First published in Aging Today, the bimonthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging,
ISSN: 1043-1284 May-June 2014, volume xxxv number 3.
Lori, a 69-year-old self-described “old butch dyke,” sits in the community room at Openhouse, a San Francisco lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) senior social service organization. She speaks of her participation in an LGBT intergenerational program, and laments her lack of lesbian visibility.
“I joined the program because I could walk into a lesbian bar with my short haircut, and pink triangle tattoo, waving a rainbow flag, and the women there would ask me if I was lost or looking for my granddaughter. They don’t see me,” she said.
Ageism within Gay Culture
Scholar Monika Kehoe coined the term “triply invisible” in the Journal of Homosexuality (12:34, 2001) to describe the outcome of intersecting oppressions—sexism, ageism and homophobia—on older lesbians. As prevailing discourse desexualizes all elders, LGBT older adults—whose identities may be predicated on sexuality—often are marginalized.
Peter Robinson, in his book The Changing World of Gay Men (Melbourne, Australia: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), argues that nowhere in contemporary Western society is emphasis on youthfulness more pronounced than in the gay world. Robinson holds that the gay “scene” is popularly viewed as a site of physical display where young men are valorized for youth and beauty.
In his 2013 article for The Huffington Post, “LGBT People: Let’s Talk About Ageism,” Robert Espinoza, senior director for Public Policy and Communications at Services and Advocacy for GBLT Elders (SAGE) in New York, encourages readers to consider the negative impact of ageism on LGBT elders’ sense of place in the community. He argues that ageism is rarely discussed and remains largely unchallenged.
While organizations like Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, based in Athens, Ohio (with chapters throughout the nation), SAGE and Openhouse have made significant strides in addressing the issue of ageism in the LGBT community, according to the National Gay and Lesbian
Taskforce Policy Institute, LGBT elders still report ageist attitudes within mainstream gay organizations (www.thetaskforce.org/issues/aging/challenges).
LGBT older adults routinely say they are not comfortable with traditional aging services due to homophobia as well as within LGBT organizations because of ageism. The Taskforce’s report, Outing Age 2010(www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/outingage_final.pdf), says, “[Nancy] Orel documents LGBT elders’ stated need to have both LGBT centers that are elder-affirming and senior centers that are LGBT-affirming, services they currently lack. Advocates and supportive providers have gathered countless stories of LGBT elders who have avoided using services for fear of being treated poorly or were isolated, denied services or discriminated against when they did ask for help or when they needed long-term care.”
Further, ageism may be especially detrimental to LGBT elders, who, when compared to their straight counterparts, are more likely to live alone, and are far less likely to have children to assist them.
Intergenerational Programs Can Disrupt Ageism
Proponents of intergenerational LGBT community programs maintain that such programs can play an important role in disrupting ageism by challenging ageist assumptions through fostering relationships and understanding across generations. Without a programmatic focus on intergenerational exchange, LGBT elders and youth often lack entrée to relationships across age cohorts. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce’s report Outing Age 2010, while the “chosen families” of LGBT people have been rightly lauded for creating and maintaining LGBT community, the vast majority of such families are made up of people in the same age cohort.
Organizations like Openhouse offer caregiver support groups, and a “Friendly Visitor” program where (typically) younger community members are matched with isolated elders to provide companionship (but not caregiving) during weekly or biweekly visits.
In 2010, Age UK and the Intergenerational Centre developed a toolkit, “Intergenerational Projects for the LGBT Community” (www.ilcuk.org.uk/files/Toolkit.pdf), to help those in youth and aging services develop LGBT intergenerational programming. Advocates feel that older and younger members of the LGBT community may share common concerns and experiences, finding comfort and connection through learning how others have dealt with experiences such as rejection from family, discomfort with traditional gender roles and “coming out.”
One such program is the Intergenerational Storytelling Project (www.outloudradio.org/news/2012/join-intergenerational-storytelling-project), a partnership between Openhouse and outLoud Radio, a youth organization in San Francisco. For six weeks, LGBT elders and youth share stories and perspectives in weekly workshops, culminating in the younger participants recording interviews with the older adults, (www.outloudradio.org). In 2012, at the series’ end, program participants took the stage at San Francisco’s Mission High School for an intergenerational panel discussion, presented to more than 200 high school students. Said one older adult participant, “I could feel the impact we were making, ‘out and old for all to see.’ It was palpable.”
Nelson Myhand, a transgender African American baby boomer, commented on the program, saying, “The potential for the intergenerational work is real. Breaking isolation is an important part of being able to stay in problem-solving mode and not sink into self-pity. It was powerful to connect with youth. It helped me to see what I have to offer.” One young participant said of the outLoud program, “It’s been so hard to meet older transgender people of color. I am really grateful.”
Ageist attitudes may flatten and fragment elders’ identity, but LGBT older adults’ identities and experiences are strikingly unique. Ellyn Bloomfield, Openhouse social services manager, observed, “We have 97-year-old men in our programs, and we have lesbians in their 60s. Their identities and histories are very different.” Intergenerational programming may interrupt ageism by providing participants a chance to witness the diversity of the senior community—debunking the ageist myth of elders being one indistinguishable group.
Intergenerational programs may not be able to solve all the problems facing LGBT elders or remedy ageism at large. Still, the effects can be profound, perhaps allowing elders an opportunity to realize what psychologist Erik Erikson called “generativity,” or the seventh stage of psychosocial development that embodies a sense of optimism for the future and avenues to create and nurture things that will outlast them.
Fairley Parson, M.S.W., A.S.W., is manager of community engagement at Openhouse in San Francisco, CA