One More Battle

Gay boomers, who fought discrimination and confronted AIDS, face a new fight as they grow old

The Middle Ages

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

April 01, 2007|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

DURING THE PAST three decades, Louis Hughes has demonstrated for gay rights in Annapolis and Washington, helped set up community and medical services for gays and lesbians and received awards for his efforts to prevent suicide in sexual-minority youths.

Although he's proud of his history as an activist, Hughes worries how his sexual identity may affect his old age. If he must one day enter a nursing home, for instance, the retired Baltimorean worries that being openly gay could put him in jeopardy -- when he's too weak to protest.

How would staff react when his same- sex friends visit? Would there be a payback if they were "too over the top"?

"What if I have a homophobic roommate and I ask to be moved? How would that be perceived?" says Hughes, 63.

"I already pretend that I'm a relative of a friend I'm taking for cancer treatments. But if I'm sick in a nursing home, what if I don't feel up to that battle of working the system? Instead, I may think, 'Gee, this person is taking good care of me, I better watch what I say and what I do. I think I'd better hide my award plaques from working with Gay Pride.'"

This is a concern shared by many of the baby boomers who fought for the right to be openly gay in mainstream America. They now face a new challenge: remaining openly gay in old age.

The post-war generation was the first to be so honest about its sexual identity, and to take strength and power from it. Now, gay activists are determined to protect the rights, dignity and quality of life for their elders.

Estimates of the number of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders in the United States, often referred to as LGBTs, suggest that 1 million to 3 million are age 65 and older. Another 2 million to 6 million are baby boomers.

In a 2006 study of gay and lesbian boomers by Metlife Mature Market Institute, more than a quarter of those surveyed were concerned about discrimination as they age, while less than half expressed strong confidence that health care professionals will treat them "with dignity and respect."

"I think there are a number of things unique to LGBT aging that make us vulnerable," says Amber Hollibaugh, 60, senior strategist and aging specialist for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"We tend to age as single people. We tend not to have children -- or to be out of contact with our kids. We are often afraid of the very institutions that are the service institutions that support aging.

"What if you are 70 years old and want to continue to live in your apartment, but you're afraid that the person you have to hire as a health care worker might be homophobic? ... You can only find out by exposing your sexual orientation, which means you're making yourself into your own experiment.

"At the point you might be the most vulnerable, you're being asked to reveal something about yourself that you know people might have attitudes about."

Hollibaugh helped lead the initiative to make sure that language including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elders was inserted in the most recent report of the White House Conference on Aging.

For many aging gays and lesbians, she says, the notions of senior housing or assisted living revive memories of the ostracism and prejudice they faced in high school.

In fact, some worry old age may mean again struggling to pass as heterosexual.

"We [in the lesbian and gay community] wonder if we could see the kind of movies we want to see in a retirement home," says 54-year-old Debbie Kachelries of Dundalk. "Whenever you're dealing with the outside world -- because sometimes that's how it feels -- you wonder how it's going to go down. Are the staff in these places going to accept that your partner is your significant other? Are they going to let him or her access the legal things that have to do with you? Will they let the two of you do something as simple as walk hand in hand?"

Because gay couples lack the legal powers and safeguards of marriage, they often fear they will be shut out of their aging partner's illness, denied access and ignored because they are not "immediate family."

Baltimore attorney Lynda Dee, 54, who specializes in the legal issues of gays and lesbians, has helped clients take extreme measures to protect their right to be informed during a medical crisis.

"I recently had a couple where one woman was very sick and the other one adopted her, to be sure that she would be the person the doctors go to. You can have all the powers of attorney and so forth in place, but the reality is that some doctors don't want to get involved in family arguments and still may not call you."

Rather than risk facing such situations, some gays and lesbians are relocating to one of the upscale GLBT retirement communities sprouting up across the country, Hollibaugh says. Perhaps the most well-known is RainbowVision, a community near Santa Fe that offers independent living, assisted living, a continuing care facility with medical care -- and a cabaret.

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