Why Do LGBT Seniors Need a Safe Space of Their Own?
- LGBT people born before the mid-1950s grew up without hearing a positive, or even sympathetic, word about homosexuality, let alone bisexuality or the transgender experience. Throughout that period society said they were either sick, criminal, or sinners – sometimes all three. If they had the strength and good fortune to visit a gay bar, the best they heard from their peers was that, yes, we’re sick, but at least we can have a good time in each other’s company.
- More often, these people exhausted their mental energy keeping their “condition” a secret from everyone. This was not a foolish decision, given that honesty meant risking being thrown out of their homes, disinherited, imprisoned, shunned by religious organizations and family, institutionalized, and, potentially, robbed, beaten, and killed. Being raised in a homophobic culture meant they learned the same attitudes about gayness as everyone else: they suffered from “internalized homophobia.” Some came to feel they deserved what they got.
- The impact of this treatment on those who grew old enough to be today’s senior citizens means that many of them, so practiced in concealment, still feel too unsafe even to walk into a social worker’s office to ask for help with a problem, even if that problem is unrelated to their “condition”; believe it or not, they see social workers as authority figures capable of wrecking their lives should they ever be found out. Many have the same fear about medical professionals and other potential sources of service*. Even in more modern times, when an ICU nurse would more likely let them in to visit their life partner, some are too afraid to reveal their relationship, and so their partners sometimes die alone.
- The effect on those seniors today is often some level of isolation from their community. Even participating in senior center activities can be painful. Reminiscence is an important activity for helping older people feel their life was worth living. Imagine, then, the impact on the closeted seniors who listen to those conversations convinced that they dare not reminisce about their own lives. LGBT seniors need places to gather where they feel safe to be themselves. They need information and referrals from someone they know they can safely talk to. And as their friends and lovers die or lose their capacities, they need a way to expand their circles of informal support. The size of this population is not small: between 1.75 and 4 million across the U.S.**
* “American Geriatrics Society Care of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Oder Adults Position Statement,” AGS Ethics Committee (Am Geriatr Soc 63:423-426, 2015).
** U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living website, ACL.gov.