Art Works Blog

Grant Spotlight: Los Angeles LGBT Center

The aging process can be difficult for anyone, from dealing with decreased physical capabilities, to securing affordable housing, to finding ways to remain socially and intellectually engaged. While the Los Angeles LGBT Center helps LGBTQ seniors navigate these challenges, they also help them process what for many of them has been a lifetime scarred by discrimination, historical trauma, and ongoing struggles with identity.

But through the arts, seniors have been able to reframe challenging life experiences into moments of beauty and meaning. The Los Angeles LGBT Center has a full calendar of arts programming for seniors, from visual arts and writing to theater and stand-up comedy, as well as opportunities for participants to share their work with their peers and the wider community. With a new grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Los Angeles LGBT Center will continue to empower seniors through its program Reflections of a Lifetime, which encourages seniors to share their life stories through a variety of arts classes. We spoke with the center’s director of senior services Kiera Pollock about why the arts can be such a powerful tool for people to process and celebrate who they are and what they’ve achieved.

NEA: I wanted to talk about some of the challenges that older LGBTQ people might face.

KIERA POLLOCK: When I think about our LGBT senior population, there are a lot of things that I don’t think automatically come to people's minds. People immediately think about the discrimination that they've experienced in their life which is really prevalent. But some of the other things that folks are carrying with them are the history of the HIV crisis. Many of our seniors lost their entire community, or large portions of that community. Many of them are also long-term HIV survivors. Many of the women that we have in our program were also providing a caregiving role for HIV-positive men during that epidemic too, and they lost their community. So I think that's a layer of their experiences—the historical trauma that they've experienced outside of discrimination.

Then we know that LGBT seniors have a higher rate of poverty and social isolation than other senior populations. There are also lots of our seniors who are coming out later in life. Many of them are still coming to terms with their sexual identity, and trying to figure out what that means to them. Others are still processing what it was like to come out years and years ago. So there are all sorts of layers playing out for people. I think the arts are a great way to process those feelings, and bring to light the history of their life experiences in relation to the world around them.

NEA: Can you talk more about why you think the arts are such a powerful vehicle for dealing with these challenges?

POLLOCK: Our seniors are very focused on arts programming, it is probably our busiest and most exciting programming for them—we fill up our classes pretty quickly. There's something tactile and connecting and in a lot of ways grounding for them in the [artistic] process. It doesn't really matter what kind of art it is—it can be anything from dance to drawing to writing. I think many of our folks are looking at ways they want the arts to solidify their history in terms of a memoir—I think they're using that as a way to make sure their history is preserved in a world they haven't felt visible in. Our community has typically been thrown away in the world around them. To feel like they're legitimate through art, and through people seeing them as a whole person, is really important.

NEA: Your arts programming has two components: creating artwork and then sharing it, whether through readings or performances or exhibits. Why is this sharing process so important?

POLLOCK: I think the process of sharing their identity and their history is intertwined for our folks. Being able to feel relevant and connected to the world around them is imperative, both in terms of their personal development as artists as well as in the world around us historically. As gay marriage has passed and as the political landscape has changed, I think younger individuals in the queer community have viewed some of the rights and things that were fought for by our seniors as done and over and complete. I think for [our seniors,] the process of talking about what that was like for them and why it's so important to continuously persevere to address human rights as a whole has become more and more important. Their identities and their art is wrapped up into that. So having public exhibitions and conversations and panels and discussions around this is so important because it isn't just about their work. It's about the context of who they are in relation to that effort.

NEA: Your arts workshops are open to all sexual identities and orientations, all artistic abilities, all people period. How do you think having this range of humans enhances the workshops?

POLLOCK: The more diversity and the more voices you can have in the room, the richer the conversation and dialogue and connection and relationship-building. For us, it's so important to have the community as a whole be part of this. We serve many folks who are allies in our community, so they come in and they talk about their experiences of being supportive, and also of their [own] exploration of identity which has changed over time. So I think it's about welcoming those conversations. For us, it's all rich and powerful and part of that process.

NEA: How do you think your arts programming impacts Los Angeles as a whole, beyond the LGBTQ community?

POLLOCK: I think our programming definitely impacts the community around us. We have a lot of folks that come to the senior center and our gallery and our spaces. We're the largest LGBT organization in the world, so I think people are looking to us to see how we integrate arts, and how we integrate generations and communities into creating together and supporting each other.

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