Gray gays: aging Gay men and Lesbians face unique challenges

by William J. Mann

Hank, 66, is a tall, handsome, gray-haired man with a penchant for bow ties and long walks through Boston’s Copley Square. He’s a genial man, with a quick, ready laugh, but these days he tends to be a little wistful. Last year, after two decades together, his lover, James, died. Not of AIDS, as many assume, but of ripe old age: James was 77 years old.

“No one thinks about gay people as old people,” Hank smiles. “But we’re out there and we have our own stories to tell.”

Hank’s story is not uncommon among the growing ranks of gay senior citizens. With his lover’s passing, he’s suddenly faced with myriad concerns. Although he was the beneficiary of James’s life insurance, he gets no financial help from the government as he would if he’d been James’s wife. The Social Security Administration doesn’t recognize same-sex partners, and, without James’s monthly check, Hank, who asks that his last name not be used, worries that he won’t be able to pay the bills.

Not to mention that James’s sister is trying to force him out of the house he shared with his lover for 21 years. “James always meant to do something about it, but he never did,” Hank sighs. “The house was originally James’s parents’, and my name was never officially put on the deed.”

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that Hank doesn’t have many gay friends to confide in. Although he and James became lovers in 1974, they didn’t come out until James retired from a large corporation 15 years ago. They tried to connect with Boston’s gay community, but they didn’t have much luck. “It was all about partying and politics,” Hank says, “not much for men our ages.”

And so Hank, like many gay and lesbian seniors, exists in a kind of netherworld: not fully integrated into either gay or straight life, facing challenges that neither population fully understands. “At least James had me,” he says. “I have no one.”

Few gay or lesbian publications include groups for seniors in their resource listings. One Boston newspaper lists 18 support groups for gay and lesbian youth in New England, and only two for gay men and lesbians over 40. And though there are dozens of postings, resources, and chat groups for young gay men and lesbians on the Internet, it took a lot of digging to uncover a couple of bulletin boards about retirement. In fact, there seems to be only one organization specifically geared toward the needs of aging lesbians and gay men. Marking its 20th anniversary this year, the New York-based Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE) has 12 chapters in the United States and Canada.

“I’d say the biggest problem facing gay seniors today is this sense of isolation,” says Richard Bannin, executive director of SAGE. “Many of today’s seniors did not have the benefit of spending their adult lives as out gay men or lesbians. . . . Many only came out later in life and so do not feel connected [with the gay community].”

That dynamic may change, however. According to Bannin, the older gay and lesbian population will continue to grow: every year, an estimated 400,000 gay men and lesbians in the United States turn 50. And as more people with AIDS live longer thanks to new drug combinations, we may see a dramatically increased senior gay population within the next decade.

Even so, retirement remains a mystery for most gay men and lesbians. Larry from Seattle (who, like many gay seniors, requests that his last name be withheld) writes in an America Online (AOL) gay retirement area: “I’m turning 50 and I realize I haven’t a clue as a gay person where or how to retire. Has anybody got ideas? I know that AIDS and surviving/living [with] HIV has taken up a lot of our energy, but what are we all going to do in our old age if and when it comes?”

Lydia Carlson, 60, who lives in Alberta and frequently posts on AOL, muses in a phone interview that “lesbians have been dealing with this maybe a modicum better than gay men.

“Possibly the reason more gay men haven’t thought more about it,” she adds, “is because so many have died, so many never lived to the point where they’d have to confront the issues of old age.”

Aging heterosexuals must worry about financial security and health, too, of course, but gay seniors lack the societal protections that heterosexuals often take for granted. The lack of marriage rights and spousal benefits, says Bannin, is particularly hard on the older gay population. As in Hank’s case, when one partner dies, the surviving spouse may not be allowed to remain in the home they shared. The right to make decisions for an ailing spouse, or even just visit a spouse who’s been hospitalized, is also a big concern.

While more companies are now providing domestic partnership benefits for employees, those benefits have come too late for most gay seniors. “I wish I could’ve been covered under James’s plan,” Hank says. “He had wonderful coverage. I have practically nothing.”

The problem of economic security is particularly hard on working-class gay men and, especially, lesbians. Historically, women have made less money than men, and this is reflected in their retirement benefits. “Sometimes a lover can supplement that,” Carlson says. “But even then it’s not much. Two women’s income is not the same as the income of one man and one woman.”

“AIDS is a very real problem among seniors, although they don’t get much attention,” adds SAGE’s Bannin. “Many AIDS programs and services are frequently dominated by younger people. In group therapy, for instance, many of the issues are particular to younger people, and seniors feel excluded.”

Other disabilities can also make life difficult for lesbian and gay seniors. One 58-year-old lesbian from Western Massachusetts says in an online posting that her arthritis keeps her away from the women’s hiking trips she used to enjoy; even the women’s music festivals are too difficult for her. “It keeps me at home,” she writes. “How am I ever to find a lover at home? Is this how I’m destined to spend my retirement?”

Someday, gay and lesbian retirement homes may ease the isolation. The New York Community Trust, a city grants organization, awarded SAGE money this year to study the feasibility of building such a facility.

“I’m baffled that this need in our community has been neglected for so long,” says David of San Francisco, who also asks that his last name not be used. “Surely there’s a market for retirement communities or assisted-living facilities for gays and lesbians. I have no problem with someone making a profit from my wishes. If my unique expectations are not met, someone else is going to make money from me anyway.”

Informal retirement networks have already sprung up. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, predominately middle-class gay men have created an enclave for themselves within the area’s large population of retirees. With 200 members, the local chapter of SAGE is one of the largest in the US or Canada, hosting many socials and dances for gay seniors.

“I moved to Fort Lauderdale years ago,” says Johnny Roy, 62, who retired when he was 51. “It is a great place for the gray and gay. Great bars and restaurants. Many older gays who have lost their mates, many older gay couples who stay young at heart. My friends who have buried themselves in straight retirement areas regret it. They stay on simply because of fear or inability to move into gay areas.”

Bannin agrees that openly gay and lesbian retirement homes are an idea whose time may have come. “People who have been out their whole lives,” he says, “are not going to go back into the closet in a nursing home or in a retirement community.”

The demand for such programs will only grow as the openly gay population continues its inexorable march toward retirement age. In the meantime, though, gay seniors often find themselves ignored or reviled by the larger gay community. “I found one bar that I liked, for a while,” says Hank of Boston. “Then I heard a young man call it a `trolls’ hangout.’ I had never realized until then that younger gay men would consider me a troll.”

Lydia Carlson notes that older lesbians may get a bit more respect from their younger sisters, but not much. “There comes a time when you realize you’re not being asked out anymore, not invited to places,” she says. “That’s when you say, `Oh, I must be getting old.’ ”

Hundreds of thousands of gay seniors may suffer such feelings of isolation, Bannin says, and he wants to reach out to them. Whether that be through socials, political advocacy, or SAGE’s pen-pal program, the need is there. “And this is a population that will only get larger,” Bannin repeats. “Are we prepared for the challenge?”

via The Boston Phoenix

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