?
I’m married to my partner Dee Bird, and I would say my primary family is my family of choice blended with my family of origin (which includes some amazing step-relatives.) I have a brother and two sisters who are aware and accepting. One sister has early onset Alzheimer’s and I’m managing her care, which is somewhat of a challenge because she lives in Arizona. My brother and another sister are devout Christians which initially had me a little worried, but they are both very accepting.
Tell me a little bit about your working life.
I’m a retired psychiatric social worker. I worked in an agency and then in a private practice for the last ten years of my career. I worked with a large number of LGBT people.
What led you to the work in the LGBT community that you’ve done?
I came out at 27 in 1977 and had been very involved in the feminist movement, the antiwar and civil rights movements--and those continue to be very important to me. As for the LGBT movement, I backed into it. When I first moved to Rhode Island I went looking for a lesbian community so I got involved with Options, RI’s LGBT news magazine. The punchline is that at that time, the Options collective was mostly gay men, not many lesbians! But it was great entrée to community. From that, I was involved in helping create Equity Action, a philanthropic fund dedicated to LGBTQ issues. That activity led to me putting on an LGBT elder healthcare seminar, and that led to SAGE!
And then there was my uncle, Harry Hay, who started the Mattachine Society…
Wow, really? That’s amazing!
Yes! I didn’t know Harry when I was growing up—but that was because he was a communist, not because he was gay. As I got to know him in the last years of his life, one of the ideas he championed that really hit home with me was we are a sexual minority and it’s important not to fall prey to the temptation to assimilate. So that’s been my motivation for the last ten years—we are a wonderful people, we aren’t like everybody else. Marriage equality doesn’t solve it.
How did you find out about him being this incredible early leader in the movement?
I was probably in my late 20’s or early 30’s--around 1980. I was in therapy and my therapist said “you must be pleased about the book about your uncle.” And I said “what book?” She was horrified that I didn’t know about the biography that was just coming out [The Trouble with Harry Hay].
When I was able to get a copy, I read in the preface that he was a communist and I thought—oh that’s why my father was so against him! And then reading the book…I wish for everyone that they have a famous relative. It’s just a trip to read your family history! I thought “Wow, this makes so much sense.”
How did you connect with him finally?
I wrote an article about lesbian and gay social workers in the late 80’s. He read it and sent a message to my sister and said “please let your sister know I know she’s a sister.” I wrote a scathing letter [to him] saying “my coming out story is mine and by the way my father doesn’t know and if he’s going to find out, it’ll be from me.” The possibility of his sharing my orientation horrified me. One of his claims to fame is “my safety is dependent on your silence” so he knew the importance of that.
He once said “I’m the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the gay rights movement” and at the time I thought “you arrogant S.O.B.!” I came to appreciate while at times he was an arrogant S.O.B. and that was what it took to be the phenomenal leader and activist that he was.
I came to really appreciate a personal relationship with him in the last 6 years of his life. For both of us, it was important to have family that was both family of choice and biological. It was really special. Neither of us ever expected to have that.
So tell me more about your involvement with SAGE.
I began to get involved because it was an important issue. But as I aged into the cohort, I realized “Oh this is about me!”
When I first got involved, my partner wondered “Why we should care: we all get older.” I said, “Just imagine we have need for home health care and someone comes to the house and they’re not ok with LGBT.” That kind of crystallized it.
Those of us in this age group have lived for so long under the radar that we can’t even realize what we don’t expect for ourselves! I’m trying to convey to LGBT older adults that we have a right to demand that we have appropriate healthcare and services available to us.
When we show [the film] “GenSilent”, the thing that amazes me is watching LGBT people make the connection of “Oh my God, who’s gonna take care of me?” We’re resilient, but there’s an ending where it could get ugly.
Your colleague Cathy Cranston said that “Sally is the glue that held SAGE Rhode Island together over the last dozen years.” What’s the magic formula for that glue?
I’m good at making relationships and putting ideas into practice. Some great connections have grown out of my attending the Lt. Governor’s Long Term Care Coordination Council over the last several years. In the beginning, my primary contribution was standing up, saying who I was and what group I represented – being sure to articulate what the “GLBT” in SAGE represented. I’m so ‘normal’ looking, I think there was a certain shock value. Over time, relationships developed (especially with the previous Lt. Governor), our network grew and the importance of recognizing LGBT olders began to gain traction. Perseverance.
With age comes wisdom and I’m now backing out of being as involved as I have been —I remembered that I retired for a reason!
Sounds like you’ve earned a retirement!
Well thank you! I love that proverb, “If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go with friends.” I don’t feel I’ve done this alone.
--Posted by Kira Garcia