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.
The wide-open landscape of the southwest is home to today's hero, Katherine Palmer, a determined, energetic 73-year-old trans woman. As an LGBT activist for over 15 years, Katherine wastes no time. She's served as Board President of the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, Co-President of GenderPAC and Board President of PFLAG in her home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico--among many other roles. She has also lobbied for LGBT rights at both the national and state level. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, Katherine is primarily responsible for bringing SAGE to Albuquerque, and currently serves as its Program Manager.
Thanks for talking with me, Katherine! Can you start us off with a bit of your personal story?
Well, I transitioned at age 58, in 1998. I knew [I was trans] when I was young, hid it, and was later divorced because of it. When I retired from my career at IBM, I planned to work with Native Americans, but I decided to work with trans people instead.
Why did you decide to switch gears?
Well there was never really a term ‘transgender’ until about 1998, so I thought was only one in world. Then I went to the Gender Identity Center [GIC] and realized I wasn’t! So I got involved in that and jumped in full speed.
I wanted to reinforce that this wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I said "there’s nothing wrong with me, if you have a problem that’s your problem'. I got involved with the GIC and realized we were a minority that needed our voices heard. So I said ‘ok let’s go do it!’ I went to Washington DC and lobbied congress for ENDA.
You must’ve been so proud to do that!
Yes! I began to realize this was a national thing and I jumped in. I’m a strong believer in coalitions, I said, we can’t do this alone, we have to do this with others. I have also been very involved with PFLAG, which is wonderful because you have parents, family, friends and trans people, lesbians and gay men all in the same room!
What's so powerful about coalition building?
The thing that frustrates me within the LGBT community is that it's so localized. I thought 'can’t we all work together?' and then I found SAGE and I said 'oooh! Here we go!'
Because everyone gets old! Aging is universal.
How did you start a SAGE chapter?
I contacted SAGE national and put together a committee. Our biggest problem is that we don’t have a physical space. So we went to Albuquerque Senior Services, and said ‘we’d like to have an LGBT presence here’ and they said ‘sure’. Albuquerque is unique. We passed a non-discrimination law in '03. We came within one vote of same sex marriage about 5 years before we got it nationally.
So is your message or your goal primarily about tolerance, or something more?
No, it’s something more. My goal with PFLAG and SAGE is to get to a point where we don’t need it, because we’re treated like everyone else. I go to a statewide aging conference every year on behalf of SAGE, and I’m trans and I’m not "stealth”, but no one gives me any hassles, I’m just Katherine.
It sounds your experience since coming out has been pretty positive.
So you’re working on behalf of others who haven’t had it so easy is that right?
Yes, I see other people being abused or discriminated against and I just can't take that. I’m a firm believer that people are afraid of what they don’t understand. You teach, they learn, and the problem goes away. I'm not intimidated by them. My partner says, 'you go into the grocery store for a can of peas and these people are looking at you and you’re oblivious!' I have to remember sometimes that I’m trans.
What’s coming up for SAGE Albuquerque?
We have a golf tournament coming up in September. We’ve never done one out here, it’s a fundraiser for SAGE; we'll be offering prizes and awards. And then the aging conference is coming up this year, our topic will be LGBT older people and providers working together. We’re still growing and trying to find the LGBT seniors with strong support from the entire LGBTQ community.
So working with providers could really help you boost participation.
Yes! New Mexico is the 5th largest state in the country but we’re less than two million people in total, and half are in Albuquerque. Some people drive 30 miles to get to us. It’s not a very large group but it’s dedicated. Over the last 3 months, and our monthly meetings have all been new people—so something’s happening, the word’s getting out!
--Posted by Kira Garcia