The Stories of Those Who Lost Decades in the Closet


“We started it. You young folks finish it.”

— The Rev. Magora Kennedy, an 82-year-old on the fight for LGBTQ++ rights

On a quiet block in downtown Brooklyn, a new photography exhibit — housed inside a senior living center — invites viewers to consider an essential question: How do we measure the emotional and social costs of discrimination?

The exhibit, “Not Another Second,” shot in 2019 by a German photographer, Karsten Thormaehlen, profiles 12 older adults who identify as L.G.B.T.+ (the “Q” is deliberately missing because the word “queer” was often used as a pejorative term against the people profiled), through a series of portraits and video interviews.

Almost all of them spent several years of their lives hiding from prejudiced eyes, even to do the most normal of things — to walk with heads held high, to live without being considered crazy, to serve in the military, to marry their lovers, to hold down jobs.

It has, after all, been less than 50 years since the American Psychiatric Association changed its view of homosexuality, stating that it should no longer be considered a mental “disorder”; 10 years since the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed; and almost six years since the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right.

Together, that’s about 65 years of slow change. Or, one lifetime.

Accompanying each profile is the number of years that person lost before coming out.

Collectively, the group of 12 lost almost 500 years.

One gay couple, Ray Cunningham, 83, and Richard Prescott, 79, talk in a recorded video about growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. At one point, Mr. Cunningham looks into the camera and explains how, when he was a 19-year-old Navy man, he was in charge of giving his gay colleagues “undesirable discharges.” He chokes up, his lower lip quivers. He came out to his mother when he was 21 years old and never came out to his father.

Mr. Prescott recalls how, when he was a high-school senior, he was called out by one of his classmates for always looking down at his shoes when he walked around campus. That, Mr. Prescott explains, was a defense mechanism. “You just, you don’t look up,” he said. “I mean, you don’t want to face other people that you feel are going to reject you.” He came out at the age of 60.

For others, heterosexual marriage offered a traumatic kind of cover. One subject, Paulette Thomas-Martin, 69, decided to marry a man because “that was the norm,” she said in an interview with The Times. She stayed for 20 years in that marriage, which produced two children.

“Imagine being in a dark manhole and that lid is shut over you,” Ms. Thomas-Martin said, describing those years of her life. “You have no voice and you live a lie. And out of that lie comes anger and hate and you take it out on those closest to you, which I did to my children.”

Back then, she was outwardly homophobic, not wanting to be around gay people and even going as far as making fun of them, all of which, she mentioned, was a “safety measure,” a kind of denial. She came out at the age of 40, when her children had grown.

Another subject profiled, the Rev. Magora Kennedy, 82, was forced into a marriage by her mother when she was 14 years old as a way to “cure” her homosexuality. Her husband was 21 years her senior and abusive.

“Folks who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, for most of their lives they were delivered messages by the law, by the U.S. military, by our government, by doctors and psychologists that they were sick, that they were criminals,” Michael Adams, chief executive of SAGE, a nonprofit and advocacy group that represents older people who identify as L.G.B.T.+, said in an interview over Zoom. “In many cases, what that has led to is a natural kind of self-protection mechanism of hiding.”

That hurt carries well into later life.

In the United States, there are an estimated three million L.G.B.T.+ people over the age of 50, according to SAGE. They are twice as likely to be single or live alone and are far less likely to have children as heterosexual older adults. “What that means is that, in many cases, they’re not going to be surrounded by children, grandchildren and spouses who can help support their care,” Mr. Adams said.

In other words, they often age in isolation.

SAGE is one of the organizers of the exhibit, in partnership with Watermark Communities, which manages dozens of senior living communities across the country.

The genesis for the exhibit came in 2017, during a training session hosted by SAGE to guide Watermark staff on the best ways to care for L.G.B.T. employees and residents.

One change at Watermark as a result of the training, for example, was modifying who could be listed as the so-called decision makers for its residents. Initially, that could only be direct family members. But, after learning that L.G.B.T. people might not have direct family members they can rely on, Watermark adjusted its policy to include friends, David Barnes, Watermark’s chief executive, explained.

The photography exhibit is, in part, to help more people come to a deeper understanding of the lived experiences of older L.G.B.T. people. The public can view it online or make an appointment to view it in person. There are plans to host the exhibit at other Watermark centers across the country.

And, despite living through periods of hiding, the people profiled in the exhibit were not silenced: Almost all of them — seven of whom are or have been Watermark residents, and five of whom are SAGE volunteers — have dedicated years of their lives to activism, either by registering voters or by joining the Black Panthers to fight for racial justice. One subject was arrested in Washington, D.C., while protesting against the Vietnam War. One ran for office as the first openly gay Congressional candidate. Ms. Kennedy was at the front lines of the Stonewall uprising. Ms. Thomas-Martin’s partner, Pat Martin, whom she married in 2018, runs an organization that hosts events and workshops for the L.G.B.T. community and its allies.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still got a long way to go,” Ms. Kennedy said. “We started it. You young folks finish it.


This article was originally published in the  New York Times on January 19, 2021