This article is part of News is Out’s Caring for Community series, which is focused on the challenges and triumphs of giving and receiving care in the LGBTQ+ community. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and News is Out.
To create a more inclusive, accepting running environment for LGBTQ+ folks in Philly, Cain Leathers started the running group Queer Run in April 2022. Leathers was motivated by some patterns of discrimination he noticed while working in the athletics industry, so he took a break to run across Pennsylvania to raise money for the Trevor Project, a crisis prevention organization geared toward LGBTQ+ youth.
Leathers is open about his experience growing up in rural Ohio and his struggle with overcoming suicidal ideation. His run across Pennsylvania spanned 360 miles over the course of 10 days, from the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia.
“I wanted to prove to others that you can take a step forward and use your voice, and it can not only change your life, but it can change the lives of others too,” Leathers said. “It’s OK to be brave and take that platform and to tell your story. Queer Run really stemmed around that.”
The idea of learning from the stories of others is a central theme in Queer Run’s work with residents of the John C. Anderson LGBT-Friendly Senior Apartments (JCAA). JCAA opened in Philadelphia in February 2014 and its residents include LGBTQ+ elders who were part of the early equality movement. Many of them have been openly LGBTQ+ for decades.
This fall, Queer Run and fellow Philly running group Lez Run collaborated with residents of JCAA to hold a weekly walking group. Each session begins with introductions and basic stretches, followed by a half-mile walk around the neighborhood.
Part of the group’s goal is to prepare JCAA residents for next year’s Philly Pride Run, an annual 5-kilometer race and one-mile fun run. But on a deeper level, C.C. Tellez, who founded Lez Run nearly a decade ago and initiated the partnership with Queer Run and JCAA, wanted to remind the JCAA residents that the work they did living authentically and advocating for the community does not go unappreciated.
“This is why Lez Run is here, this is why Queer Run is here, this is why Frontrunners is here,” Tellez said. “What we’re building through the different events and community engagement and advocacy work that we’ve been doing – is that [the efforts of LGBTQ+ elders] were meaningful and that we used it as an example, and that we’re continuing it. It gives value, it builds them up and it says, ‘hey, my existence led to this.’ We walk with a purpose.”
Leathers said that getting to know the residents and their histories has been a privilege.
“There’s enough people from both groups to pair up with each resident that attends, so we could learn about someone new each week,” Leathers said.
“They have very interesting, impactful life stories that may have set them apart from others; just hearing how strong they’ve led their lives and stepping forward and into their own selves, and embracing their identity during a time where the world wasn’t as accepting. [They paved] the way for myself and others to be more open and OK with who we are. I feel like they don’t get as much recognition. They are just people that live their lives every single day, but when you hear their stories, they’re superheroes in their own ways, each one of them.”
Mary Groce and her wife Suz Atlas, who have lived at JCAA since its inception, have regularly participated in the walking group.
“They’re just so wonderful, it’s been such a friendly interchange,” Groce said. “It’s been a rough couple of years, so this is good therapy.”
Out of the 56 apartments in the JCAA, Groce and Atlas are one of the only couples.
“Everybody else in this building is alone, and it’s been very difficult over the last couple of years,” Atlas said. “But this [group] is so uplifting, and it’s always good to talk to these young educated people. It’s really sweet.”
Another shared ideology of Leathers and Tellez is that running and physical fitness should be accessible to everyone, including older adults.
“I know that sometimes, unfortunately, we do tend to forget about our elders, whether we’re in the LGBTQ+ community or not,” Tellez said. “We value activity so much and we see what it can do for us. It makes sense to be able to reach out to others who may not have the access, the company or the resources to do it.”
In the winter months, instead of an outdoor walking group, Leathers hopes to continue to engage with JCAA residents by way of an indoor aerobics class, he said.
“This way, they’ll get up, get moving, they could still interact with Queer Run members and get to know new faces and get that energy, that blood flowing,” Leathers said. “It’ll be a way to continue this momentum through the winter months and still give them that engagement.”
Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Gay News. She received her B.A. from Goucher College and her M.A. in journalism from Temple University.