Of Age, Fat and the Speed of Time
This Week in Elder News: 26 July 2008

Gay and Gray: The Book

category_bug_gayandgray.gif [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.

When I agreed to write this column for TGB, I figured I better do some research. After all, what credentials do I have? I'm just a lifelong lesbian who is aging and who blogs.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that there was a book entitled Gay and Gray. I was a little less enthused by the subtitle, "The Older Homosexual Man," but what the heck? Fortunately I was able to find a used copy.

Originally issued in 1982, and reprinted with new material and a new prologue in 1995, Raymond M. Berger's book is a serious social scientific examination of the lives of gay elders. It leans on all the apparatus that academic researchers use to support their conclusions: interviews, case studies, a questionnaire, reference to other research.

And, especially for its time of publication, Mr. Berger came up with a delightful thesis. In the prologue to his second edition, here's how he described it:

"...being gay can actually be an advantage in adapting to the aging experience. Every gardener knows that placing his seedlings in the harsh outdoors early in the season creates plants that are better able than the greenhouse variety to withstand the stressors of the growing season. So it is with people, gay positive scholars have argued. Early weathering promotes survival."

He goes on to contend that because many gay men have to leave their families of origin in order to live fully into their orientation, they also, earlier and perhaps more fully than heterosexual men who have mothers, girlfriends and wives to fall back on, have to learn to live as competent, independent adults.

"Later, when faced with the losses of old age - loss of job, status, friends - the older gay man can draw on the skills he learned as young adult."

Sounds to me like the kind of facile pop psychology peddled by those throwaway "magazines" inserted in Sunday newspapers. And like reading them, there's a certain guilty pleasure in playing with the idea mentally, before throwing it away. I don't think any of us have to be gay to play:

  • Did you feel at some point that you had to leave home or family in order to grow fully into yourself? Was it painful, surprising, or just "growing up"?
  • Has your particular experience of "weathering" made getting older easier, harder, or maybe just no different that any other life challenge?

Lots changed in the LGBT world between the two editions of Raymond Berger's study. The AIDS epidemic vastly changed the circumstances of the gay male population while concurrently gay people began to win civil rights and wider acceptance. In 1995, having viewed the trajectory of those changes, he made some predictions that seem to me still interesting after another 13 years.

  • "Chronic illness will play an increasing role in the lives of gay men of all ages."

    Indeed yes - the AIDS plague acculturated many urban, gay men from a young age to be exceptionally aware of and sensitive to dealing with sickness and disability.

  • "Lesbians will assume an increasing role in the leadership of gay community groups..."

    Yes, again. On the one hand, this simply reflects that an entire generation of men who would have occupied leadership roles died off prematurely. But in consequence, many LGBT institutions got used to the experience of having women in leadership. Though the plague has receded, many lesbians still occupy highly visible leadership positions.

  • "Older gay men will become a large part of gay community institutions." For Berger, this predicts declining ageism: "Even the traditionally youth-oriented bars and social clubs will increasingly cater to the more numerous and affluent gay men."

    I think on this topic he underestimated the power of generational marketing. Wherever any affluence exists, our society creates a niche commerce to exploit its potential. So we all have even more institutions encouraging expense and consumption for the young - and for the old.

  • "Gay men will increasing adopt 'traditional family values.'"

    He means stable relationships and parenting. Sure - it's true. When you aren't living as an outlaw, it is a lot easier to live responsibly and care responsibly for others.

  • "Senior-specific, gay, social service agencies will continue to be rare."

    I don't have the expertise to evaluate this, but he is probably right that general purpose social service agencies have become more adept at recognizing and accommodating the needs of gay elders. Whether LGBT elders trust the agencies is another question.

  • "The aging of the gay population will enhance the political clout of urban gay communities."

    This is something I do have some expertise in and I think he's generally right. Older people are simply a more reliable base of voters than younger age groups. And we have more money to throw at politicians. Still, the rising influence of urban gay political communities has depended on a lot of factors besides the aging of gay communities that would take a book to explicate.

  • "Older gays will play an increasing role in the environmental movement."

    This was a long shot at the time and I don't know if it has panned out. Berger opines that, because of the sophistication that gay men of sad necessity had to develop about public health and immune dysfunction, they might lead the way in our growing awareness of how our thoughtless civilization is poisoning the world.

    Perhaps as a community, we gay folks are still little more conscious about public health. But everyone has had to get more aware quickly when facing such new threats as West Nile virus and a potential bird flu pandemic.

For an older book, Gay and Gray has held up pretty well and remains thought provoking. How about that?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, TravelinOma recounts a sweet event about enormity of love in Remember Me.]


I've found books like this in used bookstores and they are pretty amusing in their stiff, conservative approach to the whole subject. Your analysis is interesting. I guess the author was somewhat prescient.

I suspect gay men's and women's experiences will be a lot different because old women have had the 'invisibility' factor to contend with in our culture, whereas men mostly haven't.
Back in the mid 1980's, when Barbara MacDonald and Cynthia Rich wrote their ground-breaking book on ageism entitled "Look
Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism"
, they reported finding levels of ageism amongst their lesbian sisters and others in the women's movement to be just as high as those in the general population. That finding shocked and outraged them. And they felt really hurt and let down by it. This is what led to MacDonald's famous essay 'An Open Letter to the Women's Movement'.
I would be interested to know if you think that situation has changed much, twenty years on.

Marian -- thank you enormously for reminding me of Cynthia and Barbara's book. Later in that decade I worked for their publisher and definitely have a copy somewhere -- will have to revisit it.

I do think ageism was and remains thick in lesbian environs -- largely because the accomplishment of the LGBT civil rights movement has been to normalize "gays" rather than change society. And we're women, so our very bodies become "bad" to the world as we age.

Like men, some women have taken advantage of enhanced economic opportunity in the more friendly working environments to win themselves a pretty comfortable standard of living and a good deal of freedom for self-development. This older lesbian upper middle class has some influence in gay institutions: we're donors and excellent volunteers at all kinds of community projects (also in the extra-gay world too.) That is, gay liberation for older lesbians in comfortable circumstances means we get to be rather contented older women?

Probably all generalizations overstate -- but they are kind of fun.

I left home when I was fourteen and it was very much placing a seedling in the harsh outdoors. Following Mr. Berger's premise this helped me and will continue to help me if I am blessed with old age. Not that I take this seriously, but it is something interesting to think about.

My gay uncle lives in a senior residence, cared for by strongly Christian caretakers, surrounded by very conservative old women... his homosexuality is cloaked over. Much as it was during his upbringing and early adult life.

Will this be any different when my lesbian sister and I are of his age? Will our open dialog about all things gay and straight become a hidden topic of converstion so as not to ruffle the sensitivities of others?

I don't know if there are long term care gay communities, but with the aging population I would think that might be attractive to some.

I've knowingly encountered only one lesbian couple, and a few gay men in hospital, skilled nursing rehab settings, or retirement communities. I was aware of only one situation with some heterosexuals exhibiting some discomfort when a rather tall large muscular lesbian with a stereotypical classic dyke appearance visited her partner who was a patient in long term care. I saw the visitor on occasion only briefly at a distance, coming and going, as I was engaged with my patients. She spent a short time with her partner who couldn't socialize, then quickly left, probably painfully uncertain if she was even recognized. The patient had a perpetual smile on her face. Sometimes I was able to take a few minutes to try and inititate casual interaction with the patient, but was never able to illicit a meaningful response.

I wasn't made aware of any similar hetero discomfort with a male patient I had. This 40ish gay black man with AIDS required my becoming, with his supportive mother, his patient advocate in order to be allowed to continue his treatment through up and down medical conditions. He was expected to die. He needed confrontation at times and tender encouragement other times, as he ultimately was weaned from a tube to adequate oral eating and drinking. Some communication and cognitive issues, including judgement matters, also required my therapy.

Eventually, I no longer needed to work with him, and he went home with his mother to an uncertain future, but probably one of confinement. Some months later as I entered a local store I was startled to hear my name shouted out. There he was up and about shopping. As we hugged I noticed his mother coming down a nearby aisle with a big smile on her face. We spent a few minutes catching up.

If someone says skilled nursing facilities and the patients there are depressing, I know differently -- at least in many where I have worked. Some residents of all ages have a more postive outlook on life than many people walking around outside that world. I would hope gay people's final years could be as open and pleasant as heterosexuals have.

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