Facing ageism in the LGBT community

“If I live to 50, I’ll just kill myself” is among the most often heard discriminatory statements in the LGBT community. It suggests a tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention or unsuitable for employment. Known as ageism, this type of discrimination against a certain age group can manifest as prejudice, negative stereotyping and lack of respect.

We see ageism when someone in a rush nearly knocks down an older person and snidely remarks how slowly that person is walking. We see ageism when an older person tries to start a conversation and the person they are addressing simply ignores them. We see ageism in chat rooms and online dating services when someone perceived to be “too old” is blocked from chatting.

And ageism can work both ways. Sometimes, older members of the LGBT community reveal their own prejudice with comments such as, “We marched and fought to break down the closet door and they don’t care” or “They don’t know what it’s like to lose all of your friends.” Some just feel ignored.

Is this ageism or a good, old-fashioned generation gap? Is it insidious discrimination or an imagined slight? Is it prejudice or just a preference to socialize with people like you? Or is it just unconscious, yet discriminatory, behavior?

Whatever it is, ageist behavior damages the entire LGBT community. As a group that has always faced prejudice and discrimination, the challenges we face are made more difficult by discrimination or negative stereotypes from within our own community. For example, most LGBT people do not have multigenerational families. As a result, more LGBT people over 65 live alone than do their heterosexual counterparts. Many LGBT people in long-term-care facilities fear being bullied. Because they have no families to care for them, they are forced to go back into the closet to protect themselves. And transgender people do not even have the option of closing the closet door. We have to begin to support and protect all members of our own community. Ageism hinders that process.

The youth-centric attitude of society at large amplifies the negative impact that life-long discrimination has on LGBT people as we age. When younger members of our own community ignore or discriminate against LGBT elders, it further marginalizes our entire community. Ageism compounds the feelings of isolation and loneliness that are, sadly, often part of the LGBT aging experience. Partly as a result of ageism, we question who will take care of us, who will we be able to relate to or who can we rely on.

Reportedly, 78 percent of adults rely on their biological family and friends as their source of support in their older years. The families and children of many of our heterosexual counterparts will care for them. The family structure of the LGBT community does not necessarily fit that model. LGBT families tend to be “families of choice” or “logical” families. LGBT families are often not intergenerational. Family members tend to resemble each other: similar ages, similar backgrounds and similar races and religions. The result is that, eventually, the people upon whom we rely have the same limitations that we do. Consequently, as we age, our “families of choice” are not always equipped to care for us. So who can LGBT elders turn to for companionship, care and comfort?

Fortunately, some LGBT intergenerational programs already exist or are on the horizon. They will help bridge the gaps between LGBT generations. On the drawing board are “Buddy” programs that will provide assistance to LGBT elders. Eventually, “Advocates” will provide in-person support for elders when they need to deal with governmental, legal, financial, insurance and medical systems.

We have learned from decades of experience that to gain our equal rights we must present a united front. Ageism could become a wedge that divides us, just when we most need to stay united. The reality is that we are all aging and therefore we all need to support each other. We must continue to take care of our own. If we don’t, who will? 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, are serving as co-chairs of the LGBTEI. To contact Clark or Zinman to comment on this article, suggest topics for future articles or for more information, visit www.lgbtelderinitiative.blogspot.com. Watch for “Gettin’ On” each month in PGN.