THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE MIGHT SEEM A BIT OLD FASHIONED FOR SOME BUT FOR MANY IT IS CRITICAL FOR THEM TO HAVE A SAFE PLACE WHERE ONE CAN STOP HIDING AND BE THEIR AUTHENTIC SELF.
LIVING A DOUBLE LIFE IS NOT HEALTHY. LIVING IN A CLOSET IS STRESSFUL, MAKES ONE ANXIOUS AND EVENTUALLY LEADS TO A LONG SLOW DEATH. LIVING IN A CLOSET FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME LEADS TO POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER - PTSD.
Published Date: 14 January 2010
By Linda Colling
A man awaiting a sex-change op and an open cross dresser are just two people who have found a lifeline and safe haven at Age Concern Sunderland which has struck a first in the region for the charity in a Tea With Dorothy group.
It's guaranteed to raise eyebrows – a groundbreaking new group at Age Concern Sunderland which is catering for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender over-50s.
Tea With Dorothy is the first group of its kind in the North East, launched by the charity to reach out to men and women throughout Wearside, offering somewhere for them to meet and be themselves in the privacy of like-minded people who want to socialise and give one another support.
For the small group of over-50s to over-70s, it is the first time they have had the opportunity to be frank about their sexuality. The fact is the majority have been leading a double life.
As Adrienne Rowly, good neighbour co-ordinator for Age Concern Sunderland, says of the pioneering group: "A lot of them have hidden their background for so many years and have gone through the process of being married and raising a family because it was easier to hide it."
As part of her role she has taken over the Tea With Dorothy group (a name derived from the secret language, polari, which gays used to find out who was and wasn't gay by asking: "Are you a friend of Dorothy?").
It's all been an eyeopener for Adrienne.
"It's made me very appreciative certainly of the older ones and what they have had to go through," she says. "The fact that they have had to hide it gets overlooked. They couldn't be open about it like people today. They haven't been able to do that.
"A lot of the time they just want to chat and meet other people. They don't always want to have to discuss being gay, bi-sexual, transexual or lesbian.
"Tea With Dorothy offers somewhere for these older people to come and meet in safety without having to go round all the pubs and clubs because older people don't necesarilly want to do that.
"For those that come here we have facilities where they can get changed. There's one who arrives as a man and gets changed as a woman."
That cross-dresser, who likes high heels, paints his nails and wears frocks, is totally different to a transexual I spoke with called Sheila, who helped get another group off the ground at Age Concern in North Tyneside and is now waiting for a sex change and a boob job.
In her pretty slippers, stockings, long skirt and cosy cardigan, Sheila who has gone from being born Dave to dressing as a woman and waiting for sex reassignment surgery, says: "All the clothes make me feel a woman. But I am a woman not a man.
"When I came out everybody that I knew – friends family, colleagues – disappeared. I have had to battle all the way through on my own."
Now over 50, Sheila "knew she was different" from being five.
"The process has been going on since then but at that time you didn't have information technology and society didn't accept you if you were different," she says.
Dressed as a woman not surprisingly brought a strong reaction for Sheila who was leading a double life in the early stages before daring to come out. It shocked everyone who had known Dave the bachelor.
Overnight she provoked outrage. One neighbour told Sheila "I saw a woman go into your house the other day".
"I said it was me. She was OK but there were certain other people round the neighbourhood who for being a woman I got abuse, physical attacks, harrasment and vandalism," she said.
"Being transgender, no matter where you are people know and you will get abuse. It's very hard to live with. There's no network or support system as such to cater for that."
Having worked in a call centre as a woman and fought for the right to use the ladies loo, Sheila has been unemployed for three years and believes she is being discriminated against by employers for being transgender.
After having her car repeatedly vandalised, she moved to a different neighbourhood. She now believes in keeping a low profile and lives in a flat.
Yes, she was once in a long term relationship with a woman: "It was one of those unwritten rules that you have a relationship. "
Does she have any regrets?
"All I have regrets over is that it has taken too long for the services to make me the person I want to be."
Tea with Dorothy meets on the second and third Wednesday of every month from 5pm-7pm and if you want to talk in confidence to Adrienne, call 5141131.