"It Gets Better"....those are the words we tell every LGBT teen who is suffering alone and trying to come to grips with themselves and their place in a world that can be very hostile to anyone who is different. We tell them..."One day you will no longer be in high school. You will be far away from those who would hurt you for who you are...and there is nothing wrong with who you are. One day you will be out of your parents home and you will be able to make your life what YOU want to it to be."
That is the core of the "It Gets Better" project to me. Not that your life will be all butterflies, bunny rabbits, and magic rainbow unicorns the rest of your days...but that you will be in control of what happens to you and that can make all the difference in the world. You can seek out other gay people and find community, someone to love, and if you are so inclined and laws allow...make a family. The world will still kick us in the teeth(as it does everyone) and it may not always feel better....sometimes it still sucks...but the difference is that you are in control and can make of those circumstances what you will with a great deal more freedom.
But what happens when we are older? Does it get better still matter when you are 50?....60?....70? I ran into a handful of articles this week that detail some disturbing(though not surprising) facts about gay seniors that have caused me to stop and think about the sentiment behind what we tell LGBT youth about survival and how it applies to growing older gay.
From an article in The Guardian UK Come the results of a survey commissioned by the campaigning group Stonewall which ouline some rather hard to face facts about the current state of growing older gay in the UK health system. While the survey is UK based....in my opinion, any comparable study undertaken in the U.S. would only echo the results that Stonewall found. Results like....
*--Gay and Bisexual men are three times for likely to be alone than heterosexual men.(40% of gay/bi men are single vs. 15% of heterosexual men.)
*--41% of of LGBT's over 55 live alone vs. 21% of heterosexual people.
*--15% of LGBT people over 70 work vs. 6% of heterosexuals.
*--Over a quarter of gay and bisexual men, and over half of gay/bisexual women have children versus nine out of ten heterosexual men and women.
*--Less than a quarter of LGBT's see their biological families at least once a week versus more than half of heterosexual seniors
*--72% of LGBT's surveyed worried about requiring care as they get older versus 62% of heterosexual people
There is also the rather dubious comment made within the article about LGBT's "fears being compounded by our lifestyles" in which the study claims that gay seniors drink, abuse drugs, and have higher instances of mental illness than our straight peers. But.....what the study does not mention when giving these factors, is the all important WHY those things may be true. In my opinion making generic statements like these, without explanations feeds into the hands of hate groups who ever try to paint a picture of a "gay lifestyle" that is inherently destructive. Leaving out the major societal discrimination and condemnation that drove so many of these problems does a disservice and paints a biased picture. Would their be such a high instance of mental health issues is LGBT's didn't have to overcome massive amounts of self hate taught to them by family and society at large? And for whole generations of us, gay bars were not only places to meet friends and love interests...but were also part community center as well. Just saying that our "lifestyles" in some way negatively impact our prospects for healthy and fulfilling lives when we get older is ingnoring the history creates this situation and that is driving the need for this dam survey in the first place! In my opinion it is irresponsible to make blanket statements or post data like that without putting it in its historical/generational context.....and dammit, it drives me nuts...
Following up on the heals of all this comes a second article from the East Bay Express detailing LGBT treatment in elder care facilities. Many gay men and women who survived the days of police raids and electroshock therapy to see the days of "gay liberation" now find themselves living in circumstances that are forcing them back into the closet again. Three major factors are at work here...1)the attitudes and opinions of other retiree's....2) discriminatory and sometimes hostile treatment by care workers and....3)a system that is totally unprepared for the needs of LGBT people and has no idea how many of us their even are. One such instance of what can befall a gay couple in elder care was detailed in the article:
In one instance about a year and a half ago, Barr said a senior who frequents the Rainbow Community Center's senior lunches had to move his partner of nearly forty years into a small board and care — typically, this kind of facility is family-run and more affordable. His partner had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. One day as he was hugging and kissing his partner, a staff person walked into the room.
"The staff decided that the healthy partner was molesting the other partner and reported him to the state," said Barr, noting that management went so far as to try to have the healthy partner's benefits taken away. Barr said the healthy partner managed to stop the complaint.
"If this had been a heterosexual couple, a wife hugging her husband, they wouldn't have set off alarm bells," said Barr.
I would like to add that...nor would they have been segregated from the rest of the population as may happen to a transgendered senior....or nor would their assets or homes be unwillingly stripped from them because the state may not recognize their relationship with their partner.
And studies like these only reflect those who will identify as gay, bisexual, or transgendered. There are so many more who come from the generation when you just don't talk about it...much like Clay Greene, who was involuntarily removed from the home he shared with his longtime partner, Harold Scull. The couple also had all their shared belongings sold at auction by the state after allegations of domestic abuse when Howard Scull fell from a front porch and required medical care. Greene was reluctant to admit that he and Scull were anything more than friends even though they had lived together for decades, had wills and power-of-attorneys naming each other as benificiaries should something happen. In the face of losing all he owned Clay Greene still did not want the stigma that came with identifying himself as gay. That was the way it was in his day and that's the power that keeps so many older LGBT's in the closet and thus....not included in studies like the one undertaken by Stonewall.
Put together, I would say all of this paints a rather bleak picture of growing older gay....but can we take these facts as any kind of and adequate reflection of the total reality? Or is this more a snapshot of the possibilities of what it means to grow older gay at this point in time?....living alone and suffering in silence with nothing but a pocket full of memories and living among other seniors who still think they are evil and a threat to the nation?
If we can council a teen on the edge of suicide to hold on because "it gets better"...what do you say to someone who may have lost their life long partner and who may have been estranged from their family because they couldn't accept them as a gay person? How would you even begin? I understand that a part of this situation is generational....but so too is what was/is happening with LGBT teens and if we can reach forward to the next generation, why can we not also reach back? For a teen it's all about holding on until the day when they can see that they are just like everyone else in the world and then make out of their life what they chose....how is that message different for an individual who may lived and loved and oftentimes been the people who blazed the trail that allows us to say "it gets better". Our lives are what they are in part because of their lives...and because they survive and lived on through some harrowing events as well as all the condemnation society could muster. they showed us by example what it live through it...and we did.
I think sometimes we can't just council someone that it's going to be ok. Sometimes we need to make it better. Helping to fight for legal protections (including marriage equality, HIV medication provisions, Workplace protections for retirement funds) will help those in need of care in the future....That is a beginning. Creating LGBT friendly retirement communities like the one nearing completion in my home town is also one option. Also...Because of increasing visibility of LGBT's the world is slowly changing for us. Succesive generations deal with being gay better(hopefully) and the stigma is slowly becoming less. Perhaps there will be a day when LGBT seniors won't be ostracised from their biological families...and perhaps too it will not be such a big deal for other heterosexual retirees to share a home with a gay person.....but again, thats the future. We need to be there for those who are suffering now. One day it will be you and me and we have to ask ourselves how we would want to be treated if it was us in that bed..alone and not able to tell a soul who we are.
And yes I know...this all sounds so gloom and doom. Not all gay men or women grow old alone or without the support of family. Nor is poor treatment by elder care facilities a situation unique to gay seniors...not by a longshot. However, there IS a gap that needs to be filled and a hand that needs to be extended to make it better for those who can no longer do so for themselves. We as a community can come together and show amazing strength at times of adversity and we have cared for each other in times when no one else would. If we can hold out that promise to our young...why can we not also give it to those who once held it out to us? Perhaps it's time we let them know that they are not alone...
Check out Sage at their website www.sageusa.org and consider reaching out to an LGBT senior near you. Don't wait for it to get better....make it better...
Until next time dear readers....