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LGBT Elders Know Enough to Play the Long Game


What younger people can learn from the generation that survived Reagan, the Bushes, and AIDS.

As we barrel into the first days of 2018, it's probably no surprise that many of us couldn't wait to say "good riddance" to 2017. What was that phrase that Queen Elizabeth used to describe the year following the death of Princess Diana? Annus horribilus? We in the U.S. have certainly been through our own uniquely horrible year with the first 12 months of the Trump administration. As we move forward through 2018, is it with dread, or can we muster up some sense of hope and optimism?

Perhaps we imagine that the oldest among us would be the most exhausted, the most ready to give up, the most pessimistic. We would have to forgive the elders of our community if, at this point, they were finding it a bit of a challenge getting out of bed in the morning. After all, they've lived through witch hunts and violence, criminalization, conversion therapy, AIDS, and now this? Wouldn't it just be human to decide that maybe it's time to throw in the towel when it comes to hope for the future?

Not so much, I'm encouraged to say. It turns out that those life experiences that come with age -- no matter how painful and difficult -- make many of us more resilient and more optimistic, not less. In fact, recent research indicates that the older you are, the more upbeat and happy you are likely to be, at least if you're LGBT. A Pew Research Center study found that LGBT people who are 65 and older are three times less likely than younger LGBT folks to report being unhappy. LGBT people who are 45 and older are much more likely than younger LGBT folks to see positive progress and greater social acceptance in society. And interestingly, older folks are just as likely as their younger counterparts to take advantage of that progress by coming out to the important people in their lives, despite all the nicks and scars that come from decades doing battle with phobias of all stripes.

Trying to envision how this could be possible, it's hard not to think about how we as a community lived through the nightmare of AIDS. Those of us who fought the epidemic from the frontl ines and lived to tell the tale are now the elders of our community. Thinking back to that nadir for LGBT folks, we realize that we are the living evidence that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Tragically, many of us did die. Yet out of the ashes, we showed the world what it looks like to take care of your own -- through a plague -- while the rest of society looks the other way. We forced the world to see our love in all its beauty and determination. We forged new and powerful forms of activism that energized subsequent decades of battles against hate crimes and "don't ask, don't tell" and for equality and the freedom to marry.

Now, as we leave 2017 behind and step boldly into the New Year, it's worth remembering that this fortitude can be a gift during the toughest of times. In fact, we can see the signs of resilience and determination everywhere among our elders. Our pioneers are prominent in the resistance to the near-daily atrocities of the Trump administration. These vibrant elders are filling the ranks of volunteerism and mentorship programs. They are signing up for every kind of activity imaginable to make this country a better place. And when they need an escape from those battles, they embrace their love of travel and hit the road, the trains, the planes, and any mode of transportation that will carry them to interesting and fun places.

We also see resilience and optimism flourishing with progress and new projects at the community level nationwide. In New York City, we're building the Big Apple's first two LGBT-friendly elder housing developments. In Los Angeles, ground has been broken on the country's very first intergenerational residential campus, where LGBT elders and young people in need of housing will build a beautiful community together. Palm Springs just elected what has been described as a "gay, gay government" -- where every single member of the City Council identifies as a member of the LGBT community! If that weren't enough to raise your level of optimism, what about Danica Roem, who trounced a 13-term opponent to became the first openly trans elected official in Virginia?

None of these advances erase the big challenges we face as we step into the new year. They just remind us about lessons learned and resilience earned by those of us who benefit from some decades of living. One intriguing lesson gleaned from living a long life is that progress isn't always linear. Sometimes we slide back. But even through our most difficult moments, we can lean on that experience to lay a stronger foundation for something even better. I'm reminded of a conversation I had just a few months after the election with legendary activist Mandy Carter. At the time, I was feeling kind of dejected. But not after talking with Mandy, who reminded me that "maybe the bigger picture is sometimes we lose forward. What seems on the surface like a loss might, in the long run, be a win." In case I didn't fully get the point, Mandy added, "We're in a major movement moment. On a scale of one to 10 in optimism, I'm a 10."

Let's hold on to those invaluable words of resilience and optimism from a wise elder warrior and let them carry us all into 2018 and beyond.

MICHAEL ADAMS is the executive director of SAGE, the country's largest and oldest organization dedicated to LGBT elders.

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Michael Adams