Greying Gays: Not so Silent Anymore
By Scott Stiffler
But old age is coming, so get ready for it; because barring any unforeseen disaster, we’re all headed there - and charismatic lesbian financial guru Suze Orman seems to be the only one warning that you better have a plan before senior citizenship knocks on your door and bites you in the ass!
Perhaps that’s why as we age, society finds enormous comfort in rendering its aged population invisible. They’re disregarded as out of touch, senile or irrelevant - so as to put our own inevitable march towards the land of wrinkles and Social Security on the far back burner.
Age issues hit earlier
Now add to that mix LGBT identity - which comes with its own cultural consequence of invisibility. What’s worse, LGBTs seem to confront the typical problems of heterosexual aging at an earlier age.
Karen Taylor, director of services and advocacy for New York-based SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders), notes that "Researchers term it accelerated aging. For gay men, the idea of getting older happens at a younger age than heterosexuals. Midlife for heterosexuals may be 40. In their 30s, gay men begin to think about themselves as being over the hill." The good news for lesbians? "The success of women’s rights and feminism have increased our capacity" to not judge or be judged so much on looks.
Magda Houlberg is director of Geriatric Medicine at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, one of the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender healthcare organizations. She notes that "Older LGBT adults struggle with the ’double whammy’ of dealing with the negative associations that people have with aging in both mainstream and LGBT culture. So what happens when LGBT culture, which sustained you in the past, does not value you as much now that you have grown older? For many, they lose the feeling of acceptance when accessing LGBT community resources or participating in social opportunities. This erodes people’s support systems; something which we know leads to more vulnerability." (Daniel Garza) is a psychiatrist practicing in Manhattan who has lectured on the issue of sexuality, aging and identity. Garza says "The roles that gay adults have to look forward to as they enter their 50s and 60s are not as clearly defined as they are for heterosexuals." Young straights, Garza notes, have certain paths and expectations which give them some amount of reassurance when looking towards the golden years: "Young couples look forward to being parents and grandparents, then retiring one day with their partners."
Connection to community the key
Although LGBTs certainly have life partners and families, the percentage who fit that heterosexual profile is far less - leaving a majority who may find themselves in their 70s and 80s with no blood relations and fewer decades-old friendships.
One plus side of being old, gay and single? Garza points to an Australian study, published in England, which "demonstrates that older gay men, as long as they’re connected to their communities, adjust to aging very well." The reason? Being happily single. Heterosexuals who’ve banked on the presence of a partner (who might unexpectedly pass away) or children (from whom they may drift) experience a profound identity crisis - while self-reliance is old news for the graying gay man.
What’s more, the confidence and pride formed when one comes out as gay will likely serve aging queers well. Garza: "The identity issues that gay men and lesbians have struggled with early in life makes them very well prepared for a crisis that may occur in their later years - such as what is it like when my life partner dies, or if I lose my job ." Resilient queers whose identity doesn’t derive from what we do for a living or who we’re married to, will face the challenges of aging "with a certain resilience."
Case in point? David Gillon, out since the age of 21 and now 57. He’s a single gay man living in Hartford, CT. Gillon recently spoke with EDGE to reflect on his participation in the 1977 film "Word is Out" - a pioneering LGBT documentary in which he spoke about a college romance which unexpectedly revealed his capacity to form a romantic bond with another man.
The creeping invisibility that American culture hoists upon its elders doesn’t seem to bother Gillon so much - although in the youth-obsessed gay community, it’s something he’s acutely aware of.
Gillon: "I’ve definitely noticed a shift. It’s true that as you get older, there is some invisibility. Gay meeting places like bars are for young people. If I go into my local bar, heads do not turn. On the other hand, my life has changed to the point where I don’t go to bars anymore. It’s not fun."
Gillon demonstrates a similar resilience in what he’s learned from losing a large amount of his peer group in the 80s (already experiencing emotions which may be new to an aging heterosexual whose longtime friends start dying off). Gillon: "I did lose a lot of my friends to AIDS. It’s devastating to lose the network of friends you rely on so heavily. My network was decimated."
But instead of withdrawing from forming new human connections for fear that he’d lose them, Gillon dug in his heels. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, "I was planning to move to New York City. It made me afraid; so I stayed in Hartford. Having been her for 20, 25 years, I have many, friends. It’s the consequence of being around for a long time, I guess. "I’ve also reconstructed relationships with my family. What I’ve built over time is better, deeper decades-long friendships."
Sexually active and out there
One gay stereotype you’ll be glad to retain is the notion of the dirty old man: a sexually active gay who shatters the notion that old folks don’t do it and aren’t desirable. Time will tell, but many experts are betting that late-era Baby Boomers and early-era Generation Xers will change the popular perception of the aged as celibate. And why not? Unlike the present generation who are in their 70s and 80s, many more Boomers and Gen Xers have spent their lives out of the closet and unapologetically sexually active.
Hopefully, that will be what the landscape looks like in another decade. As for now, Garza notes that "Sexual appetite and sexuality in general for any senior is not really brought up on a regular basis. They’re perceived as beyond the need to express their sexuality."
Taylor observes that even if it’s not talked about much, what you see on TV seems to indicate there’s an awful lot of erection-based activity happening among the graying population: "Considering the number of Viagra and Levitra ads, you would think they’d be an accompanying awareness and enjoyment of sexuality as we age. But in fact, we still have a perception that older adults no longer have sexual feelings or act on their sexual desire. Study after study refutes that."
Also providing an encouraging rebuttal for those of us young now but inevitably headed into a seventh or eighth decade on the planet? Cruise SilverDaddies.com and you’ll find thousands of horny seniors being aggressively chased by younger and willing flesh.
Although he won’t cop to visiting any such sites, Gillon does proudly admit that "What I have as an older person is a passion in my life for sex or tennis or whatever I like." He’s ended up with a lifestyle that keeps separate his playmates on the clay court and between the silk sheets - and it seems to suit him just fine: "My life is segmented. There are those I have serious relationships with, then other friends I have sex with; and that’s a good thing too; and those are long-term, old sexual partners. It’s nice to find an all-in-1 boyfriend where you get your emotional support and sex; but they’re not the same person for me."
No longer being regarded as a sexual being may come as a shock to older LGBTs who’ve long associated what they do between the sheets with who they are. That goes double for heterosexual society in general -- which just can’t seem to get its mind out of the gutter when it comes to linking gay identity with the sex act.
Taylor: "The community has been defined by the ways people think we have sex; the images and expectations in our culture that say we know this person is a gay man because this is the kind of sex he has. Because there’s been that accompanying sexual implication of what the LGBT community does sexually, there’s a dramatic taking away of identity as our community ages."
What we’re left with, she says, is "these stereotypes of a hyper sexualized community. But once you hit a certain age, you’re no longer regarded as a sexual human being." The result? Denial - and a lack of necessary services for those who may find themselves in an elder care facility.
Elder care centers emerge
Bertis Shankle, Volunteer Coordinator for SAGE, says that educating those who run elder care facilities about the unique needs of LGBTs is of increasing importance -- since more are entering such places having been out of the closet for much of their adult life.
"This is part of our big initiative," says Shankle. "SAGE is trying to spearhead training for service providers of LGBT seniors. We teach senior centers, hospitals, nursing facilities about how to deal with seniors who come to their facilities either closeted or noticeably LGBT."
Taylor says that when SAGE does training with mainstream aging services "and try to open the conversation, the immediate response is they don’t talk about sexuality in mainstream services."
That’s left SAGE and a handful of other LGBT service providers to educate the mainstream and pick up the slack. To that end, SAGE has drop in centers at NYC’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center, and also runs a SAGE Harlem program along with two centers in Queens and Brooklyn. They also regularly field calls from across the country and around the world from LGBT organizations and mainstream service providers who’ve been unexpectedly confronted with issues surrounding the sexuality of their aging clients.
Such guidance is needed. Garza notes that "A study done in a Midwestern city asked 13 nursing home management companies what they did to provide services for gay and lesbian clients. None of them did anything. It wasn’t even on their radar." What’s more, these facilities are in such denial that "Many nursing homes and retirement facilities don’t’ allow for conjugal heterosexual setups, let alone one that allows for a gay or lesbian partner. As gay men and lesbians get into the population that requires nursing homes, I think there’s going to be a tremendous crisis among providers and managers when they have to deal with a gay client who has a gay partner."
One ray of hope? Earlier this week, our country’s Health and Human Services department, along with the Administration on Aging, awarded SAGE a three-year, $900,000 grant to create the nation¹s only national resource center on LGBT aging.
Taylor says that the money will go to expand the work SAGE is doing already and further position it as a national and global resource for others who wish to better serve the aging LGBT population. Taylor: "There are so few LGBT senior programs out there. We want to continue to build our resources, and help organizations seeking that information, who may not know where to look."
For Gillon, aging well requires a sports metaphor: "I tend to bring everything back to tennis, my passion. I’m not as fast as I used to be but I still play. It gives me great pleasure to be a good tennis player in ways other than simple athleticism. I’ve found smarter ways to be good. And I still know how to win."
Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"—a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.