IN the 1950s being identified as lesbian, gay, bi or trans* could mean imprisonment, enforced “cure” therapies or the loss of family, friends and employment. For many of our current generations of older LGBT people the only way to escape persecution was to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Val Eastwood, an iconic lesbian, defied this harassment and silence by establishing a gay-friendly coffee lounge at 123 Swanston St, Melbourne. Val’s Coffee Lounge provided a place where LGBT people could be themselves and connect with other LGBT people.

According to a 2002 oral history document, part of the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian History series by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Val described how, “people used to get dressed up… just to come to the coffee lounge. They could be themselves and feel as if they were at home. People would say: ‘Oh my god I’m not the only one in the world’.”

Sixty years on, people of Val’s generation are ageing and many are now accessing aged care services. While there have been significant legislative reforms recognising the rights of older LGBTI people, research shows that many are still fearful that accessing aged care services will mean a return to the institutional discrimination of their youth. There is a pressing need to understand older LGBTI people’s historical experiences and needs and develop LGBTI-inclusive aged care services.

In 2009 researchers at Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University heard about Val Eastwood and set up Val’s Café in her honour. The Café aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people of Val’s generation through research, education, resource development and advocacy. In late October, Val’s Café will host a National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Conference at the Melbourne Town Hall, directly opposite the site of Val Eastwood’s Coffee Lounge. The Café will also feature a welcome event that includes an exhibition celebrating our LGBTI history, including memorabilia from Val’s Coffee Lounge, by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

The conference will bring together researchers, policy makers, aged care service providers and older LGBTI people from around the country. Conference participants will be given the opportunity to celebrate the lives of older LGBTI people, including Val Eastwood.

Other conference highlights include throwing the spotlight on emerging research about the needs of older LGBTI people, for example, the needs of LGBTI people living with dementia. A pre-conference meeting of staff from Alzheimer’s Australia will discuss strategies to build LGBTI-inclusive services for people living with dementia and chief executive Glenn Rees will address the conference. A highpoint will be a presentation on research currently being conducted to document the needs and experiences of LGBTI people living with dementia. The presentation will share the perspectives of older gay men and lesbians to challenge the rumour that lesbian, gay and bisexual people “become straight” when they experience dementia.

The spotlight will also be on the needs of LGBTI carers. The conference is a partnership with Carers Australia and a meeting of carer’s organisations before the conference will seek opportunities to take a national approach to addressing the needs of LGBTI Carers. A new research project will be launched which will document the needs of older LGBTI carers to determine how support services can be enhanced.

Another highlight will be the focus on the needs of older trans* and intersex people. This will include presentations about the emerging research on trans* and intersex people’s experiences of ageing and accessing aged care services. It will highlight issues of misinformation, elder abuse and the lack of evidence on healthy ageing.

The conference aims to celebrate older LGBTI Australians and be a guide to development of LGBTI-inclusive aged care services. Throughout the conference the voices of older LGBTI people will be privileged — with spaces provided for them to speak for themselves. This includes older LGBTI people delivering presentations, appearing on film and sharing their experiences and needs through research presentation.

We hope to increase the visibility of older LGBTI people to the aged care sector as well as LGBTI communities more broadly.

Dr Catherine Barrett is the Chief Investigator and Coordinator for the Sexual Health and Ageing Program at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University.

[Main image — Left, a portrait of Val that hung in Val’s coffee lounge at 123 Swanston Street, Melbourne. (Portrait painted by Veni Stephens; Source: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives). Right, the white facade at 123 Swanston Street today, the former site of Vale’s coffee shop.]

For details on the National LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Conference, click here.

**This article was first published in the November edition of the Star ObserverClick here to find out where you can grab your free copy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional areas.

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