Gay and Lesbian Aging

Gay and Lesbian Aging

Linda M. Woolf, Webster University

Social service workers are becoming increasingly aware that there exists a large population of older gay and lesbian individuals. Estimates range from 1.75 to 3.5 million older gay men and lesbians in the United States. To put these figures in perspective, this is approximately equal to or two times greater than the number of older adults living in a nursing home setting. As this population has been little studied or even acknowledged to exist, few programs are provided to meet the special needs of these individuals.

Many myths and negative stereotypes exist concerning the aged and the homosexual. Together, the older gay or lesbian suffers from a double stigma in American society. The image of the older gay man or lesbian as depressed, isolated, desperate, and sexless is prevalent. This image, however, does not hold up empirically .

Some of the research on gay and lesbian aging has demonstrated the similarities in aging between a homosexual and a heterosexual population. It has stressed that the majority of factors related to aging are the same for a heterosexual population as a homosexual population. For example, when discussing how the older gay man adapts to the aging process, Berger cites two individuals responses: "Whether you are gay or straight doesn1t make a difference. It's your attitude that makes the difference", and "Any person who hasn't adjusted well to other aspects of his life won't adjust well to aging, either. Being gay is just icing on the cake". In addition, older homosexuals go through a life review process as do heterosexuals. Thus, more similarities that differences are likely to exist, in regard to the aging process, between gays/lesbians and heterosexuals.

While many aspects of aging appear to be universal, research on gay and lesbian aging has demonstrated several specific positive and negative effects of aging as a gay man or lesbian. Several of these will be discussed below.

Gays and lesbians have had to experience the stigma of homosexuality usually before they experience the stigma of being old. For those individuals who have positively dealt with the homosexual stigma, it appears to make the stigma of growing old less difficult. In other words, many heterosexuals go through life never experiencing active discrimination. When hit with ageism, they must reevaluate who they are in the face of societies stereotypes. However, gays and lesbians have had to overcome the stigma of being homosexual, and this appears to give these individuals the skills necessary to overcome other stigmas. In other words, older gays and lesbians have had to deal with discrimination and negative stereotypes throughout most of their lives. If this has been dealt with successfully, they have been found to have developed greater self-acceptance and self-confidence affording them the skills to deal with the stigma of aging successfully.

Bell and Weinberg found that lesbians and gay men were more likely to have a network of close friends than heterosexuals. They postulate that heterosexuals are more likely to be involved in family interactions as opposed to outside friendships. Krieger describes the lesbian community as a "haven in a hostile world". Similarly, Berger states that "integration into a homosexual community is an important factor in the adaptation of older male homosexuals". As the community of friendships is important to the gay and lesbian, throughout the life-span, they are not dependent on family for their emotional support and needs. This is important for several reasons. First, gays and lesbians are much less likely to experience an "empty nest syndrome" as support already comes from outside the home. Second, the community affords older gays and lesbians the opportunity to meet new people and socialize. As the homosexual community is usually noted for it diversity, older individuals have the opportunity to socialize with a wide range of individuals, young and old. In addition, work relations usually do not make up the majority of personal contacts outside the home for the gay and lesbian. Thus, upon retirement, the network of friends that the gay or lesbian has made remains relatively unchanged. The establishment of friendship networks or communities appears to make the aging process easier for gays and lesbians.

Retirement, for the gay man or lesbian, has an additional positive benefit. While in the work force, the threat of loss of job on the basis of sexual orientation is a constant source of concern for many individuals. Thus, retirement can be seen as an event freeing them from some of these concerns. Individuals find that retirement affords them the opportunity to be more involved socially and politically than before as disclosure as a homosexual is unlikely to eliminate their financial livelihood.

Many of the negative results of being a gay man or lesbian on aging can be related to the negative aspects of being gay or lesbian at any point across the lifespan. For example, individuals who believe the negative stereotypes about gays or lesbians have a more difficult time adjusting to their own homosexual orientation. This is true for older gay men and lesbians, as well.

Four factors seem to be of particular concern for the older gay man or lesbian. First, the health care system has been traditionally unresponsive to recognizing the existence of homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle. Thus, services are aimed at a heterosexual population. Quam presents the example of a woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer and afraid to tell her physician that she is a lesbian. This inability to communicate honestly with a health care professional can only negatively impact treatment. Second, homosexual partnerships are often not recognized to exist even though the individuals may have been involved in life-partner situations for many years. Often, partners are not allowed to visit their loved ones in the hospital, not allowed to participate in health care decisions of their life-partner, are not allowed to live together in retirement facilities, or are even barred or excluded from funeral arrangements. This discounting of primary relationships can have a tremendous, painful effect on the gay men or lesbians involved. Third, older gay men and lesbians are concerned about housing. They wish to live in communities that are either predominately homosexual or at least, a community that is sensitive to the needs of the older gay man or lesbian. However, these options are limited. Lastly, the individual who "comes out" or explores their same-sex orientation for the first time as an older adult has few resources to meet people or adjust to their reorientation.

To meet the needs of older gays and lesbians several communities across the country have formed support groups. SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment), in New York City, was formed not only to meet the needs of the already involved and active gay man or lesbian, but has initiated an outreach program as well. Their program serves as a model for its community efforts to recognize the gay and lesbian population and provide services to it. Its programs range from opportunities for socialization to a home visitation program for the shut-in gay man or lesbian older adult.

Several problems exist with the limited research that has been conducted not only on older gays and lesbians but gays and lesbians as a whole. First, Morin points out that there is no true representation of a hidden population. Thus, much of the current research has been conducted on white, formally educated, middle class gay men and lesbians. Second, a heterosexual bias pervades the literature. For example, the motives of the researchers studying homosexual relationships generally reflect a desire to present lesbian and gay men relationships as comparable and as common as any other heterosexual relationship. In other words, the heterosexual standard is something the homosexual is supposed to emulate. Also, there seems to be a negative response to the study of older lesbians within the lesbian community. Some women feel that by isolating them out as a group for study, researchers are focusing on differences and are in fact contributing to ageism. Lastly, much of the research on gay and lesbian aging has been conducted on populations 40 years of age or older. Very few studies include or examine solely the individual over 60. Finally, no studies have been conducted on the frail elderly as this remains an extremely hidden population. Many very old gay men or lesbians may never have defined themselves as homosexual. For example, two women may have been coupled and simply defined their relationship as roommates. Individual self-identification as a gay man or lesbian was inhibited by the strong moral and social injunctions against homosexuality.

References and Suggested Readings

Web Sites of Interest

Copyright 1998 Linda M. Woolf, Ph.D., May, 1998

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