Portland LGBTQ+ seniors reflect on changes they’ve seen in their community

By Lillian Karabaic (OPB)
July 16, 2023 1 p.m.

Every Wednesday, a small beige church kitchen in Northeast Portland is filled with the sounds of food preparation. A team of volunteers, led by Mark Goldsby, is getting ready to serve a Meals on Wheels lunch.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Goldsby has volunteered with this Meal on Wheels for 13 years. Like other such programs, this one serves hot meals to folks over 60. But this location has a unique flavor: Nearly everyone here is gay, lesbian, or transgender. While Goldbsy and the other volunteers prep the food, the 20 or so regulars trickle in.

A sign says Meals on Wheels.

A sign marking the entrance to Meals on Wheels at Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland in June 2023. This Meals on Wheels has a unique spin: Nearly everyone who attends is LGBTQ+

Lillian Karabaic / OPB

First to arrive is Elaine Rice, who wheels in on her mobility scooter and sets up near the name tags as an unofficial greeter. Rice has been coming for about four years. I ask her to tell me about her experience coming out as a lesbian in the 1970s. (The following is a transcript of the interviews edited for “Weekend Edition.”)

Elaine Rice: The first parade I ever marched in was in Santa Cruz, 300 people. I was afraid I was going to end up on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. So, I came out to my family. They weren’t happy I was coming out.

Lillian Karabaic: Did they come around?

Rice: Oh yeah.

Karabaic: Did they ever meet any of your partners or anything?

Rice: Yes.

Karabaic: Did they like them?

Rice: No.

Karabaic [narration]: Karen Lea Rose is 79 years old. She was lead volunteer for this program from 2009 until Goldsby took over a few years ago. Being out and open changed her life.

Karen Lea Rose: I worked for the federal government, and so I had to be hidden for about 20 years. And then I took a temporary assignment in Eugene, Oregon. I made up my mind that when I got there, I was going to be out. And oh my God, that made my life so much easier. Because I was so afraid they’d fire me if they knew. Because, at that time I hired on, they could have fired me for being gay. So that changed — as well as we were able to wear pants to work finally.

The project ended and I had to go back to Tampa. And I tried to get back to Eugene, but there were no openings. So I ended up here in Portland.

I bought a house. The day that my stuff got moved in by the movers, the woman next door came over and invited me over for dinner as a ‘welcome to the neighborhood thingy.’ We’ve been together 21 years. Twenty-one years.

Amazing how that turned out. I’d never had a healthy relationship in my life until I met Sherry. And I’m going to be 80 in February. And it’s just amazing to me that at my age, that I have a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

Karabaic [narration]: But Rose is scared with the recent uptick in violence against the LGBTQ+ community.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Rose: I live in fear that somebody, well, we’ve seen [people] go into the gay bars and shoot them up, you know? Yeah. And I think that the more visible they make themselves, the more of a target they’re making themselves. It’s such a risk.

I mean, I would like to think that we could be who we are and not hide, like I did for decades, but at the same time, I won’t put up a flag because I’m afraid they’ll bomb my house.

Karabaic [narration]: Brian Taylor has been coming to Meals on Wheels for over a year but has lived in Portland and been involved in the queer community since 1981. Brian never had to come out.

Brian Taylor: I’ve never been in. I was never in. So if somebody asks, ‘When did you know you were gay?’ And I said age 3.

Taylor: Both my parents were a little bit older, and so they tended to do things just a little bit differently, you know? And so you didn’t talk about a lot of things. When we moved to Sacramento ... the only person we knew in Sacramento was the daughter of my grandfather’s best friend. And, so we would go visit her and her girlfriend. Ayleese, that was her name, and Willa Mae lived together. And, they lived in this nice little house in Sacramento. They were Pentecostal lesbians. Staunch members of Williams Memorial Church of God and Christ.

Karabaic: Were they out at church?

Taylor: Oh, yeah. They went every Sunday dressed in their little white outfits. Things happen. But you didn’t talk about it.

You didn’t discuss it. It was, you know, somebody’s personal business or whatever, and you, you just didn’t, you know, talk about it back then

Karabaic [narration]: Taylor got a degree in Community Health from Oregon State and graduated with his nursing degree from University of Portland in 1983. He then worked at the county health department as an STD and HIV nurse.

Taylor: Which basically meant, well I looked at penises and vaginas eight hours a day, five days a week.

Karabaic [narration]: When the AIDS crisis began, he transferred to work at the county’s first HIV clinic.

Taylor: And I worked there for 23 years.

Karabaic [narration]: He remembers a moment of joy in the midst of the late 90s AIDS pandemic

Taylor: The [AIDS] pandemic was raging in a lot of different places, particularly in San Francisco. It had been raging for years and years and years. And the gay newspaper down there is the Bay Area Reporter. They would have all of the obituaries and it was just going on for years and years and years. And finally in, I believe it was 1997, there was an issue of the Bay Area Reporter. And it was the front page had just three words and giant letters: ‘No obituaries today.’ So, that was probably a real joy here. To have to go from that and — not have to read obituaries for so many people.

Karabaic [narration]: But Taylor sees that things have been backsliding.

Taylor: Just dealing with this backlash of against gay people recently. It’s just sort of weird, and protesting drag shows

We gained so much, in the past decades, in people understanding who gay people are and people being more comfortable. And now it’s kind of turning back.

We were aware of of being gay and being different, but again, that was not something that was really talked about among other people. And so it was sort of secretive. And nowadays it’s something that you can talk about openly with other people and not being embarrassed about it, or not have a fear of being rejected or being discriminated against.

The gay people that are out now have been out for a long time and they’re not going to be going back in. And so there’s going to have to be some reckoning with the people who don’t want to see gay people. They’re going to have to deal with people that are not going to be silent and not going to be going back into the closet and not going to be intimidated by other people and are gonna be able to live their lives.

Karabaic [narration]: That was Brian Taylor, Karen Lea Rose, Elaine Rice at the Meals on Wheels in Northeast Portland, sharing their stories.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:
THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Related Stories

A new exhibit explores Indigiqueer history in the Pacific Northwest

A new exhibit at the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in Grand Ronde shares the history of Shimkhin, a 19th-century Two-Spirit Atfalati Kalapuya healer. Co-curators Felix Furby and Anthony Hudson designed 'My Father's Father's Sister: Our Ancestor Shimkhin" to explore their own identities and celebrate Indigiqueer people in The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.