On a typically rainy South Florida summer morning, two dozen women and men and one reporter gathered in a condo clubhouse in Wilton Manors to talk about their grandchildren. What made these people different from other grandparents in other clubhouses is the fact that they are also lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Most of them go back to pre-Stonewall days, to a time when most gay men and women stayed in their closets and entered into opposite-sex marriages. Though they eventually came out of their closets -- some with a vengeance -- and formed same-sex relationships, most of them maintained close ties with their children, and later, their grandchildren.
South Florida's LGBT Grandparents Group was formed to serve the needs of the grandparents in our community. The first of its kind, the South Florida group has many members. Gay grandad Peter Robinson is one of them. He recalls:
"We started the planning committee back in January. One of the members of the Therapist Collective of SunServe got in contact with several of us who are gay grandparents and wanted to know if we would be willing to form a group of LGBT grandparents -- as a support group and a social group -- and we said that was a great idea. So, six of us got together and we planned our first meeting."
"My partner is really one of the founders," Denise Spivak says, modestly. "I am a founder by default. My partner and the other founders had the idea. What is really phenomenal about this group along with the people that founded it is the cooperation among the agencies that put it together: Women In Network, SunServe, PFLAG, the Pride Center, and Women with Pride. It's been a cooperative effort and I am thrilled that four agencies could come together to provide something that is needed and successful."
Sixteen grandparents attended the first meeting in March, and the group then met in May and July. According to co-founder Paul Smith, the reception from other grandparents has been incredible. "We have been getting groups of 20 to 25 people at each meeting, which I think is really great. There is a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of interest in this group."
Word spread by word of mouth and soon other grandparents joined in. "Paul Smith came to some of the groups at the Pride Center and was very vocal about starting this group," says Allen Churchman. "So I decided to come to the first meeting and see what it was all about. I brought pictures of my grandkids. I am having issues right now with my grandchildren and I hope to get some insight from the group in terms of what direction to take to resolve those issues." Inez Pasher said she felt relief upon finding the group: "They had their first meeting here and we all came in and it was quite a revelation, finding out that there are so many of us. You don't feel isolated."
Unlike other LGBT groups, the grandparents group has virtual parity between men and women. "This is very unusual," notes Robinson. "Everybody gets along beautifully. This is one of the first gay organizations that I have been part of where an even number of men and women come together and we all get along." Pasher agrees: "This is the only group that I have ever been to where there is an homogeneous community of men and women -- it's almost 50/50." Pasher attributes this harmony to the fact that members share the experience of being grandparents.
The LGBT Grandparents Group does not have a formal structure, and the participants like it that way. It does not have corporate papers, by-laws, or a board of directors, and it does not fundraise. Robinson says the group covers many topics. Of course, like any proud grandparent, there's a lot of talking about each person's grandchildren. But other topics also include "ideas and ways to interact with grandchildren," how to handle things like long-distance relationships and spousal relationships, and what happens when a grandparent has a divorce from their spouse. (Does the spouse maintain a relationship with the grandchildren or should they? What happens when the grandchildren miss the former spouse?).
Most of the grandparents in the group -- and their partners, if they have one -- are out to their families. Kris Drumm, who co-founded the group and moderated the July meeting, has three grandchildren and describes her relationship with them as "wonderful." Other participants -- including Pasher, Robinson, and Smith -- also enjoy great relationships with their children (some of who are also gay) and their grandchildren.
"I have five grandsons, ranging from the age of 9½ all the way down to 2," Smith says proudly. "They know I am gay. In fact, they have two grandpas: me and my partner. My partner and I have been together for 34 years and they have only known us together as their grandfathers. They accept my partner, absolutely."
Allan Churchman says that the group "is a good idea because there are a lot of retired seniors here that have grandchildren and this is a good way to relate to others who may be having problems or issues with being a grandparent." Most everyone -- if not everyone -- who attends meetings would seem to agree. "I love this group," says Drumm. "I think that a lot of us who live far away from our grandchildren find it is very hard to maintain a relationship. And then if there is homophobia in the family that makes it really hard. Here, we have a place to talk about it."
The South Florida LGBT Grandparents Group is open to both biological and non-biological grandparents. Interested parties may reach the group by sending an e-mail to co-founder Chris Maclellan at firstname.lastname@example.org.