NEW YORK – New York City celebrated the opening Thursday of what city officials say is the nation's first full-service senior center designed specifically for the gay community.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the SAGE Innovative Senior Center in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.
"This is long overdue," said Lillian Barrios-Paoli, commissioner of the city Department for the Aging. "We are beyond thrilled."
The center is operated by the Department for the Aging and SAGE, a 34-year-old social service agency. SAGE stands for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders.
Robert Philipson, a 77-year-old retired jewelry salesman, said he started going to bereavement counseling at SAGE after he lost his partner of 50 years.
"When you find yourself alone at 77 and you've built your life around another person, you are at somewhat of a loss as to where to go next," he said. "SAGE filled that gap."
Philipson said he and his late partner used to go to a straight senior center nearby and were welcomed there, but that center could not meet all of his needs when his partner died.
"They did not have the orientation to understand my position as a gay mourner," he said.
Although Thursday was the center's official opening, it started serving meals last month. Unlike most senior centers that serve lunch, the SAGE center serves dinner, albeit during the senior-friendly hours of 4 to 6 p.m. The suggested donation is $2 for dinner but no one is turned away.
"It saves money for me," said Mary Hynes, 75. She added, "a lot of the guys that I know, they come here and have their dinner. Otherwise they wouldn't feed themselves. They live alone and they don't want to cook for themselves, so they'll go without eating."
In addition to meals, the center will offer a range of services including fitness classes, health seminars, cultural outings and computer classes. It joins New York City's network of 258 senior centers across the five boroughs.
SAGE Executive Director Michael Adams said the center is going to change the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elders in New York with its array of programs.
"And it is going to be ... a beacon of light all across this country," he said.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the city's most powerful openly gay elected official, said the opening of the center represents another milestone for gay New Yorkers, who last year gained the right to marry in the state.
"There was a time not so long ago when both of those things would have seemed impossible," Quinn said. "And we are sending a message today that the impossible is not only possible, it is expected."
Speaking for herself and three other openly gay City Council members who attended the ceremony, she added, "Save us a chair. We can't wait to be here someday ourselves."