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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

A look back at my work with the LGBTQ community. I first became active in the gay rights movement in 1980 when I launched my LGBTQ jo...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Graying of the Rainbow

Most of us LGBT folks have learned over time that the sunset years in our community usually begin at age 30 or perhaps 40 depending on the person.  In our youth-obsessed culture that transcends sexual orientation, once you move out of the roaring 20’s, you might as well pack it in.  It is especially true in the gay male world where full heads of (non-gray) hair and sculpted abs are iconic. 
This reality had been ingrained in our minds, and we live our lives accordingly—some better than others.  Not everybody comes to terms with that fate lying down.  We fight it.  We deny it.  We work hard to disprove it.  One thing you cannot do is change it.  No one wants to be looked at as “that old man” or “that old woman.” It’s all about self-esteem.

There is another reality: time marches on and so should we.  If we can benefit from good fortune and not perish in an unexpected non-health related fashion,  the chances are that with improving medical advances and living a healthy lifestyle we should be able make it through the 80’s or even higher.  It means that we leave our youthfulness in the rear view mirror as we continue on that journey, but we should accept ourselves at any age with grace, dignity and, of course, pride.
Nonetheless, many mature folks take to heart the marginalization exhibited by some LGBT youth.  Rejection by the younger generation, however, is not universal as there are instances where young LGBT people find attraction to their elders and establish friendships.  Younger folks tend to look for role models, experience and wisdom as they attempt to navigate through a high-speed, complex and challenging world. 

But there are other issues confronting older LGBT folks that go beyond their acceptance by their younger brethren.  The number of seniors in the LGBT population—a microcosm of the general population—is increasing faster than just about any other age group. This has been enhanced by the Baby Boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964.  Currently, there are an estimated 1.4 to 3.8 million LGBT people in the U.S. over the age of 65 with that number expected to double by 2030.
A San Diego Needs Assessment Survey polled some 500 LGBT seniors, ages 50 and up, on topics most important to them as they grow older. Social matters, support, and fear of social isolation were the top issues among those surveyed. That was followed by health and quality of life issues, financial unease, LGBT-affirmative housing and housing affordability, and health insurance/access to quality health care.

As identified in the survey, an important issue facing LGBT seniors is living alone. That’s true for 50 percent of LGBT elders versus 33 percent of the general population, according to Dr. Judy Bradford of The Fenway Institute, a Boston-based researcher of LGBT health issues. She notes that LGBT seniors are more likely to be estranged from their families thereby contributing to loneliness and isolation.
This isolation is compounded by the fact there is a paucity of LGBT retirement communities in the U.S. While the number of such communities is increasing each year, there are still too few to house the burgeoning older LGBT population.

Nursing homes are also a problem for LGBT seniors.  Despite the progress in achieving marriage equality, most states still do not recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, and the existing cultural discrimination results in couples being split up in such facilities.  We hear of too many instances whereby LGBT seniors are forced to return to the closet to remain safe in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
Yet with all these gray clouds forming above the heads of LGBT seniors, there are solid support networks to help allow the sunshine to peer in. The Prime Timeers of Baltimore offers an outstanding array of social activities and interaction to help their members address some of these concerns, especially the major issue of social isolation.  For lesbians, there is the social group Older and Wiser Lesbians (OWLS) of the Greater Capitol area. Other groups are forming as well.

And there are a number of excellent resources available for LGBT older adults to consult. Among them is The National Research Center of LGBT Aging, SAGE-Metro D.C. and SAGE .  Hopefully, our other local and national LGBT organizations will also recognize that the aging LGBT population is a stark reality and meeting the challenges associated with it should be a high priority. 
No matter how young you are now, with good fortune, you will eventually join the ranks of the gray hue in the rainbow and will need these issues resolved.  It’s time to start now.

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