At 75, Dina Jacobs has seen it all. The Hawaii-born, Houston-based drag artist and proud transgender woman launched her nightlife career as a teenager in Honolulu, where she got her first gig at a local bar. It was the 1960s, and “cross-dressing” in women’s clothing was still labeled a criminal offense.
“Nobody knows what we went through,” Jacobs told LGBTQ Nation. “In Hawaii, it was the worst. We had to wear buttons saying ‘I am a boy’ while walking on the street. And if we didn’t have it, the cops would beat us up right there on the spot. I know, because it happened to me.”
But Jacobs wasn’t backing down: “After the third beating, I should have just said, I’m not going to do this. I’m going to give it up.’ But I was like, ‘No, honey — I wanna be on that stage. I’m not going to give this up. I don’t care.’ And here I am, 57 years later, still doing it.”
Jacobs’s life has been full of ups and downs, from excelling as a drag performer to being diagnosed with HIV during the height of the AIDS crisis. She is a member of a generation rightly valorized as heroic in the long fight for LGBTQ equality.
These elder activists are responsible for the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and overcoming the apathy of the government and the medical establishment during the AIDS crisis. Their actions played a huge role in ending the ban on gay military service members and legalizing same-sex marriage.
But gratitude for their courage in achieving a semblance of equality for themselves and younger generations only goes so far. This Stonewall Generation — now in their 60s and beyond — is facing serious obstacles later in life, including disproportionately high rates of homelessness, lack of access to health care, discrimination, and social isolation. Even Jacobs, with her uncompromising attitude and pride, is not exempt.
SAGE in New York City is among a growing number of organizations across the U.S. attending to the needs of older LGBTQ adults. Queer elders are twice as likely to be single and live alone than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts, according to research from SAGE’s National Resource Center on LGBTQ+ Aging. Since retirement funds or pensions are often bound to marriage in the U.S., these elders disproportionately lack spousal benefits and are also four times less likely to have children.
“So many folks rely on their children or their family for support as they age,” David Vincent, SAGE’s chief program officer, told LGBTQ Nation. “But if you’ve been ostracized from your family or don’t have family, then you need [external] support.”
Therein lies the rub. Same-sex couples of the Stonewall Generation experience high rates of homophobia when searching for appropriate housing. As of 2022, 18 states and 5 U.S. territories currently have no laws explicitly banning housing discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. To make matters worse, queer elders are less likely to seek support from social service organizations due to fear of discrimination.
According to sexuality educator Jane Fleishman, Ph.D., author of The Stonewall Generation: LGBTQ Elders on Sex, Activism, and Aging, this discrimination is compounded for seniors of color, who also battle racism. “[Discrimination in] housing is a huge issue, as well as health care,” Fleishman told LGBTQ Nation. “We just have far less support to turn to as LGBTQ elders than our heterosexual counterparts.”
Despite these hurdles, many seniors retain a zest for life, a passion developed by achieving a safe place for themselves in a sometimes hostile world. It’s something that Fleishman, whose area of expertise is the sexual well-being of older adults in senior living communities, sees all the time. They have plenty of life left to live and deserve to do so safely and with dignity.
Organizations serving seniors are addressing these issues by advocating for nondiscrimination protections on the policy level and working directly with those in need. For instance, SAGE provides case-management services to about 1,000 seniors annually through its five community centers in New York City. In addition, the organization operates two affordable senior housing complexes for low-income queer elders and a litany of virtual and in-person, volunteer-run programs to keep participants socially engaged.
SAGE also runs SAGECare, a cultural competency training program that equips staff at non-LGBTQ organizations with information and tools to serve queer elders.
“It’s a question of how do you create an environment where folks who have been discriminated against for their whole life feel safe?” Vincent said. “How do you create an environment where they feel welcome to come in at their most vulnerable?”
While the pandemic highlighted gaps in elder care, recent years have also seen positive trends, according to Bradley Schurman, author of The Super Age: Decoding Our Demographic Destiny. Because younger generations are coming out in bigger numbers than ever, more people are thinking about the queer future and how to take care of one another.
“How do you create an environment where folks who have been discriminated against for their whole life feel safe?” — David Vincent, chief program officer at SAGE
“There’s a greater interest in young people understanding LGBTQ history, as well as thanking those that came before them,” Schurman said. “Anecdotally, I’ve seen greater age diversity in friend groups. My own chosen family, for example, ranges in age from mid-20s to mid-70s.”
There are other benefits of the Stonewall generation’s increasing prominence, too. “From a larger socio-economic perspective, there are almost too many positives to point out,” he said. “Employers will attempt to recruit older workers out of retirement. Companies that hire generationally diverse workers perform better, much in the way that organizations that engage other forms of diversity, like LGBTQ, outperform those that do not.”
LGBTQ Nation spoke with a diverse group of elders to show how they overcame obstacles to thrive and age with grace in the face of discrimination and other factors unique to their experience and community.
Dina Jacobs of Houston secured affordable long-term housing at the Montrose Center’s Law Harrington Senior Living Center, allowing her to focus on her thriving drag career. Lujira Cooper overcame homelessness after receiving services from SAGE and is paying it forward through storytelling and volunteering. Dan Joiner of New York City beat social isolation through DOROT’s intergenerational discussion group. And Carolyn Davis found a safe, welcoming place to live through the Center on Halsted after facing years of discrimination on Chicago’s South Side.
Their stories capture the generation’s humility, tenacity, and resilience that paved the way for today’s vibrant queer culture.
Despite the violence and discrimination she experienced as a budding drag performer in Hawaii, Dina Jacobs persevered. She continued to perform and hone her craft, discovering in the process that she is a transgender woman. She is lucky enough to have the support of her biological family, a journey she documented in the 2020 biography Forever Her Mother’s Son: The Dina Jacobs Story.
Eventually, Jacobs’s talent caught the attention of event promoters in the continental U.S. She toured throughout the U.S. in the early ’70s with other queens from Hawaii, living and working everywhere from Chicago to Atlanta and making a name for herself as a consummate performer who sings and lip-syncs.
One thing did stop her in her tracks, though: the AIDS crisis. Jacobs received her HIV diagnosis in 1985. “I got really, really sick, so I thought, I’m going to go home,” Jacobs said. She remained in Hawaii for a decade, knowing she could access health care and family support. As of 2018, more than 102,000 Americans above the age of 65 are living with HIV. People of color like Jacobs are disproportionately impacted.
After regaining her health, Jacobs was invited by a friend to perform at Legendary Ladies, a drag show for performers “of a certain age” in Houston, Texas. She permanently relocated to Houston in 2011 and has lived and performed there ever since. In 2017, OutSmart Magazine crowned Jacobs Houston’s Grande Dame of Drag, an honor she wears with pride, especially as a performer who didn’t grow up in Texas.
Doing drag comes with monetary ups and downs, though, and Jacobs struggled for years to find stable, affordable housing. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many drag and nightlife performers out of work amid nationwide shutdowns, certainly didn’t help.
She finally found a long-term solution in the Law Harrington Senior Living Center, an affordable housing complex run by the Montrose Center, Houston’s LGBTQ community center.
According to Austin Davis Ruiz, the Montrose Center’s communications and marketing manager, many queer seniors in the greater Houston area struggle to find housing. Gentrification has plagued the city’s historically gay and Black neighborhoods, meaning aging renters are being priced out of the homes they’ve inhabited for decades.
The Law Harrington Senior Living Center opened its doors in January 2021 with 113 one- and two-bedroom units. Jacobs is proud to be one of the first residents to move in.
For Jacobs, the experience has been life-changing. “The people on my floor are incredible,” Jacobs said. “They cook and stuff. If they bake, they share it; if they buy a watermelon, they bring some over. It’s just like family love.”
The Montrose Center is also a valuable resource for Jacobs, with staffers helping her navigate issues from accessing HIV care through Medicaid (she said she is now “covered in every way — girl, I cannot ask for anything more!”) to securing the unit at the senior living community.
Above all, access to stable, affordable housing has enabled her to focus on what she loves most: performing in drag. That peace of mind is invaluable and is a large part of why Jacobs is so open about her life story, hardships and all.
Like Jacobs, Lujira Cooper, 75, understands the plight of housing insecurity all too well. The Brooklyn-born writer and lesbian activist lived and worked in New York City during the 1960s and ’70s, a pivotal era for LGBTQ civil rights in the United States.
Cooper was never really in the closet. She was supported by her mother, who instilled in her that people should be judged “by their actions, not their [identity].” She was raised to be proud of who she is and stay true to herself, even in the face of racism, sexism, or homophobia.
In her 20s, Cooper found a home free of homophobic discrimination at the William Sloane House, 34th Street YMCA. “Everybody considered it a gay haven,” she told LGBTQ Nation. Cooper did encounter some racism and misogyny from white men, but her sexual orientation was never a point of contention.
“The big thing I’ve learned over my life is to be compassionate and understanding about other people.” — Lujira Cooper
Cooper has lived in New York City for most of her life, a journey filled with major “ups and downs.” She briefly lived in Florida, where she relocated to be with her ex-girlfriend when she was in her 60s. The relationship ended on poor terms, and Cooper was forced to move out. She returned to the Big Apple without a job or housing lined up, joining the estimated 17% of LGBTQ adults who have experienced houselessness.
For 10 months, Cooper bounced between different drop-in centers. “It was houseless, not homeless,” she explained. “I tell people my home is in my heart.”
David Vincent of SAGE said many seniors encounter discrimination or feel like they have to go back into the closet when receiving services from elder support organizations. Many drop-in centers or shelters are affiliated with religious groups that aren’t traditionally queer-friendly.
“Discrimination is still incredibly prevalent,” he explained. “And our older adults have suffered a lifetime of discrimination. Imagine you’re hungry and need support, and you’re walking through a door to ask for food and assistance, and you face discrimination.”
Cooper eventually sought assistance at SAGE’s Edie Windsor Center in New York City’s Flatiron District. The organization helped change her life. SAGE’s case managers met her immediate needs for food and shelter, helped her find stable housing, and connected her with other seniors in her community. Today, she is independently housed in Manhattan and makes weekly visits to the center to catch up with friends over a free meal.
Empowered by the support she received, Cooper returned to college in her late 60s and obtained three bachelor’s degrees, two in English and one in criminal justice. She is an avid reader and writer (her favorite book is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas — although, in the current political climate, she recommends that “everyone” read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis).
She even wrote and self-published her first novel, Theft of Trust, a murder mystery told from the perspective of a Black lesbian detective.
Today, she hosts writing workshops and reading discussion groups for other seniors. Some participants in her writing workshop work on fiction, while others have taken to documenting their life stories through memoir.
“I keep telling people who are writing memoirs, ‘We need your stories,’ especially considering all the stuff that’s going on right now,” she explained, referring to anti-LGBTQ legislation censoring the discussion of queer topics in public schools.
“I’ve done more in the last seven years than I did in the first 67 or 68 years of my life,” Cooper added.
Best of all, the rest of her story — and the stories of the other elders she empowers — is still being written.
Like Cooper, Dan Joiner, 77, appreciates the power of storytelling, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The vivacious former actor and educator grew up in Westland, Michigan, before relocating in his 20s to New York City, where he still resides today.
For a stage actor like Joiner, the Big Apple was (and is) the place to be. The city is also where he first encountered openly gay men and women. After being relentlessly bullied as a teen in the 1950s and early ’60s, Joiner was blown away by their unapologetic pride.
“I had to stop playing flute in high school because I was a male, and men aren’t supposed to play flute,” he explained to LGBTQ Nation. “I found the theater department, my salvation, but still, living with that — being punched in the hallway, having things thrown at you — all of those things are a little different now.”
Joiner has pursued multiple careers throughout his life, from acting with the National Theatre Company to managing concession stands at Broadway theaters to teaching public speaking at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He eventually retired after 17 years as an educator.
This was shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, which completely disrupted Joiner’s daily life. Like many seniors, he spent over a year in near-total isolation. He couldn’t help but draw parallels between COVID-19 and the AIDS crisis, which claimed the lives of most of his gay male theater peers.
“I would say of the people that I worked with, 90% of the males are dead,” he said. “My best friend, Martin — I was his care partner. He was diagnosed in 1987, the day before his 40th birthday, and was dead before his 41st. And then we come to COVID-19. I lost five friends. One of them wasn’t even discovered until three days later when they did a wellness check and found her dead in her apartment.”
In the summer of 2021, Joiner stumbled on a newspaper ad posted by DOROT, a nonsectarian, culturally Jewish agency in New York City that combats social isolation for older adults through volunteer-run initiatives. (Its name is the Hebrew word for “generations.”) The organization sought participants ages 65-plus to join an intergenerational discussion group over Zoom. Intrigued, Joiner submitted an application.
“I had not been outside since April, when everything shut down,” he recalled. “I was at home, doing nothing and seeing no one except the animals in my house, but this was online. So I thought, ‘This is something I can do.’”
Joiner was accepted and began joining virtual discussion groups every week. He was particularly fond of DOROT’s Intergenerational LGBTQ+ Affinity Group, which puts queer youth in conversation with queer elders.
According to Sam Sheldon, DOROT’s intergenerational program coordinator, the gay group was formalized in January 2022. It ran for two consecutive sessions throughout the winter and spring and resumed for a third this September.
“Hearing about the lives of young people is really powerful. But specifically in an LGBTQ context, a lot of our seniors shared that they did not have queer mentors when they were teenagers,” Sheldon told LGBTQ Nation. “A lot of them weren’t openly gay. Some of them were, but they definitely didn’t have people 50 or 60 years older than them to provide perspective.”
Joiner met Sophie Metsch, a nonbinary teen and intern with DOROT. Despite their 60-year age gap, the pair immediately bonded over their shared love of theater.
“We really got close because we had very similar theater experiences,” Metsch, 16, told LGBTQ Nation. “It also just meant a lot to relate to an older adult who’s like me. I’d never met any LGBTQ elders in my life. Seeing people who are aging with grace and living their best lives — even with all of the hardship they’ve gone through — makes me feel really warm because I realize that I can have that too.”
Related: Meet the young leaders battling division and ensuring the future is queer
The value of intergenerational connection for LGBTQ elders is difficult to overstate. In addition to staving off social isolation, these connections offer seniors a window into what it’s like to be a young queer person today, bridging generational divides. Similar programs exist at organizations like the Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Center, which opened an intergenerational affordable housing complex for LGBTQ youth and seniors in 2021.
For over a year, Joiner and Metsch caught up over Zoom through DOROT. The program has been “incredibly meaningful” to Metsch, who began interning with DOROT because they wanted to help alleviate social isolation for seniors like Joiner.
“A lot of them hadn’t seen their family since the start of the pandemic, or had been in their homes for the better part of two years,” Metsch added. “I really wanted to help them because I’d been helping my grandfather, who had been isolated due to COVID-19 as well.”
For Joiner, the program has also provided structure: “When you are isolated, what’s the real reason to get up, clean up, when the only person you’re seeing is you? But I knew I needed to be camera-ready for these Zoom meetings.”
Perhaps most importantly, Joiner has made valuable connections with “absolutely wonderful” LGBTQ people of all ages. DOROT’s discussion groups have provided a safe space to share stories from his personal life, from his tumultuous coming-out journey to his days working with celebrities as a theater professional.
In turn, Metsch and other youth participants have also opened up about their lives.
“Listening to what [these youth] are doing and how they’re doing it, and realizing that this child of Westland, Michigan, never, ever could have done that — I’m very proud of them,” Joiner said. “I learned a lot from them. I’m still learning from them. That’s the whole purpose of life, is to continue learning.”
Like Joiner, Carolyn Davis has faced social isolation. Born and raised in Chicago, Davis, 65, spent most of her life living on the city’s South and West Sides, two historically Black neighborhoods, where she was surrounded by people who looked like her.
Davis realized early on that her family and local community, which was largely faith-based, wouldn’t accept her sexual orientation. Even though she knew she was a lesbian at 9 years old, she stayed in the closet until her senior year of college. Some family and friends supported Davis post–coming out, but others didn’t.“I don’t know about a lot of people, but I do know in the African American community, it’s really kind of hard for them to accept LGBTQ people,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “Some do, but a lot don’t. Living there was very, very hard for me, because it’s not accepting.”
Throughout most of her life, Davis experienced overt anti-LGBTQ discrimination. She was taunted and called names. She witnessed her friends, gay men and women alike, get goaded on by police — or worse, subjected to raids at local gay bars in the ’70s. The bigotry from police officers was especially upsetting since they were “supposed to serve and protect,” Davis recalled in a 2019 interview with StoryCorps.
Her life got lonelier as she aged. Davis worked as a home health care provider for many years and would “basically just go to work and come home.” There simply wasn’t much for a Black lesbian to do in her neighborhood.
She lived in fear, and years of holing up at home left her feeling isolated from her friends and community. In addition, Davis was single for a long time and didn’t have a partner to rely on for emotional support.
“It was pretty scary,” Davis said. “I wasn’t in a good place. I thought it was no place for me here, being gay and isolated.”
Her world shifted in 2014, when Davis moved into Town Hall Apartments at the Center on Halsted, Chicago’s LGBTQ community center. The Center conceptualized the affordable housing complex for queer seniors in collaboration with the Heartland Alliance, a Chicago-area nonprofit that provides social services to low-income communities. Ironically, part of the $27 million complex includes a refurbished Chicago Police station.
Town Hall includes 79 units and is situated next door to the Center, so residents can conveniently access programming, workshops, and social services. It’s also located in one of the city’s most gay-friendly neighborhoods, which was life-changing for Davis.
According to Britta Larson, the Center’s director of senior services, Town Hall Apartments are open to people ages 55 and older, which is highly unique.
“Most senior housing in Chicago is for seniors 62 and up,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “But for LGBTQ older adults, they tend to have a harder time in the aging process at a younger chronological age.”
“For a lot of seniors, their friends are their family of choice. And as your friends are aging, you’re aging right along with them. So the opportunity to make new friends and meet people like yourself is really important.” — Britta Larson, director of senior services at Center on Halsted
Larson said many Town Hall residents don’t have support from their biological families. Like Davis, most of them are also battling social isolation.
“For a lot of seniors, their friends are their family of choice,” Larson added. “And as your friends are aging, you’re aging right along with them. So the opportunity to make new friends and meet people like yourself is really important.”
As one of the first residents to move into Town Hall Apartments, Davis sings the complex’s praises. For the first time in her life, she feels completely safe and able to be herself. “My biggest fear for myself is if I can’t live here or in a welcoming neighborhood, that I’d have to go back in the closet,” she said. “I’m so comfortable here. I’m living my best life.”
Davis works one-on-one with a case manager she trusts and has made plenty of friends in the complex through sharing her story and “letting people know they aren’t alone.” Because she is affirmed in her identity, she has been able to let her guard down and make new connections.
For Joiner, the retired educator and volunteer with DOROT, his friendship with 16-year-old Metsch proves that connecting with others has nothing to do with age. If the intergenerational program has taught him one thing, it’s that sharing one’s story can foster empathy and understanding for everyone involved.
Cooper, the writer and SAGE volunteer, also emphasizes the connective power of storytelling.
“The big thing I’ve learned over my life is to be compassionate and understanding about other people,” Cooper said.
Such values transcend age and inform the work of organizations like SAGE, DOROT, the Center on Halsted, and the Montrose Center. The Stonewall Generation laid the foundation for LGBTQ visibility. How communities support their queer elders is an opportunity to honor their contributions and build a more accepting environment for the future.
This article was originally published in LGBTQ Nation on October 11, 2022.