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SAGE In the News

March 16, 2010

Gay seniors face futures that include discrimination

Des Moines Register
By Reid Forgrave
Dr. Loren Olson nervously clutches a lectern at Des Moines University. It's lunchtime at the osteopathic medicine school, and students filter into the lecture hall to listen to Olson talk about a book he's writing. The 66-year-old could almost be a grandfather to these students: sweater vest and thinning white hair, ample belly and friendly laugh.

The book's title is scrawled behind him: "Finally Out: Unlocking the Closet in Mid-life and Beyond." It's filled with psychiatric research on mature gay men who come out later in life, a subject Olson - a semi-retired psychiatrist who lives on a farm near St. Charles - knows plenty about.

The members of this group are increasingly visible, but their situation is vastly different than that of younger gays. Gay seniors, after all, didn't grow up in a society at all accepting of homosexuality, and some who have been out for decades are now encountering discrimination when they move into nursing homes.

But first, Olson, true to his psychotherapy background, wants to tell a story from his childhood:

Olson was a 10-year-old in small-town Nebraska. His father had died years before. One day, Olson was about to mow the lawn. He tried to get his gas-powered mower running. It wouldn't. He called his mother at the factory, where she worked as an office manager, and told her he couldn't start the mower.

"Of course you can," his mother replied. "You're a man, aren't you?"

Half a century later, Olson's standing in front of these students. He closes his eyes, opens them. This moment, and many more like it, kept him closeted - through college, through four years in the Navy, through marriage and the birth of his two children - until age 40.

"I felt as if one of my testicles had been torn away," Olson says of his mother's comment. His voice cracks. Tears well up. "Men start their machines. I can't start mine. I'm not a man."

Olson pauses, rambles an apology for being emotional: "This is my first time doing this," he says.

It's jarring to hear a 66-year-old man struggle to talk about something as elemental as his sexuality.

But is it really surprising?

A recent report by SAGE, a national advocacy organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender senior citizens, projects a wave of aging GLBT baby boomers will seek social services in the next 25 years. Nearly 38 million Americans are over age 65, and that number will double by 2030, the report stated. Estimates of the GLBT population vary, but the SAGE report uses a figure of between 5 percent and 10 percent of the overall population in predicting that 3.6 million to 7.2 million GLBT Americans will be above retirement age by 2030.

State and federal research is virtually nonexistent. The U.S. Census does not ask about sexual orientation, so all numbers are an estimate. Without research to show a need, funding streams that could be dedicated to gay seniors go elsewhere. SAGE says gay seniors describe social isolation and widespread fear and discrimination, as well as a lack of access to federal safety net programs, which don't recognize gay couples - even in Iowa, where same-sex marriage has been legal for nearly a year.

All of which makes Olson's book, which he has sold and will publish by the end of this year, that much more relevant.

"Take a look at what has happened through this 66-year-old's life and the life of other 66-year-olds like him," said Karen Taylor, director of community advocacy at SAGE. "It wasn't until the mid-1970s that homosexuality was taken off the list of mental illnesses someone should be treated for. Growing up in an age where they could be institutionalized just for being gay, that's a very different life experience than for someone who is 20 or 40 now."

Which is why Olson - who didn't identify as gay until 30 years ago - wants to speak out.

People ask Olson two questions:

1. Didn't your homosexuality make your first marriage to a woman a sham?

2. How could you not know you were gay?

First, the marriage: Olson doesn't call it a mistake. He married Lynn, an attorney, because Olson believed he was a heterosexual - just heterosexual with a quirk. His two daughters have been the joys of his life. It was harder for them to learn Dad and Mom were divorcing, Olson says, than to learn Dad was gay.

The second question is a bit more complicated.

When he was younger, Olson had a perfect explanation for his gnawing attraction to men: His father was trampled by horses when Olson was 3, and Olson's gay feelings were a byproduct of growing up without a male role model.

In small-town Nebraska, he hid the things that made him different, like when he thought his cousin's husband was cute, or when he wanted to get tap-dancing lessons. The only gay person he'd even heard of was Liberace. He mimicked other boys, made sure he carried his schoolbooks the way the boys did, feigned interest in sports.

In four years as a Navy flight surgeon, the only gays he met were being processed out of the military because of their sexuality. As an adult, Olson monitored himself: Was he man enough? He'd be at a party with his wife and notice he was chatting with the women while men were watching football: "Should I be in there?" he'd think. "You know, 'Gimmee a beer!' and scratch your nuts?"

"The thing about it is," Olson recalls today, "that never felt natural."

The psychiatrist in him would later call it "cognitive dissonance," a gulf between internal beliefs and outward actions.

Then, living in Ames in the mid-1980s, Olson met another married man who was attracted to men. The two met on the sly. Olson was losing his battle to keep his feelings inside.

"Then one day he kissed me," Olson recalled. "The kiss betrayed my unconscious desires. I loved the kiss for what it represented about our relationship, but I hated it for the way it would change my life. At that moment, I just went gay all of the sudden."

Life changed. His wife found out. They divorced. He moved to Des Moines to be medical director of psychiatry at Methodist Hospital. He found a support group for gay fathers.

Life made more sense.

Not long after, a man he met in the gay fathers' group, Ken Eaton, was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Des Moines. Olson was scared. But he couldn't go back in the closet.

Soon, he met a man named Doug. The first time they met, they told each other they were monogamous and looking for a relationship, and 23 years later, they're still together. Their 2009 wedding announcement was published in the New York Times.

"Loren is very special person," said Lynn Olson, his ex-wife. "Always has been to me. After I got over the 'Why me?' - the feeling sorry for myself - I realized this is the same guy. We both care for one another. It took a while. But now we're friends."

One of the most difficult parts has been his relationship with his younger daughter. She attends a fundamentalist Christian church in Ohio. For years, they argued over Christian views on homosexuality. Eventually they came to a d?tente.

But when Olson told her he was marrying Doug, he worried: Would she come?

She did, and brought her family, too. Olson smiles when he recalls his daughter's recollection of telling his granddaugter:

"We're going to Iowa, and Dad and Doug are getting married," Olson's daughter told his granddaughter.

"Who are they marrying?" the 9-year-old said.

"Each other."

"That's weird." The granddaughter paused. Then: "Will there be cake?"

Drive along the undulating hills of Madison County, pass the covered bridge and the old-fashioned windmills, the haybales and old farm machinery, until you arrive at the homeplace where Loren Olson and Doug Mortimer live.

The sun is low on their their hilly, timber-filled 250 acres, where they worry about things like how to combat the coyotes killing their sheep, or when the next calf will be born among their 200 head of Belted Galloway cattle.

The 100-year-old farmhouse sits a ways off the road for privacy, with a wraparound porch and a wood-burning fireplace. It's an unlikely place for Olson's journey of self-discovery to come to its golden years.

Inside, a homemade apple pie sits on the counter, and a pot roast of their own grass-fed beef warms in the oven.

Mortimer, who at 52 is 14 years his husband's junior, walks in from the cold wearing Carhartt's coveralls after checking on the cows. He peels off the coveralls, puts out his Pall Mall cigarette, and they sit down for a big home-cooked meal.

It's a domestic scene like any other, except these are aging men married to each other. Mortimer is the sharp-witted and sarcastic one, Loren the reserved and contemplative one. They both hope for the day when same-sex marriage is passe, no longer a big deal. Olson, who turns 67 in late March, hopes it comes within his lifetime. Considering the sweeping changes in this country's views on homosexuality since Olson was a boy, he believes it's possible.

But Olson believes there are still big obstacles, especially for gay men his age. He's worried about what his future may bring. He talks of a gay couple they are friends with. One of the men is a good bit older than the other. That couple experienced a tragedy recently: The younger one died.

Hearing that news jarred Olson. He assumed his husband would be the one to take care of him in old age. But what if Olson outlives his husband, and then has to navigate his way through the elder-care system?

"I was shocked," Olson said. "I always assumed I'm the one to go first. Just the idea that you'd have to seal off, again, that part of your life that's been out for so long. You go to a nursing home, people don't want to be roommates with you. You go to a meal site for seniors, and in small towns, people don't disclose their sexuality. You're isolated without your community. You might not get accepted into nursing facilities.

"These are real fears."

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