Double whammy: Old age and homophobia

By Peter Tatchell

Lesbian, gay & bisexual seniors face twin fears of old age and homophobia
The Guardian, London, UK – 21 January 2015


Old age is a challenge for everyone but even more so for the estimated one million Britons over 55 who are lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB). They face the double whammy of old age plus homophobia.

“Being gay and getting older is similar to not being gay and getting older but the difficulties are magnified,” said James.

He was interviewed for the Stonewall report, Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual People In Later Life.
It found that LGBs over 55 are much more likely to be single, live alone, have no children and be less close to their families, compared to the general population. This means they tend to be more isolated and have less support.

Moreover, many older LGB people have also lived through a lifetime of homophobic victimisation. Some suffered arrest, violent attack or harassment by neighbours. Others experienced the trauma of being rejected by their families, psychiatric treatment to ‘cure’ their sexuality and the distress of partners or friends being queer-bashed or committing suicide. Some lost their job or were evicted from their accommodation in the era when anti-gay discrimination was lawful by default.

Unsurprisingly, given these multiple stresses, Stonewall found that older LGBs are more prone to anxiety and depression than their heterosexual counterparts. They are also more likely to smoke, drink and use recreational drugs. The consequence? An increased risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, alcohol-related illnesses and mental health problems.

In addition, higher proportions of elderly gay and bisexual men are living with HIV, and older lesbians may have an elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

For these diverse reasons, LGB seniors generally have a greater need for health and care services than the non-LGB population. Yet they are many times less likely to access them because they fear – and often suffer – unfavourable treatment on account of their sexual orientation. This includes not just explicit prejudice but more often being avoided and not included in activities and conversations.

“I worry about how I will be treated when I enter a home or hospital in the future, both by staff and other residents and patients, as I would wish to be open about my sexuality and expect a homophobic reaction,” Gordon, 66, told the Stonewall survey.

His fears are not unfounded, as revealed by Channel 4 News
and the BBC.

Both confirm that elderly LGBs often experience homophobic attitudes in care homes and fear adverse repercussions if they challenge it. Indeed, anxiety about being treated unfairly leads many to go back in the closet; often after decades of being openly LGB. Instead of speaking spontaneously about their life, they police their words, avoid mentioning their partners and discourage gay friends from visiting. Hiding their sexuality compounds their stress.

The Stonewall research found that in the absence of partners and family support, elderly LGBs are almost twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to expect to rely on medical, housing, care and home help services. However, up to three in five also feel that providers of these services won’t be able to understand and meet their needs.

Nearly half would be uncomfortable being out to care home staff, a third would be uncomfortable being out to a housing provider, hospital staff or a paid carer, and one in five wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation to their GP.

“The thought of being in my own home requiring help from someone who brings in with them the prejudices and judgements of the world I experience ‘out there’ fills me with dread,” noted James.

Carers may eschew discrimination and pledge to treat everyone the same. But many older LGBs are not the same as everyone else and don’t want to be treated the same. They want to be acknowledged as LGB people and have their special needs and interests addressed.

As one care home gay resident confided: The day outings organised for us are nice but I’d rather to go to gay bars and events. I still have sexual needs which the staff do not accept. Another noted that his nursing home celebrates lots of annual events but never Gay Pride.

The older LGB generation pioneered the freedoms and equalities we now enjoy. They deserve better.