When Elsie Gauley Vega was growing up on farm north of Sheffield in the 1930s and ‘40s, she knew she was different from many of her peers, but she didn’t have a word for why. Except for a single clandestine high school relationship with another girl, she didn’t have anyone to talk to about the fact that she was attracted to women instead of men.
She married a man, with whom she had four children, but eventually divorced him because she felt she wasn't being fair to either of them.
Now 85-years-old, she’s spent the last several years making up for those years of silence. Gauley Vega has become a vocal activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. She broke up with a partner because the other woman wanted to keep their relationship private, and Gauley Vega said she didn't want that life anymore.
“There was work to do, and I couldn’t do it from a closet,” she said.
So after moving to Iowa City, Gauley Vega started a LGBT movie series at the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center about three years ago. She also hosts a public access television show, “Neighbors and Friends” through the senior center. The show, which airs about once a month, features interviews with local clergy and community members about LGBT-related topics.
Being an openly lesbian senior citizen carries unique challenges. Emily Light, community outreach specialist at the senior center, said it is common for LGBT people who had been living openly to go back into the closet as they age. Many fear of discrimination from service providers, she said. That’s one reason the senior center prominently displays the movie series in its programming guide.
“It’s really important to us that people know the Senior Center is open and welcoming to all,” Light said. “We hope this sends that message.”
It sent that message to Larry Rogers, 70, a gay man who took over the movie series from Gauley Vega about two years ago after she had a health scare. He had been living in Minneapolis and was considering moving to Iowa to be closer to family. But he wasn’t sure he would be accepted if he left the city. Reading about the movie series convinced him to give Iowa City a chance.
“We need exposure,” he said. “A lot of gay people have felt there’s no place for them.”
He said he knows gay couples who weren’t allowed to be together when they moved into nursing homes. Others spent their whole lives hiding who they were or faced persecution when they tried to come out.
Gauley Vega said she sees much greater acceptance among young people than within older generations. A 2013 Pew Research poll found 36 percent of respondents born before 1945 favored gay marriage, compared with 66 percent of respondents born after 1981.
Gauley Vega and Rogers both live in Ecumenical Towers, an apartment building next to the senior center, which is reserved for people over age 62.
“There are several people in the building who don’t approve,” she said. “But that’s their problem.”
It just means her work isn’t done yet.
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