Some arrived at the auditorium because their grandchild or great-grandchild had recently come out as gay or lesbian or transgender or nonbinary. Some attended the lecture because they identify as LGBTQ+ and grew up at a time when the world was a much less accepting place. And some came because they never want to stop learning.

About 60 residents of Catonsville’s Charlestown Senior Living community spent yesterday morning listening to a discussion about LGBTQ+ issues led by Kate Drabinski, a professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies at the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore County. One of the main takeaways was how to embrace and be supportive of those who are LBTQ+.

“We’re going to talk about ways of building an atmosphere and an environment to let your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren know you’re a safe space,” said Drabinski, pointing out that it was National Coming Out Day, a day on which for more than 30 years people have shared their sexual orientations and gender identities.

Drabinski discussed the nuances of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identities and defined terms that were new to some audience members. She explained that a nonbinary person identifies as neither male nor female. An asexual person is not sexually attracted to others, while a pansexual person is attracted to people regardless of gender. And the plus sign, at the end of LGBTQ+, signified there is still much to learn, she said.

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The crowd, many of whom had parked motorized scooters or walkers around the periphery of the auditorium, nodded and murmured. Several people took notes.

Drabinksi, 47, told her own story of coming out as a lesbian to her parents when she was in college. Her father, without missing a beat, said, “So, what kinds of girls are you into?”

It’s important to tell the person who has come out that you are proud of them, to be an advocate for LGBTQ+ people, to challenge people who make bigoted comments and, most importantly, to stay loving, she told the crowd. “When people come out to you, they are looking for affirmation,” she said.

Audience members shared stories of loved ones coming out. One woman spoke of trying to encourage close friends to put aside their conservative Christian ideology and embrace their gay grandson. Another told of her nonbinary grandchild who had been named after her. The grandchild now used a different name and the grandmother spoke of the sorrow she felt because they no longer shared a name.

Moffett Churn listens to UMBC professor Kate Drabinksi teach a session about nonbinary people to residents at Charlestown Senior Living Community in Catonsville, Md., Tuesday, October 11, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

“Give yourself space to mourn the loss of what you thought you had,” Drabinski said. “It’s really important to use the names that people ask us to use. I just want to affirm that that’s really hard.”

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Drabinski spoke of the perils that many LGBTQ+ people face. According to the Trevor Project, which tracks LGBTQ+ mental health, teens who identify as LGBTQ+ are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight and cisgender peers. But when the people around them affirm their identities, the risk of suicide drops dramatically.

She encouraged the audience to trust people when they come out, not to question their identities or dismiss their evolution as a stage. “Everyone is who they tell us they are,” she said.

She acknowledged that it can be difficult to address a loved one with different pronouns or a new name, advising the crowd to practice beforehand and to quickly correct mistakes without making a fuss. Most importantly, the essence of a loved one does not change when they come out, she said. “We are still ourselves.”

This was the fourth time that Drabinksi had spoken at Charlestown as part of a lecture series, organized by residents, called ELLIC, or Elder Lifelong Learning in Charlestown. Last week, Drabinski gave a talk entitled Transgender 101 to the group. She donates the honorarium she received to Baltimore Safe Haven, a nonprofit supporting LGBTQ+ people experiencing housing insecurity.

Bonnie Kawecki, a resident and the facilitator of the the community’s LGBTQ+ Friends and Allies group, said some conservative residents of the campus were uncomfortable with pride activities the group had organized in the summer. “We’re trying anything we can to educate this community,” she said.

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Residents at Charlestown Senior Living Community listen to UMBC professor Kate Drabinksi teach a session on information about nonbinary people at Charlestown Senior Living Community in Catonsville, Md., Tuesday, October 11, 2022. (Jessica Gallagher/Jessica Gallagher)

Becky McArthur, a retired teacher, and her husband, Jeffrey McArthur, a retired health and human services worker, said they attended Drabinski’s lecture to be able to better communicate with their teenage grandchildren.

“We want to keep the conversation going,” said Becky McArthur, 83.

“The subject is so confusing. She raised a lot more questions than answers,” said Jeffrey McArthur, 82. “I try to say the right thing and be politically correct. I hope I don’t make mistakes.”

The couple spoke of their oldest grandchild, who recently dyed his hair purple and got his nose pierced. Their grandchildren push boundaries more than their own generation, the couple said. “I’m rather envious that he has the courage to express himself in that way,” said Jeffrey McArthur. “That’s admirable.”

Resident Donna Martin, who organized the session, spoke afterwards about her own struggles coming out. She served as a pastor in a Christian church that at the time did not allow gay people in the pulpit. “I had to stay in the closet or lose my job,” said Martin, 78. “Nobody knew who I really was. I didn’t know who I really was.”

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Martin later left and became a hospice chaplain. And she fell in love with a woman, Mary, who she remained with for 15 years until Mary’s death in 2020.

“Just a few decades ago, it was very difficult for people to come out. When you talk about fear, I totally understand,” Martin told Drabinski after the discussion. “But now I know who I am and I am comfortable in my skin.”

Julie Scharper is an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner. Her work ranges from investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse to light-hearted features. Baltimore Magazine awarded Scharper a Best in Baltimore in 2023 for her series exposing a toxic work culture within the Maryland Park Service.

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