Finding Radical Acceptance in Senior Living

In honor of National Coming Out Day, learn from Aviva Davis about coming out to her group of elders.

October 7, 2022

By Aviva Davis

There is something really loaded about “coming out.” It feels like this emotional, dramatic thing we in the LGBTQ2S+ community have to do, and once you do the thing, you’re all set – you’re out. 

But the reality is that we as queer people have to come out again and again, all the time. For instance, when I sat my family down and told them I was queer that was a “coming out.” When I walk down the street holding hands with my girlfriend, that’s another “coming out.” I even still have a screenshot saved of myself and my friend group all coming out to each other in our group chat on National Coming Out Day a few years back. One at a time, we each tentatively shared our identities. Then everyone said how much we loved each other. Then, to showcase her comedic timing, one of our closest friends used her photoshop skills to put those of us who came out as bi onto a large tandem bicycle, our friend who is ace onto an ace of diamonds, and those who had come out as pan on a cast-iron skillet. I don’t mind that coming out isn’t a one-time thing. The fact is: I love coming out; I love my queerness. I shout it from the rooftops, and I wear it on my Target Pride Collection apparel. I am queer!

Last year, I worked in a senior living facility, where I needed to come out over and over, almost every day. A number of my residents had dementia and would clinically forget about my queerness. I reintroduced myself to my residents as many times as they needed. Sometimes they would recognize my face but not remember my name, other times they remembered every little detail about me, and some days it was as if we had never met. It required a lot of patience. But I saw how underneath each repeated introduction and behind each diagnosis was a person who loved life and who showed love to me, so I came out again and again because they deserved to know the full and real me. 

Eventually, I recognized that almost all the residents I was having queer discussions with were Jewish. 

While working there, I quickly felt a true sense of belonging with my Jewish residents. From the first Shabbat service we spent together on Friday afternoon to sitting down together for Passover Seder in the community dining room, I knew that these people were my family while I was far away from home. After that first Shabbat service, a gaggle of bubbes/grandmas surrounded me, wondering where I learned the prayers, where I grew up, how I practiced Judaism at home, and who my parents were. It had only been a few days since I walked into the building as a complete stranger.

Part of my job was simply being with residents, spending time together talking about anything and everything, from the drama in the building to deep, personal stories. Some of the women felt jealous that my mother sent me to Hebrew school and brought me to synagogue throughout my childhood, even after my bat mitzvah. I think they regretted how as girls and women they’d been excluded from Jewish education and religious life. One of my residents, Frank, actually slid me his AmEx Gold Card when I found the afikomen during Seder. I had to give it back to him, of course, but I can confidently say that none of my blood relatives have gone that far for me! The best prize I’ve ever gotten from my family is a packet of kosher-for-Pesach M&Ms, and unfortunately for me, Nordstrom doesn’t accept chocolate as a valid form of payment.

My Jewish residents were some of the only people in the building who actually tried to understand when I shared my pronouns and my sexuality. My adopted bubbe Goldie shared a fascinating article she had read about “the nonbinary people.” In turn I asked her if she’d heard of neo-pronouns yet. “No,” she replied. “But please, enlighten me!” We spent an hour talking about how everyone’s journey with gender is different. 

When I first started dating my girlfriend, I would show pictures of her to my resident Marta, and she would always threaten to steal her from me. She told me that if she could have done it all over again, she would have chosen to be with a woman. Sometimes straight women claim that they’d much rather date women, and to me that’s a cop-out. But from Marta, it felt like she had deeply reflected on her life, including her joy with her late husband, and realized that there could be another life out there where she achieved the same joy with a woman.

Finally my girlfriend came to visit. A resident I became close with through discussions of meditation and spirituality came up to me and said, “I can see how happy you make each other and that you love each other, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.” Recently, when I visited the community on my break from school, Goldie almost immediately asked me about how my life and my love are treating me. Her memory is beginning to fade, but my beloved partner still lives in her mind. 

Working with elders so closely taught me that our elders have a great capacity for love and affection, and they deserve more credit than young people typically give them. Senior citizens, even those with cognitive disabilities, have the warmth and affection to accept us as our true and authentic selves. They have the ability to learn; we don’t need to shield them or make excuses for them.

For me there is also something so special about having such a deep connection with this particular group of Jews. They have witnessed so much love and loss in their lives, and I think that informed their openness to all different kinds of love. They certainly showed me, a 23-year-old “baby,” immense love.

While coming out can be a stressful, overwhelming experience, it can also be intimate and beautiful. For some queer people, coming out is exhausting. But for me, coming out again and again doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’ve found it to be an opportunity to form new connections with the beloveds in my life, even if I have to remind them of my queerness over and over. Coming out can reinforce my relationship with others and even with myself. I think once we realize just how often we come out, from the little things like a Target t-shirt to the big sit-down moments, we see just how strong we are to move throughout the world announcing ourselves and taking up space just as we are. There will always be people to make that space for you, sometimes in the last place you would ever think to look.

 

An image of a Black Jewish woman smiling

 

 

 

 

Aviva Davis (she/they) graduated from Brandeis University in 2021. There, she studied Psychology, Hispanic Studies, and Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation (CAST). They work closely with Jewish nonprofit Be’Chol Lashon, contributing to dialogue about the history and experiences of Jewish communities of color around the world. You can find them on Titktok at @adavis99. Aviva was a 2020-2021 Alma College Writing Fellow.

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