Growing old in America can be difficult, we live in a society that puts such a tremendous value on youth and beauty, but growing old and gay in America can seem like an unrelenting journey into isolationism, bigotry, and indifference . Advocacy groups say the estimated 2.5 million gay seniors in America are twice as likely to live alone, four times less likely to have adult children to help them, and far more fearful of discrimination from health care workers. Overlooked by society at large, and at times it seems “invisible” to the younger gays. Gay seniors face obstacles and hardships that their heterosexual counter parts do not and never will.
With old age comes the passage of time and major milestones in a senior life, aging is too often about isolation, friends, families and partners die, and along with them so do their social networks and community connections. Once viable, vibrant gay men, old age sneeks up on you in the gay society like a bad rumor, its whispered and discussed in hushed tones, but no one really wants to “see it”. When you throw in the mix, the scourges of homophobia and the AIDS epidemic, the situation for senior gays may seem unsurmountable.
Seniors in the gay community, have seen their community hit with the total devastation of HIV and the shocking numbers of gay men that died in the early onslaught of the epidemic. They have seen the rise and rise of gay activism, and in many areas they have been at the very forefront of these activities. Provoking and shocking the general populous into recognizing the rights and dilemmas that member of the LGBT community face. It seems unfair that for so many in their golden years, the programs and reforms that they championed, now seem to escape them when they most need them.
Society can still be a lonely place for the gay elderly, many of whom have not told family and friends about their sexual preferences. Many of these people grew up before Stonewall, when gay people were harassed and prosecuted as criminals. Even though it’s better now, that atmosphere still lingers. More people in the LGBT community live alone than in the straight community, because many of them never married, so they have no children. Compound these inequities with the hardship elderly citizens face in a economic downturn (like the one we are in right now), and life can be pretty daunting. Seniors are experiencing the U.S. recession acutely. Rapidly rising living and housing costs, along with projected cuts in government assistance, mean even less of their scant social security and pension dollars to take care of health needs.
Discrimination in the gay society is even more acute in the seniors community. Many face discrimination in medical and social services, and on top of it all, they’re less likely to have health insurance. For many gay seniors in nursing homes or assisted living situations, it’s a life of neglect and fear. Many are afraid that if their sexual orientation were disclosed they would suffer undue abuse and neglect at the hands of their care givers, who may in many circumstances be homophobic and ignorant in the needs and history of gay men and women in their twilight years. They receive fewer visitors than their straight counterparts at these places and with limited connections to the lives they once lived, growing old and gay in America can be a scary and lonely trip.
We as a community must establish and nourish programs and institutions that enable and look after gay seniors. We owe this particular group of baby boomers, a debt of gratitude. They pioneered the way for younger more assertive gays to reach their full potential as vibrant and viable human beings without the scourge of discrimination and fear attributed to the gay movement 30 or 40 years ago.
All is not lost, there is reason to hope and celebrate that the needs of gay seniors will be addressed in many different formats. Organizations like SAGE, the New York organization known as Service and Advocacy for LGBT Elders, are paving the way for more focus and attention to gay senior issues. More and more LGBT community centers are implementing programs to address the needs of the senior gay community. More out reach is occurring in many major cities like San Diego (with programs like Elder Help) are reaching across the sexual barriers to align themselves with other agencies that cooperatively can lead to more resources for the aging LGBT community. And one glimmer that straight society is starting to recognize this extraordinarily vibrant segment of our society is the announcement that AARP (the largest advocacy group for Americans older than 50) would sponsor a major conference focused on gay and lesbian aging for the first time. Thus allowing thousands of gay AARP members to finally feel a connection with an institution that has become synonymous with championing the rights of older Americans.
Today’s gay elderly do face unique problems – but they also remember the bad old days in the closet, and many celebrate the joys of gay life in the 21st century.
By: Rey Torres