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LGBT, 50+, Unemployed Activist

LGBT, 50+, Unemployed Activist


Browse your LGBT Facebook friends and too frequently you'll find: "Looking for work, retooling, can organize large numbers of people, good communicator, experienced fund-raiser, advocate for progressive goals."

Each day we see members of our community who have spent their lives working for and within the LGBT movement losing jobs and simultaneously facing the challenges of unemployment and aging in an inhospitable environment. There are no pension plans for LGBT activists 50 and older. Nor is there a safety net within the movement. Of course this is true throughout our culture, but I wonder where our community's unsung heroes who have spent the better part of their working lives in the LGBT movement can find reasonable employment for another 10-15 years. It is an increasing predicament our movement will have to give serious thought to.

When LGBT organizations "let go" employees who are 50+, are they taking into account the realities these members of our communities must face? Where does someone whose resume reads LGBT for the past 20 years find gainful employment? Health insurance? Many face 10-15 years before they can receive Social Security payments -- which are certainly not enough to live on, in any case. Getting older generally contributes to making people poor. Take into account the multiple identities we carry as lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people ... as women, people of color, immigrants, and parents. Queer any one of these identities and the impact intensifies. You may be without resources faster than you can imagine.

And I wonder too why a movement that has made so much progress in just a few decades as a result of the work of these activists, a movement that still has far to go to achieve its goals, believes it can afford to discard some of its most valuable resources.

Let's face this conundrum head on. We have been a mass movement since around 1969 -- a little over 40 years. This is a new challenge for us. Onetime 20-year-old LGBT firebrands, who've dedicated their lives to the struggle for sexual liberation and full equality, are now our community elders. We are face-to-face with our first major batch of advocates 55 and over, though by no means our last.

Of course we want and need to build young leadership and want to support the rise of successive generations of LGBT advocates. And we do not discount for a moment the energy, momentum, and extraordinary contributions of our young LGBT activists. However, we must also consider the consequences to both the individual and the movement when we prematurely or thoughtlessly put many of our strongest advocates "out to pasture." The way the movement is currently structured forces younger LGBT advocates and older LGBT advocates into the classic untenable position of competition and opposition to each other.

As a movement we have yet to ask ourselves the question, Who benefits from this polarization of the young and old? Are they the same as those who have benefited from pitting black against white? Straight against gay? The irony is, of course, that as this pattern is institutionalized those young advocates will later face what they now do not oppose. It is a temptation to act on the impulse that says, " Hey, get out of my way, I'm new and I'm coming through." At the same time getting older is a fact of life we can all count on.

Why not establish a cadre of mentoring relationships (with modest salaries, stipends, and grants) as a layer in the development of new leadership? What about cross-mentoring where both the younger and the older advocate have training, knowledge, perspective and experience to offer? Who is looking to the health of our movement with an overview perspective? Where are the executive directors, board members, and foundation leaders who are discussing solutions to this dilemma? Where is the coalition of state or national organizations that can bring together the expertise of those who have been with the movement since 1969 with the current generation?

We have an opportunity right now to do better and refuse a worn-out economic model that has never served us. But we must respond to hard questions with tangible solutions. What are our hiring and firing personnel policies based on? Corporate models? Are they based on the bottom line, though we are not the corporate world? Are they based on a generational struggle -- though we claim to seek community cohesion? Being a movement founder or longtime foot soldier and a keeper of organizational and movement history should be an asset, not a liability within our movement. Perhaps it's time for the Movement Advancement Project to step in with a study, analysis, and set of recommendations to address this dilemma which will not go away on its own.

Building a youth movement that drives us closer to achieving equality in the 21st century is essential and something to support and strive for. Building a movement including those 50 and older who also fuel the movement, people whose concerns as they get older continue to go beyond the personal to include the well-being of our community, should be an equivalent priority. After all, our LGBT seniors are not a generation of activists who will go gently into playing cards or golf or power walking in the mall, even if they could afford to.

Let's think about best use as well as humane treatment of those who have paved the way for an equality battle the likes of which we have yet to see and who have played a central though often unsung role in achieving the civil rights and cultural acceptance we currently enjoy.

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Roberta Sklar