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If we are lucky, we’ll become old. Due to AIDS, there aren’t as many older gay men to tell us what it’s like to age, and since we’re in a society that silences queer voices and worships youth, LGBT seniors are some of our most muted members.
Intergenerational conversations and connections aren’t happening due to seniors’ limited mobility and social media ineptness, and bars are intimidating and unwelcoming. How do queer generations connect? How do LGBT elders become confident to express themselves when they’ve had a lifetime of encouragement to hide who they are and how they feel?
After I taught writing workshops around the country to LGBT youth and people living with HIV, I moved to Los Angeles and created My Life Is Poetry. It was the first-ever autobiographical poetry-writing workshop for LGBT seniors. That was 11 years ago.
To give you a concept of 2006: George Bush was president, Beyoncé released her second studio album and Blu-ray discs were released. It was a different cultural climate, and my concept — to create a platform for LGBT seniors to share their life stories in poetry — was revolutionary.
LGBT seniors have a higher poverty rate than their straight counterparts. I wanted My Life Is Poetry to be free so seniors on a fixed income could attend. Thankfully funding was found from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs Artist in Residency Grant. The L.A. LGBT Center donated space and resources.
The first workshop had an incredibly large turnout. All subsequent workshops have had robust numbers. At one point, there were 42 students in the class. Most writing workshops have a maximum of 7 or 8. I’ve never put a cap on the class. Instead of turning students away, I became a better instructor, able to accommodate a large class. I chose to work harder instead of excluding others. LGBT seniors have already endured much exclusion and rejection, and I didn’t want to recreate that in this class.
I’ve chosen to teach the kind of workshops I do because I’m concerned with who is privileged to create art in this country and who gets airtime from the media. It seems as if only a certain sliver of the population is represented. All of my workshops, especially My Life Is Poetry, are about helping people find their voice, creating poetic narratives of their experiences, and encouraging them to believe their life stories have value.
Since the inception of the workshop, hundreds of seniors have taken the class, thousands have heard the student readings, a book was published of their writings, a full-length dramatic reading documentary was made and a short-documentary as well. And this year Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti gave me a Certificate of Appreciation, stating that my work “has been of great value to intensify community spirit and enhance the lives of all Angelenos.”
All of this has exceeded my expectations when creating that first workshop.
Some moments I’ll always remember: The electricity going out during a workshop and the students saying they would write by light from the window rather than stop. How the students sometimes took four different busses to get to class. One student who postponed chemotherapy until our class cycle ended. Students who wrote poems that would eventually be read at their funerals. And the countless times I’ve had students tell me that My Life Is Poetry has changed their life.
Watch this short film by Michael Saul highlighting the LGBT seniors poetry workshop:
Steven Reigns was appointed the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. He has lectured and taught writing workshops around the country to LGBT youth and people living with HIV. Currently he is touring The Gay Rub, an exhibition of rubbings from LGBT landmarks; facilitates the monthly Lambda Lit Book Club; and is at work on a new collection of poetry.