[EDITORIAL NOTE: 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.]
A wise lesbian named Nancy Flaxman, who consults with helping agencies for elders in the San Francisco Bay Area, cut through a lot of social service verbiage on a recent KQED radio forum:
”What I want to bring out for LGBT seniors - those people who are probably in the closet who are listening today - please know that you do not have to be alone...All of us as LGBT people, no matter what age, are isolated unless we gather together with each other...We've seen alcohol and drug addiction, depression, suicide.
“Those who are homophobic and transphobic will attribute these things to some perversity in our so-called lifestyle. But depression and other health issues are not from who we are, but rather from society's homophobia.
“You take a person like me. I'm 62 years old, this is my job, I'm out there all the time, I'm out, out, out, but everyday I can open the newspaper, turn on the radio, watch TV and hear who I am and my relationship with my partner being debated.
“I think those of us who are out don't even know, don't realize consciously how this effects us - every day to be told you are not good enough. When we can gather with each other in community, that leads to our own health and wellbeing. It's not that we are different from other people, it is what everybody needs.”
I think Nancy is all too right. But like Nancy, I'm a "young elder" (we're the same age). Since I was about 30, I've lived in a world where being gay was at least imaginable, if not commonplace. LGBT folks who are older than Nancy and I lived through experiences that chill my soul. No wonder that, if they find themselves late in life isolated and possibly dependent on professional service providers, they sometimes retreat into a closet they thought they'd escaped years ago.
The story of "Lee" from Nurse magazine is representative for too many.
”As a young nurse, Lee, who has asked that her last name not be used, worked in an electroshock unit in New York in 1950. She watched other lesbian women her age receive electroshock therapy to cure them of their 'deviation.'
"'It pushed me into the closet so far that I didn't come out until I was 58,' she says. She married and had two daughters. After her husband died, she came out and felt relieved at no longer having to hide who she was.
“But in recent years, Lee, now in her 70s, says she has retreated somewhat into the closet. None of her neighbors at the low-income senior complex where she lives know she is a lesbian. She has no idea how they might treat her if they knew.
“They are very nice people, she says, but some are very conservative. 'They come from a different era...It's a big drain of energy when you have to hide something,' she says.”
And it wasn't just the lesbian women. Gay men grew up with warnings like this video: [1:23 minutes]
I gave you the short version. YouTube has a 10 minute long version that proclaims "Produced in cooperation with the Inglewood Police Department and the Inglewood Unified School District." Like the 1930s movie Reefer Madness, this clip seems pretty funny now - but I bet it was no fun if you were a gay kid and it was shown at your school.
I'll close this with a clip from Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's 1963 "documentary," Women of the World, narrated by Peter Ustinov.
Again, this is amusing now, but it's not surprising there are LGBT elders who never were able to completely move beyond what growing up with this stuff did to them.
I'm so glad I am fortunate enough to live in a time when we've moved beyond the ignorance (and the gender stereotyping!) that were the rule not so long ago.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenda Verbeck recalls her 1950s Childbirth Without Fear.]
PLEASE NOTE: A new, little feature in the upper left sidebar is a list under the header, "At The Elder Storytelling Place" where henceforth there will be links to the five most recent stories at that blog. Let me know if you like this feature or think it is useful.