When families come together during the holiday season, we as LGBT people can reflect on the many ways that we get to define “family. ” For many LGBT elders, this was not always the case. Over the past half-century, notions of what constitutes an LGBT “family” have made a remarkable journey. Because there were the Stonewall Riots and ACT-UP and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and now marriage, the LGBT-rights movement has made choices available that many LGBT people never thought possible.
In the past, it was not uncommon for LGBT people to have ties to their biological families torn apart. Some families shunned or disowned their LGBT children. Some of us distanced ourselves, physically and emotionally, from our families to hide our sexual identities out of fear of condemnation or rejection. Others married and had biological families of their own, denying their true sexuality. And others were “outed,” resulting in loss of jobs, homes and families.
Many of those who did come out, for whatever reason, built “families of choice.” These “logical” families are often circles of friends from the same generation, friends who share similar life experiences and interests, friends who understand and, in many cases, have made the same life choices. In these logical families, members celebrate holidays together, mark academic and career achievements together and mourn the loss of loved ones together.
Through it all, we have supported each other, just as biological families do — emotionally, socially and financially. Now these logical families find that they are growing old together. And many members of LGBT “families of choice” now share the same infirmities and disabilities. They find that they can no longer support and take care of each other. As a result, many LGBT elders are facing difficult living circumstances and decisions.
Today, most Americans face difficult and uncertain economic times, but these circumstances are often more difficult for LGBT elder Americans who have faced a lifetime of discrimination in education and employment. Statistics show that, as a group, we have smaller pensions than the population in general. Because we have not been allowed to marry, we do not share in benefits, such as pensions, medical insurance and Social Security, that our partners have earned. We face discriminatory taxation laws that deny us the full benefit of any potential inheritance when our partners pass away.
Fortunately, the cultural, employment, judicial and legislative environments are changing. The definition of “family” is expanding. Marriage, civil-union and domestic-partnership legislation is being revised in some states and localities. This adds a measure of protection for LGBT people, despite limitations. In some states, pensions can be shared, inheritance taxes are not punitive and health benefits protect surviving partners. On the federal level, not much has changed in these areas and the Defense of Marriage Act blocks most action.
Today, when a child or adult member of a family comes out, it is less likely that the family will disintegrate. Society’s understanding of differences in sexual and gender identity has advanced to a point where fewer and fewer LGBT people leave their biological families in order to hide their own truths. Marriages with someone of the opposite sex are not automatically ended when one or both partners acknowledge their true orientation. Children are no longer automatically taken from the non-heterosexual partner. The LGBT family of choice now includes more and more biological, adopted and foster children.
LGBT people continue to expand and enhance their families. Progress has been made to broaden the choices LGBT people have in determining the make-up of their own families. However, many obstacles still exist and deny us those choices. According to a Gallup poll conducted in May, 53 percent of Americans say that LGBT people should have the right to marry and determine their own families. Based on U.S. Census numbers, that leaves 110 million American adults who would deny us that right. We must work to expand the options we have in building our families of choice. That continued work will someday mean that LGBT people will no longer have to make the difficult decisions about who we will love, how we will live and who will care for us.
Ed Bomba is communications chair for the LGBT Elder Initiative. Terri Clark, MPH, CHES, prevention services coordinator for ActionAIDS, and Heshie Zinman, longtime community health activist, serve as co-chairs of the LGBTEI. To comment on this article, suggest topics for future articles or for more information, visit www.LGBTEI.org and watch for “Gettin’ On” each month in PGN.