Silver Spring, MD - According to The Movement Advancement Project (MAP), an independent think tank providing research, insight, and analysis in support of the LGBTQ+ community, "there are more than 2.7 million LGBTQ+ adults aged 50 or older. Many have faced a lifetime of discrimination and/or a lack of legal and social recognition."
At Riderwood, an Erickson Senior Living community in Silver Spring, Md., people come together to foster a spirit of acceptance among everyone in the diverse community.
Brian Koen, a resident services coordinator at Riderwood, understands first-hand the importance of this acceptance. He serves as cochair of the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging's (DIB) subcommittee for LGBTQ+ and Allies, known as PRiderwood. The DIB committee, made up of both residents and staff, works together to organize and host events and programs designed to increase awareness, evoke unity, and demonstrate support.
"I enjoy being a part of a diverse and welcoming community," Koen says. "I feel very comfortable being myself at Riderwood. I am able to express myself for who I am. This was not the same growing up in Texas - high school was very difficult. For a long time, I was not comfortable being who I am. I've come a long way since then; I've now been married to a wonderful man for eight years. It is great to be able to share that here, to display my photos and talk about my life openly."
Making a difference
The PRiderwood subcommittee began their efforts in earnest at the beginning of 2020 at a happy hour, designed to introduce the greater Riderwood community to their intent and purpose.
One of the first to volunteer, resident Marilyn Gerhard, met Koen prior to her July 2019 move to Riderwood.
"My sister Laura [Winters] has lived at Riderwood for 16 years," Marilyn says. "She believed I would feel welcome and comfortable living here as a lesbian woman. As I was considering my move, she made a point of introducing me to Brian. We continued our friendship following my move, and when he told me that the subcommittee was forming, I was interested in being a part of it right away. I've found Riderwood to be supportive from the beginning, and I was eager to help others feel as comfortable being who they are - as I am."
Community member Pam McGhee joined Brian and Marilyn in their efforts.
"Riderwood is a lovely and inclusive community," Pam says. "I learned that the subcommittee was looking for people from all different backgrounds. Although I am not part of the LGBTQ+ community personally, I have gay, lesbian, and transgender family members and friends. I love and accept them all. It is important to me to show my support by volunteering on the subcommittee."
Start of something special
One of PRiderwood's first efforts was decorating a golf cart for the community's LGBTQ+ vets in the Riderwood Memorial Day parade. The group then went to work planning and implementing a variety of activities in recognition of Pride Month last June.
"PRiderwood ran ten LGBTQ+ themed movies, hosted lobby outreach events, painted the crosswalk at Riderwood's main entrance in rainbow colors, displayed the rainbow flag at entrances, and kicked off a Safe Space initiative," says Koen.
The Safe Space initiative provides a wonderful way for community members to demonstrate their support of LGBTQ+ residents, staff, and visitors. Those who wish to participate place a laminated progress pride flag on the door of their apartment home or office.
"It's amazing how many people on campus have the Safe Space pride flag on their doors," says Pam. "That effort spread quickly. Residents saw the flags and wanted one for themselves."
In addition, Koen and Marilyn appeared on Riderwood TV during Pride Month to talk about their personal coming out experiences.
"I received only positive feedback. I'm fully out and open in the Riderwood community," says Marilyn. "I did not come out to my family until I was in my 40s. I felt it was important to do so, in case any of my ten nieces or nephews was part of the LGBTQ+ community. As it turned out, I later learned that I have a gay nephew, a bisexual niece, and a transgender grandnephew."
A show of pride
At Riderwood, the culmination of Pride Month celebration is the Pride Parade. "This year, PRiderwood booked its very first drag queen to walk in the parade and perform to a medley of songs at the end," says Koen.
The local Rita's Italian Ice came to serve ice cream, and various other Riderwood clubs and groups set up tables, sharing materials and providing treats and giveaways. In addition, Riderwood's human resources department gave out "Love is Love" bags to participants and guests.
"The Pride Parade - like all of our efforts - create meaningful experiences and provide opportunities for people to share, ask questions, and get information," says Koen.
"Last year, one of the participants shared that they recently came out, and it was their first time walking in a pride parade. It was so heartwarming to see that happen - to know that they were completely comfortable sharing this with their Riderwood family."