On a recent drive through beautiful mountains on my way to a conference on aging issues in State College, I began to think about the 40 intervening years since I graduated from Penn State. As a college student, I had demonstrated for civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, the draft, the Kent State massacre and an unresponsive government. It was the birth of my political activism.
During those years, I had been unaware of the stirrings of the modern LGBT-rights movement: the work of Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society, Barbara Gittings leading picketers in front of Independence Hall, the Stonewall uprising and so many other milestones. It was not until the early 1980s that I began to understand what it meant to be part of the LGBT community. That was because the AIDS war had begun and my generation had emerged from the anti-war and anti-establishment politics of the ’60s and ’70s into the personal havoc of the life and death struggle against HIV/AIDS.
Without the courage of the pioneers in the LGBT-rights movement and without the experience we gained in the anti-war movement, we might have been annihilated by AIDS. The LGBT community had built a base of experience in organizing, protest, advocacy and providing services. When the AIDS pandemic rose from nowhere, we had the ability to mount a community effort to fight the HIV/AIDS battle and, for many of us, to survive. I am one of those survivors.
In the early days of AIDS, I, like millions of others, did not have a clue about HIV or prevention. However, I chose to learn and to be involved — for some selfish reasons. Before testing was available, again like so many others, I believed that I had already been infected. I knew that I was going to need help and services and support. So, out of a sense of self-preservation, I became a volunteer and an activist in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Once involved in action, I realized that we, as a community, stood alone. Just as in the 1960s, unresponsive governments offered no support, people were frightened and we had to rely on ourselves. Dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands of LGBT people and allies volunteered, donated and worked tirelessly to save lives. We banded together to advocate for services, for research, for care and for support. We fought and, sadly, we lost many whom we loved. And many of us, as individuals and as a community, came out alive and stronger on the other side.
We should bear great pride in our growth as a community and, literally, our survival. Pride that we joined together to take care of our own. Pride that we built social, political and care structures that helped many to survive. Now we have a challenge that many of us never expected to face: aging. Now, once again, personal self-interest and community self-interest play a part. We are all aging and we must support each other so that we can all age safely, healthfully and successfully.
The philosophy of taking care of our own is deeply rooted in our history. We have learned that we must actively engage our communities, allies, government and service providers in order to achieve our goal of successful aging.
So what do we, as a community, need in order to age successfully? I believe that we must: — claim our place at the table to advocate for our unique needs and issues as we age; — educate ourselves so that we can access competent, sensitive and welcoming care and services that are critical to our physical and emotional health, financial stability, safe and affordable housing and social structures; — create awareness in government and among care providers that they must competently and sensitively address our issues; engage in social activity and activism to create supportive networks; and — train the people who are going to be caring for us so that they understand our culture, our community and our family structures and treat us with the respect that all people deserve.
We must now use our knowledge and experience to help each other age well. Our pride in the fact that we have survived can help us as we direct our efforts to helping each other once again. This is no time for us to become passive observers, but rather we must be active and engaged participants in what, for many of us, is the unexpected gift of a long life.
Heshie Zinman is co-chair of the LGBT Elder Initiative. The LGBTEI, headquartered in Philadelphia, is dedicated to supporting and sustaining the lives of LGBT older adults. To volunteer, comment on this column or suggest topics for future columns or for more information, visit www.lgbtei.org and watch for “Gettin’ On” each month in PGN.