Poet Robert Frost once wrote, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” and a growing number of LGBT people who have surpassed the age of 65 are proving it’s true. LGBT trailblazers like George Takei, Alice Walker, and John Waters refuse to let yesterday’s definition of living in the golden years keep them from being powerful agents of change.
From authors and actors to artists and activists, we list several LGBT advocates who continue to inspire us and haven’t allowed the age formally known as retirement to sideline them in the battle for equality.
Lily Tomlin, 74, Actor
She’s been an acerbic telephone operator, a mischievous child, a bag lady who converses with extraterrestrials, a gospel singer, an office drone who rebels against her evil boss, and so much more. Lily Tomlin has been amazing us with her acting versatility and activist vigor for nearly half a century now. She first endeared herself to audiences on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where she introduced phone operator Ernestine (“When what freezes over? Oh, Mr. Veedle…”) and little Edith Ann (“Nobody told me I shouldn’t shave the kitty, so I did”). She’s gone on to give great performances in any number of movies, including Nashville, Nine to Five, All of Me, Flirting With Disaster, and I Heart Huckabees, and has continued to appear frequently on television, with roles on The West Wing, Will & Grace, Desperate Housewives, Damages, Web Therapy, and many others. Her signature achievement, though, remains the one-woman theatrical smash The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, written by partner Jane Wagner, in which Tomlin brings to life a huge variety of characters: an everywoman feminist, an angsty teenager, a homeless woman who teaches her “space chums” the difference between soup and art, in a discussion of the works of Andy Warhol. Tomlin won a Tony for the show’s original Broadway run in 1985-86, and happily for audiences, she’s revived Search, toured with it, and committed it to film.
While she sometimes was cagey about her lesbian identity and her relationship with Wagner — “We never hid anything and we never denied anything, but we never said anything specific,” she told Bruce Vilanch in a 2009 Advocate interview — she has nonetheless consistently been on our side. She was a friend and ally of activist and film historian Vito Russo; she narrated the movie version of his book The Celluloid Closet and raised funds to get it made. She’s also advocated for other causes, including help for homeless people and animal welfare. And now, all the way out, she says that after 42 years together, she and Wagner may get married, since it’s become a legally recognized option. Whatever they decide, we wish them well — and say that Lily, in a world of soup, you are definitely art.