‘We Had to Take Care of the Most Vulnerable’
May 20, 2011
by Shea Coffman
Over the years, Chris Almvig has challenged social standards, questioned expectations, and found the true meaning of honesty to oneself.
As Almvig grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, she found herself drawn to the aid of fellow humans. She carried this interest all the way to college, where she pursued social work.
Eventually dropping out, Almvig was left to seek work sans complete master’s degree. She found a job as a social director at Tan-Tar-A. On some level, she felt like a traitor to social work but she did what she had to do and pressed on.
Almvig began questioning her sexuality while working at the resort, and she started a journey of self-discovery that she was denied as a child.
“Growing up, there were words for gay men. People knew what that was. Never for a gay woman, a lesbian,” Almvig said.
Almvig was ready for experiences that would answer her questions. Before long, she met the resort’s female Austrian ski instructor. This situation, which now sounds like the start to a spicy girl-on-girl movie, became an affair that ended with Almvig knowing she was a lesbian.
“It was not easy to meet people, I could have been fired had I approached women” Almvig said.
Over time she befriended the resort’s spa director and came out to him. He agreed to introduce her to some gay people at the lake, but first made her place her hand over her heart and swear not to mention being gay to them. They were older and didn’t talk about being gay.
The group would have progressive brunches with cocktails, traveling boat-to-boat and dock-to-dock, laughing, talking, eating and getting tipsier at each stop. By mid-brunch, Almvig and the spa director were left to help stumbling 60-, 70- and 80-year-old men and women on and off the boats.
These drunken brunches began to affect Almvig’s outlook on her future. She met more gay men and women and starting making plans with a resort intern of a dream retirement resort for elderly gay men and women. They drew up meticulous plans for the resort and a business model. No one would be turned away for lack of funds. Conventions and conferences would subsidize the cost for those who couldn’t afford to stay. Different rooms were given clever names, programming was planned, and so on.
But all of this was pushed aside when Almvig made the leap from Tan-Tar-A to Kansas City. Sleeping on her spa-director friend’s spare couch and seeking work and liberation in a new city, Almvig began frequenting gay bars. Some were mafia-owned, or owned by heterosexuals who knew how to use the gay men and women as loyal, drinking patrons.
Almvig became comfortable in her new life in Kansas City. She made friends, visited backstage with female impersonators at the Jewel Box, joined up with the Kansas City Women’s Liberation Union and finally gained work in her field at a social services agency.
While on her climb to fulfillment, Almvig endured a lot of hardship. She was fired from her job for having been spotted on the front page of The Kansas City Star advocating and speaking about women’s, and eventually, gay liberation. A red-faced agency director screamed with a pointed finger, “Get out!” Her female co-workers cried, but were too scared to speak out against the discrimination.
This dramatic situation left Almvig out of luck in the social work job market. With bad references here and there, she took the interim position as house mother for the newly inhabited KC Women’s Liberation Union house off Charlotte Street.
With head held high, Almvig continued her journey as a lesbian.
“We’d have women come visit the house from out of town, and we’d take them out to a bar, or swimming at a lake. We’d cook for them and make them feel welcome. One time, a very attractive woman named Carol came to town and we took her to the Cabaret. A table full of us girls, and we’d all play pass the ice cube. I made sure to sit next to Carol!” Almvig remembered.
A night was shared between Almvig and Carol, and they exchanged numbers, but the next day Carol strapped on her backpack as she was dropped off at the train station. Both women continued their everyday lives until Almvig received a phone call from Carol asking her to come camping in Colorado.
“Little did she know I had a pop-up camper, but the clutch was out and I didn’t have the money to have it fixed. So Carol sent me the money and I went camping,” Almvig said.
They spent more time together, and Almvig returned to Kansas City. Carol called again and asked Almvig to come visit her, but this time in New York. Almvig thought to herself how fun it would be and agreed. Three seconds after she hung up the receiver, the phone rang again. It was Carol, and she said, “When I said, ‘Come to New York to visit,’ I really meant for forever.”
“I told her I would come, and we wouldn’t talk about it until the last day of my trip,” Almvig said. “And on the last day, we sat down and talked about the pros and cons and decided we really loved each other. Carol changed my life.”
So from Chicago, to Tan-Tar-A, to KC and now on to New York, Almvig was continuing her climb. Carol urged her to enroll in a master’s program that would give her the credentials she needed to open the retirement facility that she had dreamed about.
She started classes, and Almvig and a gay male classmate developed a set of resource guides for a class project. The guides eventually made their way through the grapevine, and Almvig was called on to be the go-to gal when elderly gay people would call the New York Gay Switchboard. She fielded sad call after sad call of elderly people laden with depression and thoughts of suicide.
“We had to do something,” Almvig said.
Almvig wrote her master’s thesis on lesbianism and the elderly. From there it was time to put her plans into action.
A meeting was called, and people attended who were interested in a support group for the gay elderly.
“It made sense. We had to take care of the most vulnerable,” Almvig said.
The organization acquired incorporated status in 1978, grants were written, and an executive director was hired. Almvig’s passion and persistence for helping the elderly and wanting something more for a mature gay community led her to develop SAGE.
SAGE was originally an acronym for Senior Action in a Gay Environment, an organization that provided support, fellowship, and resources for the elderly community. SAGE now stands for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, and it has grown to receive federal grants, partner with national resource centers, and become the largest advocacy organization linking resources for the gay elderly across the country as well as providing a social outlet for them.
Almvig’s passion for the care of the community was at the core of her journey.
“Community does not mean just your peers,” Almvig said. “It means all of us. We need to reach out to those who have something that is not enabling them to be a full member of our community. If we could all use our resources to reach out then we will have completed a full definition of community.”
Hearing her stories of the people she and SAGE have reached reminds the heart and mind that we now live in a different society. It’s becoming less and less common to hear about gay men and women shut out of their lives for being who they are. The amount of acceptance has greatly improved, and it takes stories like Almvig’s to awaken us for a moment from our lives filled with Manhunt, Facebook, Twitter, and bars to realize the importance of the work that others have done for the gay community and to say thank you.
“Life is not just running to the bar,” Almvig said. “The older you get, you will see that. Life is in memories and relationships and friends.”
Almvig’s story reminds all of us that compassion and care for one another will help break the oppression we face and push us into a happier life from youth to maturity.
More information about SAGE can be found at www.sageusa.org, including resources and guides for starting a SAGE chapter. To dive further into the memories of Chris Almvig, you can read her memoir at the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (glama.us).