By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
It is turning out to be quite a year for community advocate, William “Bill” Kelly, both in impact and recognition.
Kelly will be inducted at the upcoming Benjamin F. Dillingham and Bridget Wilson LGBT Veterans Wall of Honor ceremony; he’ll soon be featured in a KPBS documentary about San Diego seniors; and he has been chosen to receive the Richard Geyser Community Leadership Award at the 2017 Aston Brooks Awards Gala.
More importantly, Kelly is seeing some of his efforts in the area of LGBT senior services and housing come to fruition. It is a culmination of this advocacy work that informs the core of our conversation.
In Kelly’s own life, he and his husband Bob have experienced the pain of being in the closet while trying to participate in a fully actualized life.
Seven months into their now nearly 38-year relationship, on a day they had planned to meet for dinner to discuss the rest of their lives together, Bob was offered a job in Italy. The opportunity was not to be passed up and while they chose to make it work — fueled by love, commitment and letters — not being afforded the same set of circumstances as a heterosexual, committed couple definitely stung.
It is this very painful process of having to “re-enter the closet” that many LGBT seniors experience when they need to access resources specifically designed for them. When general senior service providers are not LGBT-affirming, many seniors must sacrifice the freedom to live honestly, in the name of survival.
However, in the world that Kelly envisions, an individual will be able to live all the years of their life out and proud.
He sees one of his roles in this effort as being “the fuel for the torch.” His philosophy is that we accomplish most when new blood is encouraged to participate in the process of advocacy, with those who have the experience, possessing the grace to engage, advise and be willing to pass that torch forward.
Kelly’s journey into his advocacy work in San Diego began, as many of our journeys do, at the San Diego LGBT Community Center. He recognized the needs of — and the lack of effort that was being leveraged toward — the aging population.
To this end, Kelly chose to use his 60th birthday as a fundraising kick-off, to open a fund at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation with the purpose of serving the senior population. The penthouse soiree garnered nearly $12,000, which was earmarked for LGBTQ seniors, but then raised the question; “How do we best use these funds?”
Then, representatives from The Center, a network of providers, advocates and other concerned citizens began meeting to start making these determinations. This ad-hoc committee identified many challenges and barriers to sensitive and accessible care, but at the crux of the problem was the issue of stable housing.
It was often an uphill battle, but in the face of other priorities in the queue for the LGBT community and greatly curtailed by the recession, Kelly credits much of his will to persevere to the encouragement of Dr. Delores Jacobs, the executive director of The Center.
“Bill Kelly has been a committed, strategic and thoughtful advocate for all seniors, particularly LGBT seniors, for almost a decade,” Jacobs said. “His relentless energy and passion are infectious! He is dedicated to connecting people to resources — and those resources to each other — to form a network that can better serve seniors in powerful ways.”
Despite the lean financial times, this partnership did continue and eventually produced an LGBT senior needs assessment, which told the story of conditions that many of these individuals faced. With this document, there was finally data to demonstrate the needs.
Kelly has had the opportunity to work with many concerned citizens and leaders, and considers Sue Reynolds of Community HousingWorks (CHW) one of his most valuable allies. In CHW’s commitment to provide stable housing, Kelly found a partnering agency that understood the urgency of the need.
“Bill is indomitable in his passion and his persistence in making sure the voices of seniors and LGBT seniors are heard and acted upon,” Reynolds said of Kelly’s commitment.
As Kelly’s work became more broadly recognized throughout the community, he was called upon for his passion and expertise. Among many of the positions he’s held was a seat at the San Diego Seniors Affairs Advisory Board — a nomination by Todd Gloria — of which he eventually became chair.
“I have always admired Bill’s dedication to advancing opportunities for our aging seniors,” explained Gloria. “Over the years, I have seen firsthand his advocacy for the creation of accessible and affordable senior housing come to fruition and I am grateful for his activism on these critical issues.
“The idea that every single individual should have the right to age with dignity is at the core of his activism and is what makes him an extraordinary leader in the LGBT community,” Gloria said.
This past summer, Kelly saw part of his vision begin to come to life. CHW broke ground in North Park on San Diego’s first LGBT-affirming senior community, a project that Kelly is quite proud of.
“The 76 LGBT-affirming housing units that are being created is a powerful first step,” Kelly said. “This needs to be a template upon which we build, and I believe we will. If I look back to when I was younger, I could never have predicted the strides we’ve seen. You didn’t dare dream it, let alone believe it.”
To find out more about the work being done for seniors, check out the Facebook group “Caring for our LGBT Seniors in San Diego,” which is administrated by Kelly.
Please note that the LGBT Veterans Wall of Honor induction will take place at The Center on Thursday, Nov. 10 at 6 p.m.
—Ian D. Morton is the senior program analyst at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.