Gay and Gray

[27 October 2006]

By Michael Abernethy

Daniel and Kurt have been happily coupled for over 40 years. As an out and proud couple, they have fought homophobia through the worst times of the gay equality movement, and they have taken great pride in the growing acceptance that American society has for homosexuality and gay couples. They had already been together for a couple of years when the ‘69 Stonewall Uprising in New York City sparked the nation’s Gay Rights movement, and both were in their mid-40s before the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off the list of mental disorders (1973). They lost many of their closest friends in the early years (‘80s) of the AIDS epidemic, and cheered ACT UP’s first major demonstration in 1987, which stormed Wall Street in New York to protest the hefty financial profits of AZT manufacturers. Both had retired before the 1993 US Supreme Court ruling declaring sodomy laws unconstitutional. Now in the golden years of their lives, Daniel and Kurt have done something they never thought they would. They’ve gone back into the closet.

Last year, Kurt had a stroke, and Daniel’s weakening health prevented him from taking care of his life partner. Consequently, the two were forced to take up residence in a nursing home, where, they quickly learned, homophobia is rampant and abuse of elderly homosexuals frequent. In the name of self-preservation, they told the staff they were life-long “friends”, not a couple, which means that they can no longer show one another affection, call each other by their pet names, or refer to their past struggles in the fight for gay rights. At least not in front of others. 

Daniel and Kurt are a fictional couple, but their plight is neither farfetched nor isolated. Such institutional homophobia against gays has resulted in California’s legislature passing The Older Californians Equality and Protection Act, which is presently waiting for Governor Schwarzenegger’s signature to become law. Mark Leno, Assemblyman from San Francisco, says that the intent of the bill is to insure that aging GLBT residents will be included in “the design and implementation of all state programs serving the elderly to ensure they are afforded the care and services they need.” (”Calif. Passes LGBT Senior Law”) However, the bill is just a band-aid. The struggles of elderly gays and lesbians are spiraling into despair, and few people seem to be paying attention.

Obviously, legislation similar to that in California is needed throughout the entire US. The LGBT Aging Project of Massachusetts reports that, nationwide, almost half of service providers in senior centers declare gay and lesbian seniors unwelcome unless they hide their sexual orientation.  And the 1999 New York State of the State Report on Lesbian and Gay New Yorkers observed, “Older people are the greatest users of medical care services, but services for the elderly, including nursing home and residential care, almost never consider the possibility of a LGBT identity.”

The LGBT Aging Project reports that every week 10,000 LGBT individuals reach the age of retirement. For many of them, though, the “golden” years are anything but. Having grown up acutely aware of how homophobia can manifest itself, these individuals become reluctant to make use of public services where they might encounter discrimination, even if that means forgoing necessary medical treatment. Such a disinclination to make use of available services forces elderly homosexuals to rely on family and friends for needed care. But tragically, 68 percent of aging LGBT persons over 50 couldn’t think of a single person who would be willing to provide such care if it was needed.  That leaves them alone at a time in their lives when they are more vulnerable to injury, disease, crime, and financial hardship.

It is easy to attribute such a status to a lack of foresight, a failure to plan for the future.  However, many of those gay men entering retirement age never expected to live long enough to see senior citizen status. This generation of gay men and women lived through an era when their friends and lovers were dying at an alarming rate; a considerable number still struggle with HIV and AIDS, but thanks to medical advances, they have been living years or decades longer than any one thought they would. It is difficult to plan for a future which may never come. Even without such a pessimistic outlook, the financial burdens of the medical regimen required to keep an AIDS death at bay limits the ability to start a suitable retirement fund.

Elderly LGBT individuals not suffering from the virus still had just cause for not expecting to live to a ripe old age. Having spent their formative years in a time when homosexuals were frequently killed, harassed, or ostracized, countless gay people came to expect a violent end for themselves. Now that they have survived such a culture, their fears aren’t quelled.

Violence against elderly homosexuals is rampant. Those homophobes wanting to vent their rage against queers find mature gays and lesbians easy targets. Why start a fight with a 20-something homosexual who spends time in the gym when you can wail on a 70-something one who struggles with arthritis? How widespread this violence is remains uncertain, as such crimes are usually recorded as being hate crimes against homosexuals or against the elderly, but seldom as being against elderly homosexuals. Additionally, many elderly gay men and women remain in the closet to everyone except their closest friends, so they don’t report hate crimes as being exactly that.

Even within the gay community, discrimination against the elderly is widespread, as young gay men and women often refer to elderly gays as “trolls”, “dyke hags”, or by other unflattering terms. Gay bars and discos are considered the domain of the young, and older gays who frequent them are often ridiculed. Of course, such behavior is consistent with Western culture, which fails to value its elderly, but in a subculture that places high priority on appearance, the loss of physical fitness can be particularly devastating, and the barbs aimed at those who are no longer “players” particularly cruel. 

Suppose, though, that a gay couple survived the AIDS epidemic, gay riots, prejudicial senior services, and thugs preying on the old.  They’ve worked for generations, contributed to society at least as much as their heterosexual counterparts, if not more - they may even have overcome housing discrimination and bought a home together, thus becoming part of the economy-stabilizing middle class.  They should have a happy and peaceful retirement, right? Not necessarily. Because gay and lesbian couples have no legal protections, they must have a slew of legal documents drawn up to insure they share the same rights as married heterosexual couples. A surviving partner could lose his or her home and finances, as well as custody of adopted children or pets without appropriate legal documents. Likewise, gay and lesbian individuals can be denied visitation rights should a partner be admitted to the hospital; they have no role in important medical decisions, can’t identify bodies in the case of death, and can be excluded from planning funeral arrangements. 

These problems for LGBT elderly persons are not just an American phenomenon. News agencies in the UK, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, and Australia report that aging LGBT individuals and couples have experienced some, if not all, of the same discrimination and harassment in those countries as well, despite the fact that many of those countries are more progressive in their attitudes towards alternate lifestyles.

The Steering Committee of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change

The Steering Committee of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change

All in all, it would seem to be a pretty grim picture for the elderly homosexual.  But does anyone think that the generation that rioted to protest police brutality, fought for fair housing and employment legislation, and marched to get AIDS funding would go quietly into the night? Not likely.  Numerous social and service organizations which cater specifically to the needs of older homosexual, bisexual and transgendered persons are emerging. Prime Timers Worldwide has numerous chapters throughout the US, Canada, and Australia, which cater to gay men who “involve themselves in their community with volunteerism, politics, gay issues, arts, entertainment, and every other facet of healthy living.” Senior lesbians can join Older Lesbians Organizing for Change, which is headquartered in Ohio but draws members from across the US in their fight against ageism. Additionally, numerous regional groups have been formed, such as the Coalition of Older Lesbians (COOL) in Los Angeles and Gay Reunion in Our Time in Brooklyn, which assists persons of color.

While these groups address the disparities many older LGBT must face, other organizations seek to establish LGBT communities exclusively for senior citizens. The Gay and Lesbian Association of Retiring Persons has as its mission “to develop and operate Retirement Communities that are openly LGBT friendly and to promote, provide and support education on aging… We also want to promote fun, friendship and continued relationships in a group living setting that is accepting and tolerant of differences while emphasizing health, wellness and well-being.” With and without the assistance of GLARP, retirements communities for elderly gays are opening worldwide, providing aging LGBT persons with a safe home, as well as care and attention for those who have no one to turn to. Unfortunately, many of these retirement villages are still cost-prohibitive for lower income people, but the fact that they are being built offers hope that affordable nursing communities for LGBT elders will soon follow.

As much as these communities are needed, they isolate older gays and lesbians from those who could most use their input: the younger generation. So many of the liberties which gays and lesbians enjoy today, from Gay Pride Celebrations to the ability to dance in a gay bar without the fear of being arrested, came about due to the hard work of the generation now settling into old age. While focusing attention on the battles still to be won in the fight for gay rights, it is easy to overlook the battles already won and the brave women and men who endured beatings, persecution, prosecution, and rejection to win them. After all that, don’t they deserve a peaceful, secure retirement—and our respect?

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/gay-and-gray/