The Graying of Gay America

As American population ages, concerns for LGBT Baby Boomers and seniors increasingly discussed

LGBT seniors have active lifestyles and often depend on friends, rather than family, for support and social interaction. Photo Credit: Tis Herself, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s the graying of America. Millions of Baby Boomers, folks as young as 50 or older, are retiring. They’re living longer than their fathers and mothers. They’re still healthy, active and involved.

Discussions on the future of American health systems, elder Americans’ health coverage and other medical issues aren’t limited to mainstream society. LGBT Baby Boomers are having intense debates about the same issues facing their straight peers. Their concerns for the future, and especially for equitable treatment and care, are increasingly getting respect and consideration from national groups like the AARP and local groups as well.

LGBT Baby Boomers were among the first few generations to come out en masse. Many of them shaped our community into what it is today. They were at Stonewall. They faced down bigotry in the 1970s. They agitated, created the “zap,” threw an historic pie in Anita Bryant’s face, mourned losses in the 1980s and ACT-ed UP in the 1990s.

You’ve got a friend in me…

Anti-gay religious organizations and activists have derided the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, for their support of the LGBT community. Despite their childish antics and whining, AARP has forged on with cooperative partnerships with LGBT organizations and seniors.

Here are just a few of the steps AARP has taken to reach out to LGBT seniors:

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• In the past decade, AARP has routinely worked with several LGBT organizations, include Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE), the now defunct Pride Senior Network, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign.
• AARP has funded several LGBT initiatives, including work by SAGE, through its Andrus Foundation.
• AARP was a sponsor of SAGE’s 2008 conference and said at the time: “AARP is paying attention to LGBT needs to minimize discrimination and to ensure equality as people age in America.”
• The organization’s publication, AARP The Magazine, regularly features LGBT-related stories and features on LGBT leaders and movements.
• In 2009, AARP conferred an Andrus Award to David Aronstein, a Massachusetts resident and founding member of Stonewall Communities, a non-profit charged with supporting educational, housing, social and support programming and services for LGBT seniors.
• In 2009, AARP celebrated with the LGBT community the 40th anniversary of the historic Stonewall Riots. You can view the special and in-depth coverage, including articles, a history timeline and radio and TV features, at aarp.org/stonewall.

Resources

Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE)
A national advocacy, public policy, education and support organization for LGBT seniors.
sageusa.org

LGBT Aging Issues Network (LAIN)
A constituent group of the American Society on Aging, LAIN is an educational and awareness building coaltiion of professionals and seniors. According to their website, LAIN “seeks to foster professional development, multidisciplinary research and wide-ranging dialogue on LGBT issues in the field of aging through publications, conferences, and cosponsored events.”
asaging.org/networks/LAIN/
Also of interest is the American Society on Aging’s LGBT Aging Resources Clearinghouse at asaging.org/larc/.

It comes as no surprise, then, these very same pioneers aren’t going to enter their latter years of life without carrying with them the same dignity for which they fought so hard to achieve. While some are championing causes like gay-only retirement communities, others coming into their twilight years are posed with daunting challenges.

Linda Miller, community services coordinator for the Centralina Area Agency on Aging, says her organization noticed elder LGBTs were an especially at-risk population. They decided to begin outreach and discussions on diversity and aging in an effort to serve elder gay clients.

“We noticed a lot of concern that they were a high-risk group,” Miller says. “They tend not to have children or live alone. They aren’t real open and outright in their retirement communities.”

Miller said some elder LGBTs have also been ostracized by family. “Many have friends that are supportive, but they don’t have family or faith-based community support. Some aren’t open in their faith communities about their situation. Churches today are providing so much support to older folks.”

Last year, Centralina organized a “Gay and Gray” conference at the Levine Jewish Communty Center. The two-day event brought out close to 100 participants, including seniors, or folks heading that way, and health and medical professionals. The group continues to reach out to aging LGBTs and service providers with regular discussion groups. This spring, Centralina has planned several “progressive dinners.” Two have been held March 23 and April 13. A final dinner is scheduled for April 27 at the Lesbian & Gay Community Center of Charlotte.

“This is a low-key approach to get people to talk together,” Miller says. “We want everyone to receive high quality care and have access to it.”

Jim Thompson, president of Charlotte’s Prime Timers, says he’s happy more attention is being given to aging and health issues as they relate to gay and transgender people. He remembers a time when the gay community had to fend for itself and speak up for its own medical and health rights, and fears a repeat of history.

“In the early ‘80s, we had to fight for us when it came to AIDS and other medical issues,” he says. “I see that happening all over again and not just with AIDS but any health issue. The community once again has to rely upon itself to speak up.”

At Prime Timers, Thompson says, some members have faced difficulties with retirement communities and medical providers. He says he’s concerned about issues of dignity and respect as he ages and sees older peers facing similar issues now.

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“Friends I know in their late 60s or early 70s, they do get push back from some facilities,” he says. “I’m concerned about folks understanding our issues and where we come from as gay men and lesbian women.”

Miller says Centralina hears similar stories.

“Some people say they are not comfortable talking to their doctor, or they aren’t fully forthright with their doctors about their living situation or risk factors,” she said.

Jeter Walker, who at 63, is among the first of the early wave of Boomers, says it is important to be out and honest with doctors. He also thinks medical providers should make it easier and more comfortable for patients to make that step.

“Medical professionals should be more attuned to their patients who are gay, and not only accept them but look for ways to improve their patients’ health by offering them the chance to come out and be who they are,” he says.

Ultimately, Walker admits, it’s up to the individual to come out on his or her own. “In my experience,” he shares, “there are great benefits to coming and understanding who you are and that you are a person of worth and dignity.”

Centralina hopes their local organizing and educational efforts will help to change some of the misunderstanding and increase access to better care. Later this year, they’ll hold their annual conference with the theme, “Diversity in Aging.”

“We didn’t want to focus only on ethnicity, but also bring in some of the work we’ve done on other issues and keep the momentum going,” Miller says. “We’re going to have some workshops on that holistic, person-centered approach, no matter the situation — cultural, ethnicity, sexual orientation.”

Thompson says he’s happy to see all the attention paid to aging issues within the LGBT community. As he gets older, he hopes medical professionals, retirement communities and mainstream society at large will come to be more accepting and affirming.

“I find myself less and less willing the older I get to understand this ‘tolerance’ angle,” he says. “There has to be a start to real acceptance and respect somewhere.”

If Centralina and affirming national advocacy groups have their way, Thompson’s dream will be a reality. : :

FYI: LGBT Baby Boomers

MetLife’s Mature Market Institute recently conducted a nationwide poll of LGBT Baby Boomers and compared general statistics to that of the general population.

The company polled 1,200 LGBT individuals and 1,200 from the general population MetLife worked with the American Society on Aging and its constituent group, the LGBT Aging Issues Network, to conduct the study.

• 60 percent of LGBT Boomers fear being unable to care for themselves as they age; 35 percent fear becoming dependent on others; and 10 percent fear discrimination as they age.

• Of the LGBT sample surveyed, Lesbians (76 percent), Gay men (74 percent), Bisexuals (16 percent) and Transgender individuals (39 percent) say they are “completely” or “mostly” out. 61 percent of Lesbians and 57 percent of Gay men say their families are “completely” or “very” accepting, while that is true for 24 percent of Bisexuals and 42 percent of Transgender individuals.

• Members of the LGBT group are more likely to say they will be at least 70 before they can retire, 48 percent compared with 40 percent in the general population, mostly for economic reasons. Only a quarter or fewer in the LGBT group say they have saved what they need to live in retirement.

• While LGBT Boomers continue to fear discrimination, 55 percent of the LGBT sample say they have total or near total confidence that they will be treated with dignity and respect, compared with 39 percent of the comparison group.

• A higher percentage of LGBT Boomers have completed living wills, health care proxies, rights of visitation and partnership agreements, in comparison to the general population.

• Though both populations are likely to discuss end-of-life issues with their partners/spouses, LGBT Boomers have many more of those discussions with siblings, parents and other relatives.

• In the LGBT group, men and women are equally likely to be caring for a parent or partner.

• Members of the general population are more likely to be in a relationship than those in the LGBT sample, 77 percent vs. 61 percent. More than a quarter (26 percent) of LGBT partners have gotten married, even though only five states grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Many (63 percent) say they would marry if there was a federal law allowing gay marriage.

• Nearly two thirds of LGBT Boomers say they have a “chosen family,” a group of people they consider family, even though they are not legally or biologically related. : :

— Data courtesy MetLife release. For more information visit maturemarketinstitute.com

This piece appeared in the April 17, 2010-April 30, 2010 print edition.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.