Gay boomers look ahead to an old age colored by uncertainty and the help of friends
Paul Glass, who grew up gay in the 1960s, has painful memories of being called a “faggot” in his Roxbury neighborhood and on excursions into downtown Boston. He’d like to think all that’s behind him now. People at the stores where he and his husband shopped for their wedding flowers and centerpieces six years ago “were genuinely happy for us,” said Glass, 68, a retired sales executive who lives in Falmouth and drives for Uber part time.
But old fears rush in when he recalls visiting a gay friend in a senior facility. Feeling shunned by other residents, the man took his meals alone.
“When we get older and we have to depend on others, how will we be treated?” Glass said. “Some people will have to go back in the closet.”
Gay and lesbian baby boomers have seen extraordinary gains in social acceptance during their adult lives — especially in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Yet now, as they look ahead to old age, long-buried fears of isolation and discrimination are resurfacing. Many lack the support of extended families that straight people often can count on. And social service agencies report that harassment of older gays and lesbians is a problem nationwide.
Massachusetts is known as one of the most welcoming states for residents identifying as LGBTQ. The state has the second highest percentage of LGBTQ adults in the nation — 5 percent overall, or nearly 395,000 people, according to a report released last month by the Boston Foundation. The state’s LGBT Aging Commission estimates that 65,000 older LGBTQ adults live in Massachusetts today.
Older gays and lesbians can’t always depend on close relatives as caregivers. The report found that LGBTQ seniors were three to four times less likely to have children than their heterosexual peers. But many have developed strong “peer-to-peer” networks, sharing holidays and checking on each other, especially those who live far from where they grew up or who are estranged from their relatives.
Roslindale resident Aileen Montour, 70, a retired nurse and acupuncturist, is a community activist and part of a group working to make sure there is senior housing where gays and lesbians can feel comfortable. Montour, who grew up in Worcester and was closeted until age 40, now has a large group of friends. She hopes they can lean on one another as they age.
“The key thing to a happy life is to have a purpose and be able to live your life as you are,” Montour said. “Boston is the best place on earth to be an older lesbian.”
Anxiety about the future looms large for many older people, but older gay men and women have specific concerns. They would like to age in their homes with the help of friends. But they worry about winding up among homophobic residents in a nursing home, or being forced to let disapproving elder care providers into their homes, opening the door to the kind of hostility they thought they’d left behind.
Troubling incidents in senior housing have surfaced in recent years in the Boston area, ranging from a gay man repeatedly bullied on his way to his mailbox in Everett to the ripping down of fliers inviting gay residents to meet in the common area of a Boston facility, said Bob Linscott, assistant director of the LGBT Aging Project at Fenway Health. Cognitive decline can contribute to the problem, causing some seniors with dementia to express hurtful sentiments that they would normally suppress.
Caroline Cutler, 71, who was profiled in a newsletter at the Mount Pleasant Home in Jamaica Plain about attending her first Boston Pride parade, said she was “very upset and frightened” when someone slipped a scolding note under her door.
Bullying or wounding words can cause chronic distress, though, as Glass saw when he visited an older gay friend at a senior residence. The friend ate alone in the dining room, fearing taunting and rejection from fellow residents. He asked Glass and some other visitors to keep their voices down and refrain from making jokes because “the guys gave him a hard time the last time we came,” Glass recalled. “It was humiliating, and it shouldn’t have happened.”
Stories like that circulate in the gay and lesbian community, stoking anxiety. Linscott said a Boston man told him recently: “I’d rather throw myself in front of the Orange Line than be the only gay person in a nursing home.”
Data suggest that many gays and lesbians retain a sense of vulnerability. The Boston Foundation report, compiled by the foundation’s research center, Boston Indicators, and the Fenway Institute, estimated that while 15.5 percent of Massachusetts residents age 18 to 25 identify as LGBTQ, only 2.7 percent of state residents 65 to 74 years claim that identity.
One reason cited for the generational divide is lingering jitters among older gays and lesbians, who came of age in a less tolerant time and remain reluctant to publicly label themselves.
The ranks of the older generation also were thinned by the deaths of many gay men during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, before the emergence of drugs that can treat the disease.
Massachusetts is the only state to designate older LGTB residents as a “population of greatest social need,” making them eligible for targeted social services under the federal Older Americans Act. But those services are most accessible in urban areas, and many gays and lesbians are forced to move to more affordable areas outside the cities when they retire.
And there are other challenges. Older LGBTQ residents have higher rates of disabilities and depression than the general population, contributing to their isolation, the report said.
That isolation can be crippling, said Sean Cahill of the Fenway Institute, the research arm of Fenway Health, who coauthored the foundation report. He said it can be aggravated when aging gays and lesbians feel uncomfortable with home care aides who may be their most regular company, some of whom are immigrants from countries where homosexuality is frowned upon. They fear being put in a position where “they have to hide pictures or books when the aides come into their homes,” Cahill said.
“These are people who helped to transform Massachusetts into a much more open and supportive society,” he said. “Now they are vulnerable to neglect and abuse.”
A proposal now before the state Legislature, backed by Senator Barbara A. L’Italien, Democrat of Andover, would require special antidiscrimination and “cultural competency” training for elder service providers that receive state funding or are certified by the state.
Senior housing exclusively for LGBTQ residents would violate federal antidiscrimination laws. But several states have already established housing designated as LGBTQ-friendly, where there are social events, activities, and discussions geared to the interests of gay and lesbian residents and the staff is trained to be alert to their concerns. Local activists are working on a project to create similar developments in the Boston area, but they face challenges ranging from funding to finding sites.
As daunting as aging issues are for LGBTQ boomers, they have accumulated a lifetime of experience in handling adversity and adjusting to change.
Growing up in an era of widespread prejudice, some stayed in the closet. Others came out and found partners but never told their families. Some discovered their sexual identity in the military. Some lost lovers and friends to AIDS, or contracted HIV themselves but take antiretroviral medicines to treat it. Some married partners from the opposite sex and had children. Some have battled anxiety and depression, drinking or drugs.
What they have in common, though, is growing up and growing older in a time when acceptance was growing and barriers to inclusion gradually crumbling, even though some prejudice remains.
Brad Gregory, 70, a retired nutritionist, grew up on a farm in Indiana, dropped out of college, and joined the Navy. After two tours in Vietnam, he returned to Indiana, came out as gay, and moved to Boston where a shipmate lived. He struggled with alcohol but eventually got sober. He settled down with a partner who died.
Recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, Gregory said he now relies on a large cohort of gay and lesbian friends.
“My family never did come around,” said Gregory, who lives in the South End. “When my partner died, my mother and father didn’t want to hear about it. They changed the subject.”
For some, entering senior housing is one of many transitions in their lives.
Michelle Lord, 63, a transgender woman, grew up in Quincy as Craig Lord. Lord recognized at a young age that she wanted to be a woman. But she hid her feelings and didn’t come out as trans until 13 years ago. “The last people I had to come out to were my parents,” she said. Trying to be someone she wasn’t, Lord said, “I felt dishonest every single second of every day for 50 years. I missed so much of my life.”
After recovering from alcoholism and a heart attack, Lord, a retired furniture upholsterer, today lives openly as a trans woman in senior housing in Braintree. Most residents are accepting, some aren’t, she said.
“I love my life today,” Lord said. “But that old fear is easy to come back.”