Respecting our elders

Several days ago, a Huffington Post blogger posted an article titled “Sitting Out Pride This Year,” which lamented the hijacking of Pride celebrations by major corporations – particularly those that make their profits from sales of alcoholic beverages. Hundreds of people commented on this post, and these comments ranged from this:

Amen! I did not go to Pride this year for exactly the same reasons. Thanks for saying it so clearly.

to this:

Our community is under attack . . . Sit out pride? I think not.

But it was this statement that really got me thinking:

Our first Pride March was held in 1985. At night, downtown. There were 60 of us. People threw bricks and bottles at us. This year attendance is expected to be over 4,000. It is being advertised on TV, even. Perhaps the author is too young and spoiled to understand how these things began. How hard it was at the beginning, the price those of us who are over 50 paid so he can gripe about “corporate sponsorship.”

The same day I read the Huffington Post article (and comments), Routledge LGBT Studies (which you can “like” on Facebook) posted a free-access article on their page from the Journal of Gerontological Social Work titled, “Lesbian and Gay Elders and Long-Term Care: Identifying the Unique Psychosocial Perspectives and Challenges,” authored by Gary Stein and Nancy Beckerman of Yeshiva University and Patricia Sherman of Kean University. I don’t know about you, but when I read a comment about the “young and spoiled,” and then later I come across an article about the “unique challenges” of lesbian and gay elders, I take it as a sign and pay attention. So I read the article, and I wanted to share some thoughts about it – and about how times, and people, have changed.

First, let’s take stock of the social, political, and cultural landscape for LGBTQ people who are currently 65 or older:

  • They were born in 1947 or earlier. Some were very young children during World War II.
  • Their formative elementary school years spanned the McCarthy Era, during which time anyone remotely associated with the Communist party or with leftist politics (including lesbians and gay men) were persecuted by the U.S. government.
  • They were at least 10 years old in 1957, when Evelyn Hooker published her groundbreaking study demonstrating that gay men are just as psychologically well-adjusted as heterosexual men.
  • They were at least 22 years old in 1969 when the Stonewall Riots took place – and it’s highly likely that members of this age cohort participated in that event.
  • They were at least 26 years old when, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Associaton removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
  • They were at least 35 years old in 1981, when AIDS was discovered in the United States.
  • And, in 1985, when the above commenter participated in his first Pride march they were, well, the age I am now, in 2012.

If you think about it, these are the people who lived through the worst kinds of homophobia. But they are also pioneers of the LGBTQ rights movement. Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, both in their early 30s at the time, formed the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organization, at the height of the McCarthy era in 1955. Frank Kameny, who was born in 1925 and died last October, co-founded the Mattachine Society in 1961. ACT UP was founded in 1987 by LGBT activist Larry Kramer, who was 52 years old at the time. And if it wasn’t for Craig Rodwell, who, at 29 years old, organized the first Gay Pride march in New York City in 1969, we wouldn’t have the privilege of discussing whether or not to “sit out Pride.”

You know what’s really sad? Our elders clearly did the heavy lifting of political activism so that life would be easier for the next generations of LGBTQ people. But by the same token, our elders are now caught in the ugly confluence of homophobia and aging. Although many LGBTQ elders were pioneers and activists, many were not – they had internalized the cultural attitudes of the time period in which they grew up. And, sadly, these internalized attitudes, coupled with ageism and homophobia in our culture, appear to contribute to some troubling outcomes for LGBTQ elders. According to the Journal of Gerontological Social Work article, which qualitatively assessed their comfort level with being open about their sexual identites in retirement communities, in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, and to health care staff and other service providers:

  • LGBTQ elders feared being rejected or neglected by health care providers. This fear was particularly strong with regard to personal care aides, who have one-on-one contact with elders and would be more likely to perpetrate discrimination and abuse.
  • LGBTQ elders feared not being accepted and respected by other residents. More than 80% of participants reported experiencing discrimination and stigma from their neighbors.
  • LGBTQ elders feared having to go back into the closet if placed in a mainstream long-term care facility (and more than half indicated that they would stay in the closet).

Although we’ve come a long way, we’ve still got a long way to go. How ironic that our LGBTQ elders who planted the seeds of Pride for us seem to be so marginalized from the very community they created. I’m reminded that I have good reason to be grateful for all the strides our community has made, and that Pride is a call for me to “give back what we have so generously been given” (to plagiarize an oft-quoted phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous). Today, on the day of the 42nd annual San Francisco Pride celebration (which, by the way, is the largest LGBT event in the United States), this is a good mantra to hold in my heart.

You can access the Journal of Gerontological Social Work article by clicking this link:

“Sitting Out Pride This Year” can be accessed by clicking this link:


Filed under coming out, HIV/AIDS, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, mental health, psychological research, San Francisco

9 responses to “Respecting our elders

  1. We just celebrated Pride in my area, Columbus, Ohio. The annual parade, themed Allies and Equality this year, drew a crowd estimated at well over 200,000 (206,000-275,000 depending on whose estimate you believe). As a marcher in the event I can attest that by the end of the nearly 2 mile parade route they were 12-15 deep on both sides of the street.

    Our parade could not reach this type of crowd without corporate allies. It just can’t. Some of our banks, including Chase, Huntington and PNC were the biggest supporters. All those who have gone before paved the way for all of that.

    Shun the corporations at your own risk. It’s the work of our elders who got them involved and it’s those corporate allies are now carrying much of the burden to press for the change we seek from our government.

    • I’ll be attending a Pride celebration in Castro Valley, California. Even though this is in the Bay Area, they have NO corporate sponsors, which makes it a more challenging event to put together and support. I think the corporate thing is kind of a double-edged sword – on the one hand, it’s an amazing sign that times have changed when mainstream, large-scale businesses declare themselves as allies and openly support the LGBTQ community. On the other hand, many people who commented on the Huffington Post article saw corporate sponsorship as more of a self-serving opportunity to make money off of the LGBTQ community. I understand these concerns, particularly when we’re talking about alcohol and tobacco companies capitalizing on Pride (especially when rates of alcohol and nicotine/drug use in the queer community are so disturbing).

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Gary Hollander

    Gayle, what would I use to spark my gray cells (under my gray hair) if it weren’t for your excellent posts? Keep them coming.

    While I just missed the cut off date of 1947 by a year, I think much of what you observe in your post applies to me and mine. I participated in all the early stuff in the state and city when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I came out 48 years ago to my family, and kept coming out to them until in sunk in after 20 of those years. I came out to my co-workers as a high school teacher 44 years ago. And while I wasn’t the leader of much back then, I showed up and stayed and worked and played with the best of them.

    Your comments resonate with my experiences back then and to a lesser degree today. While my partner and I have experienced some rocky times when he has needed longterm care in skilled nursing facilities for his MS, we have refused to be in the closet or put up with anything less than acceptance from his care givers. During his last six-week stay, we candidly talked to shift supervisors, social workers, and unit clerks about our expectations. We said we were fun, upbeat, and pretty self-sufficient. We also said we are a couple and expect to afforded all the courtesies any other couple could anticipate. I showed up every day to feed him at least one meal and I know this touched the staff, putting a concrete act of love in place of any residual bias. Staff also introduced us to other gay residents and some LGB staff. The dozens of friends who stopped in to visit were also accorded warmth and acceptance.

    I say this because while some over 65 will experience the fears identified in the research, many others will not. We have not worked so hard over the past 5 decades to expect less or to assimilate. Assimilation was not our goal.

    You wrote “If you think about it, these are the people who lived through the worst kinds of homophobia. But they are also pioneers of the LGBTQ rights movement.” I agree with a great deal of humility that I am somewhat of a pioneer. But I differ on the notion that we lived through the worst kinds of homophobia. I think there were DIFFERENT kinds of homophobia, but I am nnot so sure they were WORSE.

    I know something terrible must be happening today when queer people say they will sit out Pride. Something awful must be taking place when assimilation looks more attractive than resistance. I look at the evidence in younger LGBTQ people who don’t see themselves as whole, loved, good, intelligent, beautiful, connected, or powerful — evidence that something really bad must be happening. If it weren’t, tears would well in their eyes as they head toward one another, unfettered by oppression or by its internalization.

    • You make a good point, Gary, that “different” and “worse” are two different things. When I was writing that statement (“the worst kinds of homophobia”), I was thinking of a friend of mine who is in her 60s, and who was committed to a psychiatric facility when she was a teenager because of her homosexuality. But as I reflect on your comment, I think of some of my current-day students who tell me that their parents dragged them to some ex-gay ministry to cure their homosexuality. Scary stuff still happens – it just takes a different form as times change.

      You and your partner are a testament to the importance of openly living your truth. I wish more of these experiences would get captured in the LGBTQ aging research (and there’s not a lot of it to begin with). Most of it is gloom-and-doom, but I think it’s so important to recognize the fact that we’re talking about the activist generation – either in a big way or a small way, many LGBTQs in their 60s or older have claimed their space and refused to be silenced.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comments!

  3. An interesting post, Gayle. My comment echoes Michelle. The U.S. is a firmly capitalist country and while some might not like that, the fact is that the corporate support is the clearest sign of all that we’ve gone mainstream. In Washington some of the biggest companies (Microsoft and Starbucks, for example) are vocal in their support of same-sex marriage. No one has to buy the goods they’re selling, but I’d sure rather have them on our side than silent or in opposition.

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, Greg! I think your comment (and Michelle’s) captures a discord within the LGBTQ community – and this could be why the “Sitting Out Pride” article touched such a sensitive nerve. For many LGBTQ activists, being accepted by the mainstream is the goal. Same-sex marriage, corporate support, acceptance in the military are all clear signs of success in the pursuit of this goal.

    For other LGBTQ activists, however, being accepted by the mainstream is coupled with fears of being forced to assimilate – and that assimilation may mean prioritizing acceptance from others over honoring one’s own personal truth. For some LGBTQ people, there’s no dissonance between these two goals, but for others, there’s a huge dissonance. In my next book, I plan to explore themes that are relevant to members of the LGBTQ community who exist on the fringes – for example, looking at identities such as genderqueer, BDSM, polyamory, disabled, people of color, etc. I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading on these topics these last few months, and the issue of acceptance vs. assimilation comes up over and over again.

    Thanks again for your comment! I love when people are reading and thinking about what I’ve written.

  5. Fred Sargeant, LT (ret) Stamford PD, CT


    Thank you, belatedly, for your comments about Craig.

    Craig was a very complex and compelling person; probably one of the most interesting I’d ever known until I met my present partner, a journalist, 25 years ago.

    To make a long story short, Craig came to oppose business involvement with Pride, in part because a number of the businesses in NYC that became underwriters of the march were the very same enterprises that we’d demonstrated against because of their ties to organized crime.

    Certainly, business underwriters are needed for large, significant marches but even singular marches or demonstrations remain meaningful. No one needs an underwriter to make a sign and walk or fly a flag in late June. The morning we prepared to set off on that first Pride walk Craig and I were still waiting until the last minutes for the permit from the NYPD.

    I presently live in a small Vermont community and flying a Pride flag throughout much of the summer in the center of the village has had its impact. (Rednecks will be rednecks!)

    But Craig’s vision, from his very first picket at the Whitehall Induction Center in NYC in 1964 opposing discrimination against gays in the military, remains true to today.

    We all have a part to play, even we elders… and so we will.

    • Thank you so much, Fred, for your comments. I loved this phrase the best: “No one needs an underwriter to make a sign and walk or fly a flag in late June.” There are so many opportunities to bring the spirit of Pride to places where large-scale Pride events aren’t happening – like a small Vermont community with a flag in the town center. The pioneers of our movement, like Craig, did exactly that. And we need to keep doing that.

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