[EDITORIAL NOTE: Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here.
The Human Rights Campaign Fund is a big, Washington, D.C.-based gay civil rights lobbying outfit - often not my favorite sort of institution. Professional advocacy necessarily rubs off the quirky edges of our lived lives in order to score its points. It’s uncomfortable being presented as an issue, though it may at times be necessary.
But HRC does offer some genuinely interesting perspectives about the housing challenges of LGBT elders. (They use the language "seniors.") When lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors need to turn to others for housing assistance, they often face three challenges: lack of family help, a shortage of welcoming housing and fear of discrimination and harassment.
Lack of Family Help
While heterosexual seniors often rely on their spouses or children to help them, many lesbian and gay seniors find themselves without either resource, says Steven Karpiak, executive director of Pride Senior Network.
In fact, when Senior Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) conducted focus groups in New York City, they found that approximately two-thirds of the lesbian and gay seniors interviewed lived alone - a higher rate of isolation than among the general elder population. Other research has found similar results.
Shortage of Welcoming Housing
"The reality is, most older people don't live in retirement communities, period. So there isn't any reason to believe that would be particularly different in the gay community,'' says David Aronstein, a social worker and managing partner of Stonewall Communities, a project to build gay- and lesbian-friendly senior housing in Boston.
"One thing that came out in our focus groups is that people wanted it to be gay-managed [and] owned and predominantly occupied by gays, but people were very clear that it would be fine if there were straight people who lived there, too. People have wide friendship networks that aren't always exclusively gay."
Fear of Discrimination and Harassment
The greatest obstacle for lesbian and gay seniors, however, appears to be an unseen one: fear of discrimination and harassment in mainstream housing facilities. To what extent it exists is difficult to determine, according to most experts. But there is anecdotal evidence that discrimination exists.
Yet perhaps the most common problem is one of isolation and loneliness, brought on by a fear of discrimination.
"The major struggle that older lesbians and gay men have in long-term care facilities is the need to remain closeted out of fear of retaliation and out of an instinct of self-preservation," says Doni Gewirtzman, a Lambda Legal staff attorney who specializes in age discrimination.
In part, Gewirtzman says, this is because the current generation of lesbian and gay seniors came of age in a time of "officially sanctioned homophobia and abuse of gay people," and the coping strategy that many of them learned was just to remain in the closet.
The result, however, is that many lesbian and gay seniors find themselves unable to freely discuss what most people talk about when they get old - namely, the people they love.
That sounds about right to me. Last month I visited a friend, heterosexual, who lives in a "life care retirement community" - quite a marvelous place really for the tiny minority of elders who can afford such a thing. Elders buy in and pay monthly fees, knowing they'll have a place to live and health care for the rest of their lives (as long as they can afford it.)
According to the community's own public profile, three hundred some people live in this rural community. The average age of residents living independently is 83. About 70 percent are women; 30-some percent are members of couples.
My friend has lived there long enough to know a good deal more about the community than the pretty exterior reveals. She is sure that none of the current couples are LBGT, although there have been a few during the 15-year life of the place. She only knows one gay current resident, a lesbian now in her eighties who moved in with her woman partner. Her partner died almost immediately; the lone lesbian has lived on alone almost ten years.
My friend suspects that hardly any of the current residents know this woman had a woman partner. I was introduced, but quickly understood this was not a person who wanted to talk about a life that hardly anyone around her is aware of. I didn't even try for an interview.
What would that be like - to grow old while being unable to talk about, to share, central parts of what life has been? I imagine many heterosexuals also carry such locked up secrets. I belong to a slightly younger generation less prone to be silenced that way, perhaps even inclined sometimes to put out TMI - too much information.
But I know that feeling constrained to keep my life story "private" would make me feel invisible, not fully myself. It would not matter if the constraint was not so much fear of rejection as simply convention. I think there is a lot of that going around for LGBT elders, maybe more than any of us who aren't living it realize.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Celia Jones weighs in on a lifelong obsession many will recognize in Weighing In.]