By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Bill Courson is a native of the Jersey Shore — born 69 years ago in the Monmouth County community of Avon-by-the-Sea. In 1978, he moved to Montclair with his male partner because of the reputation the town had as a welcoming and diverse community.
But even in Montclair, he found, the LGBTQ community seemed small. In the 1980s, Courson and a group of friends formed The Organization for Gay Awareness. Its dozen or so members would gather monthly for lunch or dinner.
“It was a very casual kind of undertaking,” he said.
In 1997, Courson and some friends started another group, Queer Montclair.
“That was a very small number of people, a dozen, maybe a dozen and a half, that would get together casually from time to time,” he said. “But there was no actual effort to institutionalize our effort.”
Eventually, the group, like The Organization for Gay Awareness, died out.
It wasn’t until April of this year, when Councilman Peter Yacobellis founded Out Montclair, that Courson saw an organized, larger effort to bring the local LGBTQ community together.
Courson was appointed the group’s LGBTQ senior community advocate. He hopes to develop relationships with other organizations in town such as Aging in Montclair and the township’s Senior Services Department.
One of his main goals is to create a space where LGBTQ seniors can share any of the challenges they face — to discuss feelings of isolation, to talk about their health, to share resources and to build connections.
Courson said he’s fortunate: Because he’s been involved in community organizations all his life, he hasn’t experienced a sense of isolation. But as a volunteer outreach worker for SAGE, a national organization advocating for and providing services to LGBTQ seniors since 1978, he speaks every week with people struggling with a lack of community and connection.
“Many seniors increasingly deal with health and mobility problems as they age,” he said. “As a result they tend to become isolated. Many older LGBTQ individuals don’t have children, don’t have partners, don’t have families in which they’re participating, so their need is even greater.”
In a 2018 survey from AARP, Maintaining Dignity: A Survey of LGBT Adults Age 45 and Older, three out of four respondents said they were concerned about having enough support from family and friends as they aged.
Of the respondents, 57% of gay men ages 45-plus were single, and 46% lived alone. Among gay women, 39% said they were single, and 36% lived alone.
Also, 52% said they were worried they couldn’t be out as LGBTQ in long-term-care settings. They were polled on specific worries: 67% said they were worried about neglect; 62% were worried about abuse; 61% worried about verbal or physical harassment; 61% worried about being refused services.
In a 2011 report by The National LGBT Health and Aging Center, surveying 2,560 diverse LGBTQ adults across the nation between the ages of 50 and 95, 53% said they experienced loneliness, and 31% reported depression.
Additionally, 13% of participants reported being denied health care or being provided with inferior health care, while 15% feared accessing health care outside the LGBTQ community.
“Within the larger society, to be aged or to be elderly is to be marginalized, just to be put off to the side and not being taken seriously. It is to be, in some fashion, diminished,” Courson said.
As a child, he said, he had a “better-than-average family situation.” He had gay relatives, on his father’s side. His parents knew he was gay.
“But there was tolerance, I would say, and acceptance — with the condition that I must never tell anyone,” Courson said. “There was the idea that if I told someone I could be seriously hurt. And of course, in the context of the time, that was absolutely correct.”
Everything changed for him on the night of June 28, 1969. The evening news broadcast the start of the Stonewall uprising — demonstrations by the LGBTQ community and allies after a police raid at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn that morning. As the police response turned violent, patrons of gay bars and neighborhood supporters fought back. Courson knew it was a calling.
“I had a feeling it was about time, and I would say my activism began pretty much immediately,” he said.
The summer of the Stonewall uprising, Courson was graduating from high school and entering college. Along with a few other students, he organized the first gay student union at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.
“It was in a semi-clandestine fashion because it would be quite dangerous to do otherwise, but we managed to make our presence felt,” he said.
Courson also became involved in antiwar movements in college, along with some friends. When he met his partner after graduation, they moved to Montclair.
As the years passed, Courson saw the LGBTQ movement become bigger, and saw greater acceptance in society.
“I would not possibly have imagined that 2021 would be anything like the way it is now,” he said. He saw it become possible and accepted for LGBTQ people to be teachers, doctors, police officers and nurses. He saw anti-discrimination protections expand and crimes of “moral turpitude” taken off the books.
With his work in Out Montclair and his experience in activism, Courson wants to build a community where LGBTQ seniors feel heard and visible.
“Just as the work of queer liberation has been the work of queer people, the work for seniors’ equality is going to be the work of seniors,” he said. “We as elders can’t wait for things to be done for us. We can’t wait for services to be created. We have to be proactive and create them for ourselves.”