By Lisa Rinaldi, Correspondent, The Daily News of Newburyport
MERRIMAC — The Merrimac Senior Center was alive with music and laughter when the center’s LGBTQ+ Social Connections group recently marked the 10th anniversary of its founding.
The festivities included dinner and a drag show, with entertainment provided by Gigi Glam and Kori King, Boston-based drag performers who charmed the approximately 30 audience members with their music and banter.
Glam described the audience as “super excited.”
“I felt grateful to be asked to perform. We don’t often hear of our elders celebrating life. They really paved the way “for the younger LGBTQ generation,” Glam said.
Glam went on to compare the event, held July 20, with performances he’s given to non-LGBTQ+ crowds, and mused that the Social Connections group, “Could look past our wigs and makeup and see us for who we are.”
This was the first live drag show the LGBTQ+ group has hosted.
AgeSpan, a nonprofit agency providing elder services to the Merrimack Valley, sponsored the event (along with the senior center), and donated free raffle tickets and prize baskets filled with food, books, soaps and other goodies.
Brienne Walsh, executive director of the Merrimac Council on Aging and the senior center, said she and other organizers wanted to do something “fun and upbeat” to mark the group’s milestone.
“To be different and aging is a challenging experience, and we try to do our best to let people know they can always come to us,” Walsh said.
Walsh was thrilled when most of the group’s members, as well as non-LGBTQ+ guests, showed up to enjoy the event. The larger community also turned out to support the group, with special guests including State Rep. Dawne Shand, D-Newburyport, and Merrimac Select Board member Irina Gorzynski.
State Auditor and former State Sen. Diana DiZoglio was unable to attend, but she sent the group an official citation.
“It was so nice to see so much support for a typically marginalized population who don’t always feel supported,” Walsh said.
Feedback from those who attended has been overwhelmingly positive and members expressed enthusiasm about having the performers come back for a future engagement, according to Walsh.
Former AgeSpan liaison and Merrimac Senior Center member Ron Bourque reminisced about the group’s inception. The Merrimac Senior Center was the first organization in the Merrimack Valley to host and sponsor an LGBTQ+ group for elders.
Groups in Tewksbury, Andover and Chelmsford have since followed suit. From its start, LGBTQ+ Social Connections eschewed politics and focused on providing social opportunities and support to elder LGBTQ+ community members, who are twice as likely to experience social isolation and to feel a lack of community and social support than non-LGBTQ+ elders.
With no financial support or funding for the first five years, members continued to meet until Pfizer, Blaire House and a few other local organizations stepped in to offer resources and support. The group’s goal of eliminating social isolation persists in its current incarnation.
Early in the group’s history, Bourque encountered an elderly, severely depressed and isolated LGBTQ+ man who had lost interest in life and was housebound by his depression. With encouragement, he began attending the group and, according to Bourque, “he has not experienced that level of depression since.”
Walsh describes the Merrimac Senior Center as a “safe, welcoming place that’s about inclusivity.”
In spite of strong community support, the LGBTQ+ Social Connections anniversary celebration has not been without controversy.
Walsh received approximately 10 phone calls from people complaining about the drag show, and the town’s Facebook page reflected some pointedly homophobic perspectives. Many of these comments appeared to be connected to an ongoing dispute over the flying of a Pride flag at the senior center and the display of a banner at the public library, Walsh added.
Overall, however, Walsh described the event as warmly received, and emphasized that the group’s success is due, in large part, to active involvement and collaboration between the community, the senior center and AgeSpan.
Published in The Daily News of Newburyport, August 7, 2023