While the “golden years” are generally a time for retirement and rejuvenation, for the LGBT population, aging can be a process filled with questions, doubts and fears.
Out Temple University law professor Nancy Knauer recently won two national prizes for her article that examined the complex issues facing LGBT elders, and she’s now preparing for the release of a book that further explores this topic.
Knauer, who’s conducted extensive research on LGBT topics, said her attention was first drawn to the LGBT senior population two years ago when California approved marriage equality, and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, together for more than 50 years, became San Francisco’s first married same-sex couple.
“These were people who’d lived through McCarthyism and through the diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness and came out on the other side,” Knauer said. “So for them to get married was incredible. So I decided I wanted to look around and see what else was going on with older gay men and lesbians.”
What Knauer found was that Martin’s and Lyon’s triumph was an anomaly.
Currently, Senior Action in a Gay Environment is the only national LGBT senior agency, and Knauer said she quickly discovered that the lack of organizational support is reflective of a wider dearth in resources for LGBT elders.
“When you think about LGBT elders, they should have two really good constituent groups — the LGBT community and the senior community — working for them,” she said. “But what’s happened is that they’ve been left out of both.”
Knauer said there are a wealth of factors that influence the detachment many LGBT seniors face — including ageism that many older people face and homophobia that LGBTs of all ages must contend with — noting that the younger LGBT community and senior-service providers often don’t comprehend the unique mindset of this generation.
“We’re talking about people born in 1945 and before, and homosexuality wasn’t declassified as a mental illness until 1973, and I think when we think of declassification, we underestimate what that meant to that generation,” Knauer said. “It wasn’t just that they voted to declassify it and it was, ‘Oh thank goodness, now everything’s better.’ When your entire world view is shaped in a way that your sexuality is criminalized and you’re considered both mentally ill and a sinner, that’s a very complex identity formation.”
Many LGBT elders have carried a form of internalized homophobia with them throughout their whole lives, often never going through a coming-out process, Knauer said, noting that some in this population still don’t label themselves gay or lesbian.
Few LGBT seniors seek mainstream senior services like assisted living because of their longstanding need to conceal their sexual identity, and the lack of LGBT-specific senior programs further cuts them off from opportunities.
Knauer noted that LGBT seniors are at a very high risk of social isolation, as many are distanced from their families, never had children and report higher rates of being single than other groups of LGBT people.
“Social isolation is not that they don’t know a lot of people,” Knauer explained, “but that there’s not one person that they could call to pick up their prescriptions or take them to doctor’s appointments or take them to go buy food. And that’s a big risk.”
In her new book due out in January, “Gay and Lesbian Elders: History, Law and Identity Politics in the United States,” Knauer delves into the mindset motivating LGBT seniors and explores the resources and opportunities available, in order to provide an accessible, applicable text for those in the academic world, service providers and LGBTs who themselves are approaching their later years.
While Knauer said more attention has recently been directed to elderly LGBTs — through efforts like the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Del Martin Memorial LGBT Elder Advocacy Initiative — a unified front is necessary to ensure that the final days of a community that has often lived in the shadows are brighter.
“We need to really rethink equality throughout the entire lifespan. We invest a lot in trying to guarantee safety for LGBT youth in schools, but we also need to be thinking about the safety of our LGBT seniors,” she said. “For many of these people, the closet has always been a non-negotiable part of life. They are so shaped by a history that we think is over and they’ve become this silent part of our community.”