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Ageing in the LGBT Community

Within the last month or so, there has been increased visibility and recognition of a part of the gay community that we rarely hear about: senior citizens.

Del Martin, who died on August 27 at the age of 87, was a co-founder of Daughters of Bilitis, one of the earliest lesbian organizations.  Her June 16 marriage to her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, made national headlines as one of the first same-sex marriages in California and was officiated by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom.

Martin’s death was followed by the passing of John Burnside, the life partner of Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay and a pioneer in establishing the Radical Faerie community, on September 14. He was 91.

These deaths were notable not only because of their invaluable contributions to the LGBT community, but also because it was an opportunity for people to learn about gay elders and realize that gays can continue to lead meaningful lives as we age.

Our society tends to discount the contributions of the elderly, saddling them with a variety of unfortunate stereotypes, but the reality is that healthly communities recognize their value. Many of us had experience with elders while were children, whether it was through  relatives, neighbors, institutions like school or church, or volunteer work.  We may have disagreed with them on politics or lifestyle issues, but many times they were a source of knowledge and wisdom gained by years of experience, although it may have taken years for us to understand the lessons they tried to teach.

The marginalization and exclusion of older people can be even more pronounced in the gay community.   Mainstream gay culture places such an emphasis on youth, as it pertains to appearance and behavior, that it sometimes appears that gays are stuck in a perpetual adolescence.  I believe this is particularly true for gay men, where I think the advantages of being male in this society combine with a lack of mentoring to create a situation where superficiality is too frequently the standard mode of operation, preventing us from fulfilling our potential as individuals and a community.

To help raise awareness of the importance of LGBT elders, the New York based organization Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders, or SAGE, has started a public information campaign about their consitutents that includes print advertisements and billboards on buses and subways. The campaign’s tagline is "Because there is no expiration date on a full, active life.” The conference that was held this week on the issues faced by aging gays and lesbians was organized by SAGE and sponsored by the AARP, one of the largest and most influential lobbying organizations in the country.

AARP’s interest in graying gays is not surprising when you look at statistics.  The numbers of Americans 65 and over is expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 25 years, and LGBT people are estimated to be 7 to 10 percent of that group. Considering that many of the people who led the gay rights movement following Stonewall, including establishing many of our community institutions, are nearing retirement, it is unlikely that they will be content to quietly fade away.

Gay seniors face unique challenges in comparison to their straight counterparts.  While heterosexuals can usually depend on children to provide care, 90 percent of gay retirees do not have children and are twice as likely to live alone, making them 10 times less likely to have someone to care for them if they become ill, according to SAGE.  Considering that most long-term care facilities do not provide sensitivity training on sexual orientation, this can create an ugly situation where people are forced back into the closet in their later years out of fear they will be denied care. Burnside was lucky because his needs were tended to by the Radical Faeries' Circle of Loving Companions.

HIV is another area in which aging LGBTs are adversely affected.  Thanks to imporoved medical treatments that allow people with HIV to live longer lives, people over 50 now comprise the fast-growing segment of people living with HIV.  According to the AIDS community Research Initiative of America, 35 percent of people with HIV are at least 50 years old, and 70 perecent are over 40.  Considering the relative newness of antiretroviral drugs, how HIV cocktails interact with other medicines used for high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, and other ailments that commonly affect older people is a story that will be eagerly followed in coming years.

It has taken a long time, but these issues are finally getting the attention they deserve. Aging is the one thing you can count on if you’re lucky enough to have a long life, and we would be wise to incorporate the lessons of those who came before us. If you know an LGBT elder, take some time to thank them.  They made it possible for us enjoy the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted.

From  “Blackout “ 10/20/08 by Anthony Rucker


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