Someone asked me the other day what my favorite movie was, and I immediately said Arthur, like I always do. Then they said, “Never heard of it? When did it come out?” I didn’t answer 1981, nearly 40 years ago. At that moment I felt old, out of date, and superficially shallow.
I’m in the early stages of a book project writing about noteworthy LGBTQ+ people who are 50 and above, and I am hearing about how many of them came of age during the AIDS crisis, how coming out was so much more of an ordeal, on average, than it is today. And sadly, how they lacked role models from our community when growing up that might have helped them come out sooner or provided lessons on how to be older and LGBTQ+.
Above all else, surprisingly, most say they are at their happiest now. Grateful to have come out of the AIDS crisis alive, living more freely as an LGBTQ+ person in this time and era, and realizing late in life that they, truly, fought the good fight to be who they are today.
But that can’t be said for everyone. After I wrote a column with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni about gay men and aging last year, I heard from many older gay men who felt the same insecurities as I did, that being an older gay male makes us obsolete in a community dominated by youth and beauty. Some told me that they felt happy to be out as men of a certain age. While others said that they experienced some form of depression about getting older.
I could relate. I’ve touched on the fact that I went through a severe, debilitating depression after I turned 50, and part of the reason was the difficulty I had confronting my sexuality for so many years. It wasn’t easy for me, or for a lot of us to come to terms with who we are, and then perhaps not fully deal with it until later in life, which can be a harrowing experience. I know that I’m not alone having gone through a torturous time coming to terms with who I am now.
Thus, I was not surprised by a new report from The Fenway Institute that found older LGBTQ+ adults in the state of Massachusetts have been diagnosed with depression at twice the rate of their straight, cisgender peers. It could be Massachusetts or any other state, or any other country because depression among older LGBTQ+ people is real, and no doubt much more widespread than we ever realize. I always tell people that if it could happen to me, the proverbial life of the party, it can happen to anyone. Having dealt with severe depression, and then having sought out many older LGBTQ+ people who also experienced similar circumstances, I found it remarkable that we all suffered from some sort of PTSD from our youths.
This biting, insistent, almost pathological feeling of self-doubt about being an older LGBTQ+ person can not only lead to depression, but also to many other issues. I spoke with a gentleman who nearly drank his life away in Palm Springs because, as a retired, HIV-positive man over 60, he felt like damaged goods. He was alone, habitually on sex apps, and destroying himself physically because he felt like he had nothing to live for. This led to a major accident where he fell off his porch, fracturing his femur bone, leaving him now frailer, but ironically grateful to be alive.
Again, not surprised that the report also found that LGBTQ+ individuals were twice as likely to fall and be injured in a fall over the past year, and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear if some of that was related to dangerous behavior about feeling alone and useless. Another woman, a lesbian, told me that she had a life-threatening operation, and has not been the same since and feels there’s nothing to live for, except her cat, who is 10. Otherwise, she is alone, without her partner who died, and without a family to take care of her. The family has made her feel shame for who she is, and she worries about being alone for the remainder of her life. Some days, she doesn’t feel like getting out of bed, and subsists on her Social Security checks, desperately afraid that she’ll end up in a nursing home left to die. We didn’t discuss it, but I’m sure she feels equal trepidation about not being able to pay the costs of round-the-clock care.
While the report also finds that older LGBTQ adults are more likely to hold a college degree, they are more likely to report having had difficulty paying for housing or food over the past year. I thought about this woman, and many others like her. Could it be that they have so much struggle because their families have made them feel similar shame, and thus isolated them? Or perhaps the reverse. They never had the opportunity to come out to their families, too frightened to do so, and they end up alone, self-isolating themselves, and putting their lives at risk while they age alone?
Many of our older LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, despite it being 2020, still live in secret with their partners. When those partners die, or become infirmed, then the other one is left to either pick up the pieces, or soldier on alone, without the benefit of talking to anyone, or having anyone know about the devastating loss they experienced.
This is all connected. The research also found that LGBTQ+ older adults living in rural areas of Massachusetts expressed concern about the lack of options for LGBTQ-affirming health care, as well as their on-going experiences with strong anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice and harassment in public settings and senior housing. The shame they feel, or think they feel, doesn’t just come from their families. It comes from their peers, and that’s a terribly sad statement. But it is real. Living in an urban area where men hold hands on the street is not the same as living in a rural environment where everyone knows your name, and whispers about your business, and in the process makes you feel paranoid and defensive. We can take so much for granted – those of us who are out and open – but so many suffer in silence, alone, and in self-defeating disgrace.
Most of us who are reading this, and who are older, might easily assume that the majority of LGBTQ+ people over 50 have already come out, but that would be a mistake. Many in our community are still hiding, still afraid to be themselves, still paranoid about what their friends, neighbors, or co-workers might think of them if they were to come out.
“These findings are deeply troubling and point to the need for vigorous enforcement of existing state and federal law prohibiting anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, as well as targeted interventions to reduce social isolation among LGBTQ older adults and meet their unique health care needs,” said Sean Cahill, PhD, Director of Health Policy Research at The Fenway Institute and author of the report.
In speaking to some of the famous and noteworthy LGBTQ+ people over 50, one thing that comes across is their resilience, and that goes for so many who lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis, and fought to come out and be accepted or risked their lives and livelihoods to be who they are. The report also found this bright spot. We are tougher because of what we’ve been through.
“Although a lot of the information in this report focuses on health risks and disparities, we also found that LGBTQ older adults are resilient, in part, because they’ve had dramatically different life experiences than their straight and cisgender peers,” Cahill added. “They came of age when same-sex behavior or crossing gender boundaries was subject to imprisonment or institutionalization. Homosexuality was against the law in all 50 states into the early 1960s, and classified as a mental illness until 1973. Many LGBTQ people were shunned by their families. Many LGBTQ elders lost their life partners and social networks to HIV/AIDS. This is a population that has experienced a lot of trauma and its affects are on-going. But they are survivors.”
In all, this report, though it’s confined to Massachusetts, should be a wakeup call for all of us. We need to do a better job of making sure our older LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters have the support and protections they need to survive, to be happy and to be healthy. If you're not aware, SAGE (Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders) is America's oldest and largest nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender older adults. The organization started a project called The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging that provides resources across a variety of regions and topics for LGBT programs. Visit the site to find ways that you can help.
Most of us who are older have fought for so much that has benefitted the generations that have followed. Maybe it’s time for the all of us, including the younger generations, to take notice, and take care of the ones who came before them, and who are still fighting to survive.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.