Each year, my employer encourages every member of staff to take one day to give something back. Despite the considerable cost to the business of one “lost” day of productivity, the net gain for employee engagement, business reputation and social responsibility is clearly worthwhile. This year, I wanted to link my volunteering to my work as co-chair of Mercer Pride, our LGBTQ+ and ally network. Having had an excellent panel discussion earlier this year thanks to LGBTQ+-focused charity Opening Doors London, it felt like a perfect opportunity to give back by volunteering for Opening Doors London for the day.
In their own words, ” Opening Doors London (ODL) is the biggest charity providing information and support services specifically for older Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans* (LGBT*) people in the UK. The organisation provides regular social opportunities across the capital to help develop networks and communities for LGBT* people, aged over 50, as well as a befriending service for those who might be be able to socialise away from the home.”
The challenge for older LGBTQ+ people is the social stigma of their sexuality (or gender), and the difficulty in expressing their needs and wishes in regard to gender and sexuality. Older LGBTQ+ people are far less likely to have a family to support them, are far more likely to need social care support, and are more likely to face mental health issues. In a huge city like London, for those who faced decades of prejudice and discrimination in their earlier years, being able to socialise and network with others like them is beneficial for mind and body. The befriending service builds a wonderful gap across the generations, and creates greater knowledge and understanding amongst those involved, as well as new friendships!
So our team of volunteers were tasked with visiting locations where older people were likely to visit, to raise awareness with staff, and to leave leaflets for those interested to read. By targeting London boroughs where Opening Doors London had less active members, we hoped to spread the word, and reach out indirectly to more older LGBTQ+ people.
It felt rather daunting, walking into care homes, day care centres, libraries and GP surgeries in an unfamiliar part of London. I was worried about how people might respond – would they tell us to get out? Would they show anger or disgust? It struck me that this was a tiny fraction of the feeling that many older LGBTQ+ people might feel in these places, where they reveal their sexuality. Vulnerable and uncomfortable, wishing to “fit in” and wondering if there would be a positive outcome. It shouldn’t be this way – no-one should ever feel marginalised, irrespective of age, colour, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, race, religion or any other uniqueness about each of ourselves. So despite feeling a little out of my comfort zone, I was ready to spread the word about the great work done by Opening Doors London.
As it turned out, almost every establishment that we visited received us with a warm and positive welcome. Care homes and GP surgeries were particularly keen to hear more. Even those who were not so keen to talk remained polite and friendly. When you explain the difficulties faced by a section of the population, the most common reaction is to sympathise, offer support, show compassion. It really restored my faith in human nature to see such a great response across Lewisham & Lambeth.
In the end, our day was but a small drop in the ocean – there is so much more work to be done. But thanks to the generosity of my employer, and the kindness of Opening Door London, our day of raising awareness of the help available for older LGBTQ+ people may just reach one person who feels alone and isolated, allowing them to step into this network and feel connected again. Small steps have small impacts, but if we take enough steps, we can travel vast differences. So if you have the opportunity to volunteer this year, seize it, make a difference and give a little something back – it’s very rewarding and great fun, too!