More and more elderly gay Americans are coming out of the closet, and searching for a community.
By her late 60s, Ann (who asked that her last name not be printed) had attended nursing school, spent 12 years in a convent, had a career in psychiatric nursing, and taught at Northeastern University. But she had remained unmarried. Sure, she dated some men, but she never saw the point, could never envision the end result. And then when she was 69, her acupuncturist encouraged her to attend Overeaters Anonymous and Ann had an epiphany: she fell in love with her female sponsor.
"I can see it all in retrospect," said Ann, sitting on a leathery muted-green couch in her apartment in a Brookline brownstone. "I had some crushes on nuns, but I never identified it as [homosexuality]."
With her realization, Ann, who is now 72, joined the ranks of the millions of LGBT elders living in America today. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute estimates that there are 1.4 to 3.8 million LGBT Americans over the age of 65. But until recently, LGBT elders have flown under the radar of mainstream eldercare networks and have often isolated themselves. Some LGBT elders were -- and are -- open about their sexuality, but others, many of whom came of age in a time when being gay was socially unacceptable, are invisible, distrustful of mainstream eldercare networks and doubtful that they will ever receive understanding and sympathy. Some depend on friends or partners for support and some have children and grandchildren, but many don’t have families, and, after years of leading a secretive and compartmentalized life, don’t have a support network of friends.
"They felt isolated because of a lack of support. They felt a double stigma because of ageism and homophobia. For people who were already in a long-term care facility, they talked about concerns about how they had to hide their lives from other residents, and about dealing with roommates who disliked gay people," said Gary Stein, an associate professor at Yesheva University who, earlier this year, conducted a study of the psychological problems that LGBT elders face.
Yet slowly but surely, this landscape is changing. In the last decade, advocacy groups have sprung up in Boston, which, according to the local non-profit advocacy group Stonewall Communities, is home to an estimated 26,000 LGBT people over the age of 55. The LGBT Aging Project, a Jamaica Plain-based group, runs weekly luncheons for LGBT elders in the Back Bay and in Roslindale. The group also works with mainstream eldercare networks to ensure that they will be sensitive and welcoming to LGBT elders. Stonewall Communities runs social programs such as "study groups," where LGBT elders listen to lectures from experts in various fields.
"I think things are changing. I really do. I think the more people know people who are LGBT, the more it becomes sort of commonplace. It’s a lot easier for people to get the respectful services that they need. I think it’s also up to the people themselves, with the support that they need, to let people know who they are and that they deserve the respect that everyone else does," said Maura Albert, 62, the program chair of Stonewall’s study group program and a bisexual elder herself.
Ann is one of the seniors who attends Stonewall Communities meetings and events. After she came out, she decided that she wanted to build a community for herself, especially since she was retiring and didn’t know if she would maintain connections with her work friends.
"I didn’t want to be old and isolated and lonely," said Ann, whose mischievous blue eyes crinkle in laughter behind thick-rimmed red glasses. "I wanted to build a lesbian life."
However, even though programs such as Stonewall create communities and stave off isolation, many LGBT elders eventually have to invite nurses or caregivers into their houses or move into assisted living facilities and nursing homes. And despite the changing situation for LGBT elders in Boston, many are still leery of revealing their sexual orientation to mainstream eldercare networks.
"The assumption is that you’re going to have to come out all over again, not once, but repeatedly. And most people don’t enjoy coming out," said Michael Connolly, director of Stonewall.
But organizations such as the LGBT Aging Project are working to facilitate cooperation between LGBT elders and mainstream eldercare networks. Lisa Krinsky, the organization’s executive director, said that it’s pointless to create separate facilities for LGBT elders. Instead, it’s more productive to ensure that those who run the existing facilities are sensitive.
"I worry about LGBT people who are going to nursing homes and meet people who don’t accept us, like the religious right.""Every community in Massachusetts has a meal program, but it’s about making them respectful," said Krinsky. "We need to make sure that the Meals on Wheels driver is going to be respectful to a transgender elder."
One of the tasks of the LGBT Aging Project is to provide opportunities for LGBT elder caregivers, or people who are tasked with caring for an elderly friend or partner, to network with mainstream eldercare organizations. On Dec. 6, Krinsky and her colleagues teamed up with Minuteman Senior Services, a mainstream eldercare organization based in Burlington, to host a networking event at Tryst Restaurant in Arlington. For an hour and a half that evening, in the hexagonal function room in the back of the restaurant, approximately fifteen guests ate, talked, and listened to a poetry reading by Lawrence Johnson, author and erstwhile LGBT caregiver.
At the event were Mary McCarthy, 72, and Bonnie Winokar, who cocked her nose in the air when she said that she was almost 67. The two women have been together for 23 years and legally married since 2004. They are each other’s caregivers -- McCarthy cared for Winokar when she took a tumble and broke her arm earlier this year, while Winokar cared for McCarthy when she needed surgery. They said that mainstream eldercare networks have always accepted them, but that they’ve heard horror stories from friends and acquaintances.
"I worry about LGBT people who are going to nursing homes and meet people who don’t accept us, like the religious right," said Winokar, who still had a cast, covered in Sharpie scrawls, on her right arm.
"I think it’s harder for gay men. A lot of people think we’re sisters. But a lot of gay men have to go back in the closet in their last moments," said McCarthy. She added, "It’s about letting people know that we’re here and getting older and we’re going to need services."
Part of that, said Krinsky, involves fostering direct collaboration between mainstream eldercare networks and LGBT elders, so that LGBT elders can give direct input about their needs and wants. She pointed to Winokar and Joan Butler, Minuteman’s director, who were engaged in spirited discussion about Minuteman: Butler had just invited Winokar to be a board member.
The collaboration fostered by the LGBT Aging Project is paying off in the Boston area. Ann said that recently, a mainstream assisted living facility hosted a dinner for her and her Stonewall friends.
"I went, and they were just lovely. They were so open to us, just like we were anyone else," said Ann. She went on to say, "I haven’t really gotten any rejection at all, and I really don’t anticipate rejection."
Albert, through her experiences working with Stonewall, distinguishes between elders such as Ann, who feel comfortable creating a community for themselves, and the LGBT elders who remain invisible.
"The people I meet at Stonewall are people who primarily choose to be out, or who are enough out that they’ll chose to come to an organization like that," said Albert. But, as for the closeted LGBT elders, she said, "It’s very hard to know who they are and how they’re really feeling. If they’re really closeted, they put up with so much that they don’t need to."
But times are changing, and according to Krinsky, the number of elders like Ann will probably grow dramatically in the next 20 years. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, the LGBT elder population is expected to expand to between 3.6 and 7.2 million by 2030. But this population is drawn from a new generation of LGBT elders, a generation that will be far more confident in itself.
"Baby boomers are going to change this tremendously," said Krinsky. "They’re going to bring a sense of entitlement. They’re going to say ’This is who I am. This is what I do. Deal with it.’ They’re not necessarily going to be scared and invisible."