Coming Out and Fitting In
When sixty-four-year-old Tom Esola was just a kid, he questioned who he was and where he belonged. It was the 1960s. The letters LGBT meant nothing. At the age of ten, he was confused and experimenting.
He spent his childhood in Pennsylvania, where his family lived with his grandmother.
Esola remembers his first “gay” experience with a mixture of humor and slight bashfulness. He goes back to the first friend he made in his neighborhood, a boy who lived next door- the first boy for whom he had feelings.
“I was way too shy, never took advantage of opportunities,” Esola says. “I always held back and this comes from the Roman Catholic upbringing and my parents, and I really hate that. Maybe it has something to do with being gay. But I believe you are born gay.”
Sheela-Marie Padgett, 57, is a transgender woman, who before her transition, also lived as a gay male.
“I was not a very good gay,” Padgett jokes. She sits in her Upper West Side apartment, surrounded by portraits she painted, some of herself as a male.
Padgett, like Esola, grew up with religious parents but had an easier time dealing with them.
“They never denied me anything, like when I wanted a doll for Christmas, I got a doll,” Padgett says. “They never said ‘no you cant have that.’ But I think looking back at it they had a hard time with it. But they were actually great. My brother, all he wanted were footballs, baseballs mitts and I was having no part of that, he was completely different from me, and same parents.”
Esola and Padgett are survivors of a time in New York City when being gay or transgender was often a perilous proposition. Today like 100,000 of New York City’s 1.5 million residents who are 55 and older, they are part of the LGBT senior citizen community. Though their city is radically transformed, they like others still live the legacy of that earlier time. It’s estimated that nearly one-third of New York’s LGBT seniors live in poverty, and many have significant health issues.
Esola sits behind the computer desk at the Midtown Manhattan center where he works and stares out the window, his view overlooking the busty streets. He pushes his glasses back up the brim of his nose. His white hair is brushed back as he usually styles it, but today his beard is starting to show, a result of running late to work and not shaving. He rubs his hand up his scruff and continues to talk about when he first experienced “those” feelings.
“He was the one boy that I could play with and I always wanted to be his friend,” Esola recalls. “And by that, gay sexual overtones, but it never came to be cause my parents were very strict.”
Esola finally got to experiment with his curiosity at the early age of ten when he and a few other boys in his town camped out together for a night. There, in their tents and away from all their parents, religious obligations and societal judgments, Esola says he and his friends began acting out their pubescent/sexual feelings with each other.
“I don’t know if they all felt the same way as me,” Esola says about their experimenting. “But we were all trying to figure out what we were desiring. It’s what I wanted all along.”
Those youthful experiments were some of the easier times for Esola, who moved to New York City in his twenties.
“The gay scene was so different there. It was fun but there was so much I didn’t know could happen.”
Sheela-Marie, captured as Bruce here, stretches before practice for the New York Ballet. (Courtesy of Sheela-Marie)
SHeela-Marie captured as Bruce, while she was still living as a gay male. (Courtesy of Sheela-Marie)
Self-portrait of Sheela-Marie as Bruce, while she was still living as a gay male. (Courtesy of Sheela-Marie)
Padgett also moved into NYC in her twenties, still as a gay male. She was a dancer with the New York City Ballet. Back then she was a strong browed and bald man, muscular from dancing. Today, she has soft facial features, as a result of her reconstructive surgery, and brunette hair that falls past her shoulders, perfectly curled. Her makeup is delicate but evident. Her appearance is something she says she takes seriously now as a female. But in her twenties, she only focused on her work, still trying to be gay, but fighting her need to live true to herself as a woman.
“I pushed it away, and the ways that I pushed it away were abusing alcohol, abusing drugs and then once I stopped that and I got sober, the whole transgendered issue was the very first thing to rear its head and it flipped me out and even then being newly sober I still couldn’t deal with it,” Padgett says of her early life in NYC. “Although I was doing things that was reaching for that. I was growing my nails out, shaving my legs, dressing more androgynously. I was doing steps even though I wasn’t sure where I was going.”
The 70s in New York City were known for being a time of heavy partying and drug use. For the gay scene, that was especially true.
Esola is years away from the promiscuous lifestyle he once enjoyed, he regrets none of it.
He remembers orgies, prostitutes, dance halls and places, including his own apartment, where men came and had what Esola calls “ridiculous” sex.
These parties and gatherings gained popularity and press after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which Esola also lived through. These riots were a series of often random and violent demonstrations by members of the gay community to protest a police raid in 1969 at a NYC gay bar. It’s considered to be the event that launched the modern day fight for LGBT rights.
“It started on the streets, it started in the bars it started with regular people and the gay people [who] wanted to have gay marriage,” Esola says. “It was definitely a crazy time to be gay, we weren’t going to stop what we were doing, more people were just catching on to it now.”
Then there was AIDS.
“I remember I saw two people coming out of a doctors office and they were very emaciated and I stopped in my tracks and was shocked,” Esola says. “And I thought, oh that must be what AIDS is.”
During the 70s and 80s the AIDS epidemic broke out and was at an all time high. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, up until the early 2000s, the highest transmission risk behaviors were sex between men, up to 40–49% of new cases.
“I was celibate for eight years, I was so terrified, I’ll never forget it,” Padgett says. “Reading those articles in the magazines about this cancer that gay men were getting, that’s what it was called, this gay cancer.”
Within the medical community however, it quickly became apparent that the disease was not specific to homosexual men. Once newborn babies, women and blood transfusion patients started rising count, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention renamed the syndrome AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) in 1982.
Esola lost his partner of eight years to AIDS. During the last days of their relationship, he witnessed just how difficult it was to receive proper help for this “gay cancer”.
According to the CDC, in the United States, homosexuals, Hispanics, African Americans and White Males make up about 78% of the total HIV-positive population and 75% the amount of new HIV cases. A review of four studies by the UNAIDS reports that when trans women in the United States were tested for HIV, 27.7% tested positive.
AIDS And The Aging
“Nobody could figure it out, and more and more cases, then suddenly one of your friends would have it and die within weeks,” Padgett says. “There was not a long life once you got it. It was terrifying, I can’t even explain. Each cough, a little sore, I would go into panic mode, thinking, that’s it I’ve got it.”
For Esola, every day at the hospital proved to be another battle for the couple.
“I went to the hospital, right before closing, they had moved him to another room. It was freezing cold. All they had on the bed was sheets. He had one sheet over him and one sheet under him, no blankets. His clothes weren’t there and he had no medicine. There was nothing in the room except for him and two sheets.”
Esola passionately recalls his stories and expresses his opinion, but after much silence, this story was coming to a close.
“He would’ve died if I didn’t go in that day.”
Over forty years later, gay marriage was legalized in New York. Esola however was not able to celebrate in the new law with his own marriage. Esola and his partner were married but through a civil union. His partner died a few years later of AIDS. Today, Esola lives alone and he says his youthful escapades are behind him, as well as his fear of AIDS. It’s a fear that the LGBT senior citizen community will always remember.
“I hope younger people are aware of it, I don’t hear them talk about it,” Padgett says. “That’s all we talked about when we were younger.”
Today, there is somewhere to go. More treatments and resources are available for people suffering from AIDS and HIV. On top of that, there are plenty of support groups for LGBT individuals, one of them is SAGE. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in New York City, it is the country’s oldest and most prominent organization dedicated to helping the lives of gay, lesbian and transgendered senior citizens. The center supports the LGBT community, with members 55 and over. Both Esola and Padgett have taken advantage of the center’s resources, along with hundreds of other members within all five boroughs. . The center provides medical resources for patients of AIDS and HIV. They also offer legal and care assistance, public benefits counseling and programs to keep members active and involved.
305 Seventh Avenue, 15th Floor
New York, NY 10001
Directions: The SAGE Center is located on Seventh Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets. Take the 1 train to the 28th St. stop, or the M20 bus to the W. 28th St. stop on Seventh Ave. (downtown) or on Eighth Ave. (uptown).
Oberia D. Dempsey Multi-Service Center
127 West 127th Street
New York, NY 10027
Directions: SAGE Center Harlem is located on 127th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard. Take the 2 or 3 train to the 125th Street stop.
Esola, who lives in the Bronx, travels over an hour to reach the Midtown Center, where he comes two to three times a week. Now, he has a closer option. This past January, SAGE opened up its new center in the Bronx, totaling five centers: Midtown, Harlem, Brooklyn, Staten Island and now the Bronx.
The center was built through $1.5 million of city funds for the expansion of the center in the five boroughs. The Bronx center, like the others, will hold daily activities, cultural events and resources for its members.
Ritchie Torres, a Bronx councilman, is in charge of heading the opening of the new Bronx center. Torres also happens to be the first openly gay politician in his district.
“If you build it, they will come,” says Torres of the LGBT Bronx community. Advocates for the Bronx center say that there are around 17,000 older gay, lesbian and transgendered senior citizens in the borough, and Torres’ goal is to make sure they all have a place to go.
Councilman Torres notes that there’s a major lack of visibility in this community, which includes poverty, which is why the center was even more necessary.
“Our participants enjoy everything from support groups and case management services to activities like Tai Chi, Yoga Tango and Wii Bowling,” Kira Garcia says, who helps head the new Bronx center. “We also offer ‘ask the pharmacists’ info sessions, which is a great example of our health programming. It’s a great opportunity for LGBT older people to find community and connect with each other.”
The LGBT community is at a higher risk of depression and mental health issues, says Torres. One of SAGE’s main initiatives is to continue providing HIV/AIDS treatment and resources. According to Torres, SAGE is an elegant solution and a powerful tool. And for many Bronx residents like Esola, a much more accessible one now.
“It’s a great place to connect with people,” Padgett says of her time at SAGE. “It’s very important to have that support system, I don’t know why more people wouldn’t take advantage of it, especially this late in life.”
Transitioning to Transgendered
Sissy In School
Late Aged Lady
In My Own Skin
“When I was 13 and realized I was a lesbian, it was unheard of. First I felt like I was the only one like that with those kind of feelings. I would make believe that woman could marry women. In the back of my mind I always wondered if one day before I passed away, would a law be passed to treat everyone equal.”
“Being gay works like straight couples. Stand by your woman or man. Marriages are all the same.”
“I’ve worked in construction my whole life and never took crap from anyone being openly gay. Sometimes people loving me and sometimes people not liking me, but you know they never paid my bills I used to say. So I never thought much about haters and wasted my precious time on them. So be yourself and be proud of who you are, life is short and some people really never get it. Life is good now.”
“We have both been in our 15 year relationship through many of life’s ups and downs, starting with losing [my] baby sister on 9/11 and then losing [my] father five years later on Sept. 11, 2006.”