LGBT seniors: Out of the closet and nowhere to go

In June, the queer community will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. Along with that celebration comes the reality that many who were on the front lines of the queer civil-rights movement are now on a different front line as the first generation of out elderly queers.

In 2009, some of the best-known voices of the queer community are that entity that truly dares not speak its name: old.

Martin Duberman, author of “Stonewall” and one of the foremost queer historians, turns 79 in August. Katherine V. Forrest, writer and head of the Lambda Literary Foundation, will be 70 in September. Adrienne Rich, one of the nation’s most lauded poets — and a lesbian — has her 80th birthday on May 16. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is 69. David Mixner, who spearheaded gay-rights issues under the Clinton administration, is 63. Comedian Kate Clinton is 62.

According to the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, concomitant with the overall aging of the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1945-62), there are currently 3 million elder LGBT people in the U.S. NLGTF estimates that within 20 years, that number will double.

With its emphasis on perpetual youthfulness, the realities of aging in the LGBT community have long been ignored. Older LGBT people have found themselves increasingly marginalized within their own community, where programs and meeting places for people over 50 are scarce to non-existent.

In addition, fear of aging has kept many LGBT people from preparing for that very prospect. Others have been impeded by the economic straits many LGBT people have faced throughout their lifetimes. A study from UCLA’s Williams Institute released in March found that about 24 percent of lesbians and bisexual women and 15 percent of gay and bisexual men fall below the poverty line, compared with 19 percent of heterosexual women and 13 percent of heterosexual men. The study also found that approximately 21 percent of African-American lesbian couples and 14.4 percent of African-American gay male couples experience poverty, as opposed to just 4.3 percent of white lesbian couples and 2.7 percent of white gay male couples. While the study did not analyze poverty within the transgender community, its authors did assert that “large proportions of transgender people report very low incomes, which suggest that poverty is also a major concern for transgender people.”

In the U.S., the elderly comprise the largest group of indigent people, according to the most recent U.S. Census statistics, meaning elderly queers are highly likely to face a financially uncertain old age.

Isolation impacts all older people and can lead to depression and even suicide. But for older LGBT people, getting older creates additional problems, like dealing with homophobia from healthcare or social-service professionals.

Some lesbians and gay men are well-prepared to face retirement and hope their economic comfort will protect them from both isolation and homophobia.

Judith Stelboum, 71, and her partner, Martha, 82, are among those who are ready to face retirement and enjoy it. Stelboum is professor emeritus in the English department at City University of New York and was editor of the now-defunct Alice Street Editions division of Haworth Press and the Harrington Lesbian Literary Quarterly. She’s looking forward to her retirement with Martha.

“We retired late and have no debt,” Stelboum explained. The two own their home and have long-term care insurance they purchased some time ago. “I have a pension and Social Security,” Stelboum added. “Martha and I have mutual funds, bonds and stocks.”

Although the bad economy hit them as it did everyone else, careful planning and investments combined with a long work history as professionals with good benefits mean they will retire comfortably, with a measure of security few older LGBT people have. They are fortunate as well as grateful, but anomalous.

Many more LGBT people are unprepared to face retirement and fear what could happen as they age.

“I never expected to live past 40,” James Norton (not his real name) noted with a wry laugh.

At 65, he and Tim Conway, 63, his partner of 24 years, bought a house together in Germantown after having met in a group for African-American men 25 years ago. Norton works for a utility company as an administrator. Conway works in a salon as a hairdresser. Both will have Social Security benefits, which neither is drawing on yet, but Conway has no health insurance.

“We didn’t really prepare for getting old, and that’s a fact,” Norton said. “When I was a kid going to the clubs, I never thought about getting old. Who thinks about being 60 when they’re 20? At 39, I still thought I was young and would have plenty of time to prepare for getting old.”

Norton and Conway acknowledged they “just aren’t ready” to retire, in part because each had to care for aging parents themselves in the past few years, which depleted what savings they had.

Conway explained, “Other than our house, which we put a lot into, we have nothing, really. Jim has a 401k, but it’s not big. And I’ll be eligible for Medicaid if something goes wrong, but until then, I am just hoping to stay healthy.”

Norton has already had health issues — high blood pressure led to an ongoing kidney problem. He’s still working, but admitted it’s more to maintain his health insurance than because he wants to.

“I do worry about what will happen to us,” Norton said. “We have the house, but it’s not equipped for either of us to be disabled. Most of our friends are our age. Of course we don’t have kids. There isn’t anyone to take care of us except each other.”

Conway added, “I don’t see how we can afford to retire any time soon because we just have to save as much money as we can. If one of us had to go into a nursing home, I don’t know what would happen.”

The alarm creeping into Conway’s voice echoes across citizens these days as older Americans face depletion of savings due to the economic downturn or job loss. Health crises and the concomitant costs remain the primary reason for bankruptcy in America. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that half of all people 60 and over will face a serious health crisis in the first year after retirement.

Among older LGBT people are also the first generation of gay men who are living with HIV/AIDS, who come with their own concerns about discrimination, isolation and homophobia.

The options open to LGBT people as they get older and possibly infirm or poverty-stricken are often limited. Many cities have few health or social services for LGBT people at all, let alone specialized services for the queer elderly. The number of LGBT retirement homes and assisted-living facilities throughout the country is very small, which means that most LGBT people will find themselves living in a facility that is populated by heterosexuals.

There are no published studies regarding what lesbians, gay men or transgender elderly experience in these communities. According to Lambda Legal Defense Fund, discrimination against elderly LGBT people in these settings is common, but the fragility of those facing such discrimination precludes them from filing lawsuits. Inevitably, fear of discrimination and further isolation means most LGBT people entering these facilities will also be going back into the closet.

Many nursing and retirement homes, particularly those that accept indigent patients, are run by religious groups — Catholic, Lutheran and Unitarian churches or the Jewish Federation. Being openly queer in such a setting might easily result in problems with staff, which could translate into deficient care. Fear of repercussions could force older queers to restrict visits from partners or friends.

In 2008, the number of nursing-home abuse incidents rose to such a disturbingly high level that the Department of Health and Human Services deemed it epidemic — more than 90 percent of nursing homes reported some instances of abuse. This data creates yet more fearful prospects for older LGBT people.

Deborah Peifer, a former theater manager and critic who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, turns 60 in September. A severe eye problem caused her to go blind, forcing her to stop working and rely on Medicaid years before most LGBT people have to do so.

Peifer’s wry humor has seen her through a frustrating and painful adjustment to disability, but her situation highlights what many LGBT people will face as they age.

Peifer noted, “I am disabled, which is like being retired except without the lovely gold watch or the pension,” adding that she was hardly prepared for retirement at 42, when she began to go blind.

Peifer said that she plans “on living on my own as long as I can. I live across the street from a facility for the elderly poor, which is what I am, and having watched the residents for some years now, I intend to kill myself when I can no longer take care of myself.”

Peifer is joking when she says this, but she’s far from alone in voicing such concerns. Suicide has increasingly become an answer for many older people who face leaving their homes and what little independence they have.

Norton, Conway, Stelboum and Peifer all agree that facilities for the LGBT elderly are essential.

Peifer joked, “Young gay men must do the catering. The young lesbians will be too busy being splendid in our presence to prepare meals.” But Norton has serious worries about what a straight nursing home would be like for him or his partner. “It’s difficult enough to be a black gay man in a big city. I can’t imagine a smaller town than a nursing home.”

Stelboum believes that where one spends one’s final years is more about being with like-minded people than solely with other queers. “I couldn’t survive in a community of Republicans or religious types or with the crystal, astrology types either. So being lesbian is not necessarily a requirement,” she said, adding that as she and her partner prepare to enter a retirement setting, they would prefer to be in a community with other lesbians who share their interests and concerns.

“It’s hard to face what the future might hold,” said Conway. “I think we are all just hoping we will live forever, together and healthy and never have to leave each other. But that’s not exactly realistic, is it?”

Next: How LGBT organizations are addressing aging issues. Where LGBT retirement and assisted-living facilities are being built. What services for LGBT elderly are being developed in Philadelphia.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.