Invisibility Series: Elderly LGBT

February 4, 2015 in inQueery

elderly4COVEREvery year, during the San Francisco Gay Pride parade, there’s a section where LGBT couples march, holding up signs showing how long they’ve been together. And every year, I look for my favorite couple – a pair of elderly men, probably over sixty, who hold hands and a heart-shaped sign that reads, the last time I saw them, “39 years”.

Watching for this couple each parade is a moment I cherish but also a moment that perfectly showcases a group that I, in my youthful, tunnel-vision way of looking at life, haven’t given much thought to otherwise – the LGBT elderly.

They are the generation that lived through Stonewall, the AIDS crises, the defeat of DOMA, and so much more. And yet they also face a particular kind of invisibility in their day-to-day lives, aging in a society that hasn’t yet addressed their particular needs.

Many elderly gay and lesbian people, upon entering senior housing, are forced back into the closet, sometimes after lifetimes of being out and proud. There are very few senior living facilities that are open and accepting to LGBT individuals, and even less that cater specifically to them.

“Some gay seniors who move into traditional elder housing facilities return to the closet in hopes of better fitting in and avoiding conflicts,” says Kathleen Sullivan, director of senior services at a center in L.A. Gay seniors even report feeling discriminated against, or given the cold shoulder, this LA Times article says.

“Living in a place like that, you’re surrounded by people but you’re invisible,” Sullivan comments.

One senior, after making friends with multiple women at her center, came out to them as gay. “Everyone looked horrified,” Gloria Donadello says in this New York Times article. She was immediately excluded from all future conversations and shunned at mealtimes. Eventually, in what she called “a choice between life and death”, Ms. Donadello moved into a nearby adult community that caters to gay men and lesbians.

This kind of invisibility can be extremely damaging mentally and emotionally, a huge step back for LGBT seniors who have watched, and participated in, the gay pride movement their whole lives, who have celebrated the massive strides we’ve made and mourned the losses we’ve faced.

It can also lead to other serious issues that all people face as they age, but that are worse for LGBT individuals: issues like stigma, isolation, and poor health care. Many elderly gay or lesbian people aren’t out to their health care providers and they certainly aren’t out to the nurses who provide their day-to-day care in assisted living facilities.

A study done by the U.S. Administration on Aging found that “LGBT elders [are] more likely to delay getting needed care and more likely to have HIV/AIDS and [other] chronic mental and physical conditions” than their heterosexual peers.

Similarly, the personnel at the majority of nursing homes haven’t been trained on the potentially delicate circumstances involving LGBT elders; situations like not wearing gloves at inappropriate times (for example, when there is no evidence of HIV) or allowing for families of choice during visiting hours, instead of just blood relatives.

In addition to these stresses, LGBT elders can face financial hardship in multiple forms. Often, discrimination was legal during their lifetimes, so their paychecks were smaller, their pensions more limited, and their Social Security payments less. Moreover, lacking full marriage equality, most couples are not entitled to their partner’s benefits and when they pass away. This translates to limited incomes and often no close relatives to rely on.

Which brings us back to the lack of affordable senior living centers specifically for LGBT patrons and the invisibility they must don to fit in at heterosexual centers.

PJ Raval, a filmmaker who produced a documentary called “Before You Know It” following the lives of three elderly members of the LGBT community, feels that, though LGBT elders have experienced challenges associated with various forms of discrimination, ageism is one they should be aware of and one they shouldn’t have to face alone.

“I think the younger LGBT generation needs to recognize they too will become part of an LGBT senior population,” he says. “The aging process is inevitable and perhaps should be embraced rather than feared….They need to…include the senior populations” in the larger group of gay and lesbian issues.

“Power in numbers,” Raval continues. “Power in a community.”

Aurora Smith is a Guest Contributor at InQueery.