Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams (bio) 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, and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here.]
TGB readers will have figured out that I've been an "out" lesbian activist for decades. Much of that time, the long slog toward full gay inclusion in U.S. society has not been my main political focus, but I've always kept track of our uneven progress.
I'm from the gay generation for whom "coming out" - insistently announcing our presence in the world - was a crucial step toward winning general acceptance.
As folks will also know if they saw the recent Harvey Milk movie, one of the milestones on the path toward mass coming out and gay rights was the defeat of a ballot measure called the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978. This would have made it illegal for gays to teach in the public schools.
The movie makes it look as if it was all Harvey's charisma that won that election, but there was also a huge grassroots movement that canvassed door-to-door to reach voters who didn't know they'd ever met a gay person.
Back in those days, many peoples' ideas about homosexuals were pretty one-dimensional; we were emblematic of one thing - perverted sex.
We, gay people and our many allies, defeated the Briggs Initiative. I remember attending a post-mortem meeting where activists chewed over what had worked and hearing a woman talk about how she knew her canvassing was effective when the voters she met started sharing with her their anxieties about their own marriages and sex lives.
Helping people become more comfortable about talking about their own sexuality was just part of what our strategy of coming out meant we had to do. I knew she had expressed something very true: at that time and place, gay people's social function was to catalyze everyone to become a little more open and honest about sex.
Maybe it still is, although we've acquired a more rounded profile in subsequent decades.
That brave speaker I remember from 1978 was Amber Hollibaugh who moved to the east and went on to take part in the numerous LGBT struggles and organizations since. These days, she is executive director of Queers for Economic Justice in New York. When I heard she would be giving the keynote speech at a recent Berkeley conference on "Faith and LGBTQI Aging," I had to go. Here's a report:
Hollibaugh laid out some pretty dire facts about what aging is likely to look like for most gay folks now over 65. Today there are some three million of us; by 2030, there will be six million.
Seventy to 80 percent of gay elders do not have children. Many have been estranged from their relatives and have located themselves far from kin. These realities lead to big problems says Hollibaugh because "access to unpaid family labor provides what we have for a structure for getting old in America."
The gay movement, like so much of U.S. society, is youth-centric. Like many young people, young LGBT folks can't form a picture of what aging will mean for themselves because their lives don't include elders. So gay institutions are only slowly developing to assist our elders.
Working in New York City, Hollibaugh has observed a frightening trend. We know that older workers laid off in the Great Recession have a hard time getting new jobs and are seeing their savings dwindle. But for some isolated, working-class, older gays, the downturn has pushed precarious lives over the brink. She is seeing a wave of newly unemployed LGBT people ages 47 to 55 turning up at New York City homeless shelters.
As low income urban gays age without children, they are very likely to end up in what she calls "nursing home dump sites," the least desirable institutional arrangements where they have no advocates to fight for them. The "families of choice" they've built up over the years tend to be of the same aging generation; these networks will no longer be able to care for each other. And the institutions often don't recognize or honor such relationships.
Playing the role of the organizer as she always has, Hollibaugh offered a vision for how we create better possibilities for gay elders. Her premise is that "we will all be more and more dependent eventually - we need community."
And there are still places in our society whose mission is to foster community, even if they have not always been friendly to gays: these are the various faith institutions. Churches and other religious bodies make counter-cultural affirmations that dovetail with the needs of aging gays:
- They affirm openness to people throughout their entire lifespan, young and old
- Instead of sweeping reality under a rug, they assert that we live through a lifespan and they recognize the inevitability of dying
- They usually claim to be communities of welcome and compassion.
Sure, religious congregations present problems for gay elders (and many others). They are often divided by class and race. They frequently are better at "loving" the other than sitting next to her/him at a table. Gay people still remind them of sexuality and that seems to make many religious folks queasy.
But the ostensible values of faith institutions - what they say they stand for - push them toward creating broad community when the chips are down.
LGBT elders need to access what churches have to offer and, while we have the energy, to use our lifelong movement experience to urge them to create "best practices" that meet the needs of our elders.
Working with churches on creating models of good elder care makes sense to Hollibaugh. Maybe those models can even spread beyond church institutions.
She's not pushing God (I have no clue from her speech how she does or doesn't relate to a deity.) She points out that in getting the needs of gay elders on the table, we don't have create institutions from scratch. "Remember - churches already have nursing homes! We need to work with them."
Do I buy Hollibaugh's vision? Not completely, but as usual, she's on to something.
This is made easier for me because I have already found connection within a little Episcopal Church congregation that provides a vital, if fractious, multi-generational, multi-class and sexually diverse community. And I've worked for inclusion in the national religious institution, getting to see how holding people to their values can effect amazing changes.
But I also know that many LGBT people and others have been hurt horribly by judgmental religion and would hate the idea of aging in a setting colored by religion. Still, there are possibilities in that arena and poor elders are going to need help wherever they can find it.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Herchel Newman: Forever Glow