Nancy Flaxman, MSW, has worked with and on behalf of LGBT seniors for over 25 years and facilitates the Spahr Center LGBT Senior Discussion Group at Margaret Todd Senior Center.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors grew up at a time when we could be put in jail or a mental institution, just for associating with same gender people. Lobotomies and electric shock were being performed to cure us. We routinely lost jobs, housing, family, friends, education, military status, and biological children when our sexual orientation and gender differences were revealed.
Most LGBT people thought they were the only ones. Growing up, there was not even a word for what we were feeling. Even the derogatory “queer” was not yet used. Boys might be called “sissy” and girls “tom boys” but that did not describe what people were feeling inside. Many of us learned what we might be when we first heard the word homosexual.
There was either no information available, or highly negative information. There was no one to talk with about what we were feeling. Those who disclosed feelings to a psychiatrist were often told that we just needed to meet the right man or the right woman. Many married and had children. The feelings never went away, but we did not know what we could do about it. The long term relationship that many truly longed for was not possible.
Dark, dingy, and hidden, gay bars became places where people could find others but were routinely raided by police. LGBT people could even be arrested for having a party at home with all same gender people. “Our friends were at my house for a get together, all gay men. The windows were high up. I looked over and saw police up on a ladder looking in. They arrested all of us.” The names of those arrested would appear in the newspaper the next day. Many people lost jobs. Alcohol was not only a social vehicle but for some became a way to cover guilt, shame, and depression.
Some were able to avoid heterosexual marriage and live in secret with a loved one. Always one had to hide. This was particularly true at work.
“I carried a photo of a woman I never met in my wallet and told people this was my wife who died.”
“We were together 46 years and everyone at work thought we were sisters. When she died suddenly, I had to be at work the next day. My co-workers didn’t understand my loss and grief the way they would have if I had lost my husband.”
“As a gay man, I had a lesbian friend who I would take to office parties and pretend we were a date. Everyone thought we were a couple. Eventually I married because we really couldn’t get ahead at work if we weren’t married.”
Even in such a societal environment of oppression, prejudice, fear, misinformation, and injustice, many LGBT people in Marin created an often-closeted life with a career, home, and loved partners of 50, 60, and even 70 years. Our relationships were never featured on the people page of the Marin IJ that listed engagements, marriages, and anniversaries. But our commitment to each other, our caring, and our loving were no less than that of our heterosexual peers.
Many decades before gender affirming surgery would be available, a few transgender people managed to live as the gender they knew themselves to be, never revealing birth gender to anyone. For the many others who at most could only secretly dress in gender affirming clothes, Christine Jorgensen provided the first hope that we were not alone and that perhaps it was possible to be who we are.
When lesbian and gay characters were eventually in movies and pulp fiction, we were portrayed as sick, and the story had to end tragically for the gay or lesbian character. The woman who was led astray by the sick power of the lesbian found true love with a man, and the “real lesbian” killed herself.
“The stories in pulp fiction were never happy. But I read them all because it was the first time that I knew there might be other women who had the same feelings I did.”
In order to survive, LGBT people learned how to hide. Now in our 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, we are still hiding. We are often isolated at a time in our lives when our physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being are dependent on connection to family, friends, community, and services. The survival strategies that were necessary for most of our lives now put our survival at risk.
LGBT seniors are isolated not only in the mainstream community but we are also isolated from an LGBT community. The world may have changed, but many LGBT seniors have no idea how to connect to other LGBT people. We may not identify with the younger and more visible “queer” community, queer being a word that carries only hurtful associations.
LGBT seniors are not accessing the services that are available for all seniors in Marin, and when we do access services, we often don’t really talk about our lives. All of the health, social service, and housing resources that exist to help people would not have been safe for LGBT seniors to turn to for most of our lives. In order to reach these hidden, isolated and underserved seniors, an agency must have LGBT competent staff; a welcoming agency and participant/client population; and LGBT targeted outreach, programs, and services. That is the focus of LGBT aging cultural competency training and technical assistance. The Spahr Center is now embarking on developing this much needed training throughout the County.
As we recognize the experiences of the past and the outreach that is needed to serve LGBT seniors, we should also recognize, build on, and learn from the special strengths that many LGBT people have had to develop, including ways to live without being dependent on society’s approval. Without family of origin or adult children for support, LGBT people are learning to create our own families of choice. This is a healthy model for our society, where, regardless of sexual orientation and gender, people are geographically and sometimes emotionally separated from family and the communities where they grew up.
Join our Senior Discussion Groups
The Spahr Center now offers two LGBT senior drop-in groups that meet monthly; one in Northern Marin and the other in Southern Marin. The groups provide an opportunity to socialize, discuss important topics about aging as an LGBT person and plug into other community activities.
Northern Marin – The original group meets on the 1st Tuesday of the month from noon to 2:00 pm at The Margaret Todd Senior Center, 1560 Hill Road, Novato. This group is facilitated by Nancy Flaxman, MSW. No need to RSVP
Southern Marin – The newest group meets on the 2nd Wednesday of the month from noon to 2:00 pm at The Corte Madera Town Center Community Room, Suite 201, Corte Madera. This group is facilitated by Gary “Buz” Hermes, MA. No need to RSVP
For questions or more information, contact Bri Silva firstname.lastname@example.org