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March 17, 2015

A Quick Chat With SAGE Participant Brenda Culhane

Our monthly “Quick Chats” with SAGE participants offer a first-person perspective on our community.  This month, we spoke Brenda Culhane, a 74-year-old lesbian and SAGE participant in Portland, Oregon. Brenda came out a bit later than some, at age 39, and is now an active LGBT advocate and spokesperson. Brenda spoke with us about her struggle to live openly, why she values her community, and the changes she’s witnessed in her lifetime for LGBT people.

Brenda culhane

At what age did you come out? Can you describe that process? 

I came out later in life.  I had thought that I was different when I was in college but was too afraid to act on it. I got married to prove I was not different.  I came out after that marriage was over...I was 39. This was in the 1970’s. 

Who are the most important people in your life?  

My friends—many of whom I met at SAGE.  We all work to support each other, especially if someone is ill or going through a hard time.  We are there for each other because most of us do not have family nearby or wanting to be involved in our lives.

I have one friend, Sherri, who is developmentally delayed who lives up the street from me. My mom used to live in the house where I’m living and Sherri took an interest in her and checked on her every day. I was my mom’s primary caretaker and so I really appreciated Sherri, it took a big load off me! After my mom died we became friends. It felt like we had the same mother at that point so we call each other ‘sis’. She checks on me. She has a lot of prejudice against gay people, and she really struggles with the fact that I’m gay. She’s getting more exposed to my friends. So I think in her head, at this point, she thinks it’s ok for women to be gay but not men. It doesn’t seem like it would make that much difference in the world what her opinion is, but she is getting more educated. 

The conservative neighbors down the street have a teenage boy in Catholic school who came over and wanted to interview me. I said “why?” and he said “we’re interviewing different people” and I said “you mean gay?” and he cringed and said yes. So even the Catholic schools are doing that! 

That’s promising! So just by being open about who you are, you are educating and enlightening people around you in a one-on-one way.

Yeah! In the 60’s and 70’s the message was ‘everyone come on out come out!’ It was so terrifying to do that. I’m kind of a wimp on some things. So every time I came out my stomach was in knots.  Even now, coming out to my doctor is still hard. 

But do you find that you’re met with more love and respect than you used to be, when you come out?

Yeah. When I was first coming out to myself, I got married because I was too afraid. Then I got a divorce and came out. I lost some friends. The people who had a really hard time with it, in retrospect, were questioning their own sexuality. Looking back now, that makes sense. 

How did you find out about SAGE? What kinds of SAGE activities do you participate in? 

I belonged to a group here in Portland called Gay and Gray that became affiliated with SAGE a few years ago.  I am involved in the SAGE housing committee.  We all have had friends who have had to go into assisted/independent living and they do not feel safe coming out in that environment.  They have all gone back into the closet.  It is so sad.  This committee goes around to the various senior living residences and asks them to be part of our brochure for LGBT seniors.  This month the group put out our second brochure and it has 4 more residences included—we’re very proud of that. We’ve faced challenges because most senior residential places would rather not deal with this issue.  We are all proud of our newest brochure.  

I’m also on a speaker committee that talks about LGBT issues to any group requesting SAGE services.  I have spoken at high schools, colleges and conferences so far.  I enjoy going to these venues and educating people about us.  And of course I love our yearly gatherings, like our Valentine party, our Holiday Party and our summer BBQ.  I have many friends whom I only see at these events and it is wonderful.

Why is SAGE important to you?

I feel emotional support from the staff and enjoy the yearly gathering with lots of other LGBT folks.  It is a lot of fun. 

What makes you smile? 

My dog Emmy, a good book, a great movie, a wonderful meal, a sunset, the smell of spring flowers, and having a butch flirt with me.

-- Posted by Kira Garcia

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