Old and Gay: 9 Actions We Need to Take Now for the Aging Rainbow Nation
I am called Daddy a lot these days, but not because I am one. Younger guys say it all the time to us gay men over the age of 40.
I don’t think it’s just trendy. Daddy is popular because there are more of us. Over 800,000 gay men older than me died during the height of the AIDS epidemic. And my generation (men in our 40s and 50s) are the largest demographic of openly gay men to grow old.
And that’s just the men. A huge cultural shift in sexual acceptance (and self acceptance) has brought more out and proud gays, lesbians and trans people than ever before. That means a lot more of us gay people are aging. According to a study by SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLTB Elders) there are at least 3 million LGBT people over 55 in the USA; that number will double in 20 years.
Can you feel it? The rumblings of a major gay senior explosion are happening. It’s something my friends and I talk about all the time. How can we be sure to live happily when we grow older?
I talked to activists, experts and LGBT seniors to discover what challenges our community faces, and what the solutions may look like. Turns out, there’s a lot to do.
We are much less likely to parent.
LGBT people are more likely to be single and living alone.
As we age, we are more likely to be caregivers for our friends.
LGBT people are more likely to have health problems like HIV, depression and substance abuse.
Nearly one-third of LGBT adults age 65 and older live at or below the federal poverty level.
LGBT people face high levels of discrimination in assisted living and affordable housing facilities.
1. Shatter the myth of gay affluence
Newsflash: Not all gays are Andy Cohen. “There’s a myth that LGBT all have money,” says Karyn Skultety. “But many are struggling. Many are not food secure. Many rely on meal programs.”
Don Bell grew up in an African American subdivision of Chicago and became the prime caregiver for his ailing parents, which ate through his savings. Three years ago, after his mother died, Bell moved into Town Hall. “If I had not been able to live here, I literally would be homeless,” he says. The message is clear: LGBT elders have a right to be included in affordable housing and subsidized senior programs.
2. Dismantle discrimination in housing
The sad truth is many LGBT elders go back in the closet when they enter senior facilities. A 2011 survey found that just 22 percent of LGBT aging adults felt they could be open about their sexual identity in a nursing home or assisted living facility. That concerns Mark Masaracchia, property manager at Town Hall. “What’s that going to be like? To go into a wonderful place like this and then have to go back in the closet because we don’t have assisted living here?”
We must push federal, state and local governments to include sexual orientation and gender identity protections in existing housing laws, and for senior housing providers to adopt antidiscrimination policies (SAGE offers a map of LGBT-friendly housing resources).
3. Create culturally competent caregiving
“Statistically we are at higher risk, and deal with consequences of living with stigma, the violence of being LGBT in this culture,” says Jeff Huyett, who has worked as a nurse, nurse practitioner and activist since 1983. “It impacts your eating, your drinking habits, your blood pressure, to name a few.”
Huyett worked at the LGBT-focused Callen Lorde Clinic in New York City and now is the director of health services at Landmark College in Putney, Vt. He knows firsthand what a welcoming environment can do for an LGBT person. “Especially for a trans person. They are so nerve-racked. You want to provide understanding when they walk in the door.”
4. Mix younger and older together
The Anita May Rosenstein Campus, a part of the Los Angeles LGBT center, is set to open in 2019. The new campus will include up to 100 units of affordable housing for seniors as well as 100 beds for homeless youth plus a communal kitchen, bringing the two most at-risk segments of our community together to live side-by-side and help each other.
5. Imagine LGBT seniors as resources, not liabilities
Older adults offer knowledge, dedication and a vital volunteer force. Bell stays active as a member of the LGBT Research Committee in Chicago, John Adams Senior Caucus and other groups. “One of my missions is to represent the first out generation,” says Bell. “We are defining what it is like to grow old [as LGBT]. And we don’t experience this as passive.”
6. Fight for LGBT data and research
“There’s been very little research at all on LGBT elders,” says Karyn Skultety, Executive Director of Openhouse, San Francisco. “Only recently are we getting good data.” But there is the obstacle of exclusion. The current administration’s U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is eliminating questions about LGBT people from critical surveys, reports the Center for American Progress.
7. Understand LGBT elders have a voice
Miss Gloria Allen, 72, led an etiquette class for LGBTQ youth at the Center on Halstead. Not only did Allen teach her students poise, she cooked for them and spoke up about drug and alcohol abuse. Her story was transformed into a new hit play, Charm, written by Phillip Dawkins. Allen, who also lives at Town Hall, continues to be a mentor and speaker. “Being an LGBTQ trans woman I feel it is my obligation to direct people in a positive way, show them they can do it, because I’ve done it.”
8. Incubate a cross-generational connection
Sage Table is a yearly effort to get LGBT people of all ages to sit and share a meal together. As an activist, volunteer and eventual employee of SAGE, the burlesque star World Famous *BoB* created several performance events bringing SAGE members and her NYC burlesque friends together. “People are thirsty for this connection. The puzzle is how the planners make it happen.” Here’s a start: Sage Table is a yearly effort to get LGBT people of all ages to sit and share a meal together. Organize your own next year.
9. Start connecting now
It’s easy to stay insulated in your bubble. But not before long you will look up from your Candy Crush game, and you will be the elder. Invisible obstacles are keeping us apart. “It’s very cafeteria tray thinking,” says World Famous *BoB*. She recommends baby steps. “Start within 10 feet of yourself. Hanging out with older people is like getting a postcard from your future. And who doesn’t want to read that?”
Mike Albo is a performer and a writer.