Published: 06:00, 06 September 2020
A counselling and support service for people in the LGBT+ community is launching three new groups this month, after older gay and lesbian people across Kent reached out to the founder about feeling lonely and isolated.
Hilary Cooke, CEO of the Medway Gender and Sexual Diversity Centre, in Rochester , said she was approached by numerous people who were looking for a forum where they could be themselves and talk openly about struggles specific to their sexual preference.
The three new classes will be for lesbians, gay men and a third for people who identify as bisexual and pansexual.
Ms Cooke, who lives in Burham , said there are a lack of spaces for older people who are not heterosexual to express themselves in social settings, for fear they might be ostracised by their peers.
The 64-year-old said: "They might feel they have to go back into the closet if their only space where they can meet is within groups for older people, and they don't feel comfortable about being open about their sexuality or their gender identity.
"From the older person's point of view who grew up in a time when being being gay was illegal, then there was Section 28 - some people are still feeling that stigma.
"So yes, there is a need out there among the older LGBT community for these spaces."
Section 28 was a controversial clause introduced by Margaret Thatcher, which banned the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities and in schools.
Although attitudes around the treatment of LGBT+ people have improved in the past decade, the support charity CEO said there are still a lack of socialising spaces for people to be themselves without judgement.
These people, primarily in their middle ages or elderly, were the ones who approached Ms Cooke to set up the new support groups.
She said: "The traditional outlets for socialising are mainly the places younger people would go - pubs and clubs and nightclubs.
"I think when you get past a certain age you feel like that - I mean I don't feel like it's particularly a good idea to go to a nightclub at my age.
"We all feel we need different spaces to be comfortable, so in the main it was people who wouldn't be socialising in the places made available."
With the new groups starting this month, Ms Cooke hopes they will be a place that older gay, lesbian and bisexual people from across Kent and Medway can escape the loneliness and isolation they might be feeling.
The sessions will initially run online, which means those who are having to shield due to Covid-19 can also get involved.
When asked why the sessions had been split up into lesbian, gay men and bisexuals/pansexuals, Ms Cooke said she felt it was important to give people an opportunity to socialise with others who have likely shared similar circumstances.
She said: "Although the LGBT community is seen as a whole by people, it crosses across different experiences that people have.
"So a gay man's experience may be different from lesbian's or a bisexual or pansexual person's or even the transgender, non binary person's experience.
"It's not that we're trying to separate these groups out, but to give people a space where they can can advise each other and support each other going forward."
The Medway Gender and Sexual Diversity Centre was awarded funding from the Test Bed Fund, run by the Befriending Programme at Medway Voluntary Action.
Aside from running the organisation, Ms Cooke also chaired Medway Pride 2020, which took place remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.