Off the Shelf #9: Silvering the Rainbow

Off the Shelf #9
Silvering the Rainbow: The Literature of LGBT Aging

by Rob Ridinger

There is a popular song about the dance crazes of the early twentieth century written by Irving Berlin in 1911 with a title relevant to the subject of LGBT people and aging: “Everybody’s Doing It Now.” Examining the landscape of writing on LGBT aging reveals both the emergence of an acknowledgment that we have a community of elders and that, as a population, our needs are sometimes very distinct from those served by standard gerontological agencies and services.

The idea of older gay men was first noted in an anthology of articles drawn from Sexology magazine and published in 1961 under the title The Third Sex, a phrase used by German activists including Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld to refer to homosexuals of both genders. The intent of the work was to serve as a continuation of the discussions on homosexuality that had been initiated by the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in the United States in 1948 and the Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offenses and Prostitution (more commonly referred to as the Wolfenden Report after its chair, Lord Wolfenden) in Great Britain, released in 1957. One of the articles, “The Aging Homosexual “ was written by British psychiatrist Clifford Allen and paints a truly depressing and stereotypical picture of the options open to gay men and lesbians as they age. Despite this, it serves as a valuable example of the way older LGBT people were regarded in the late 1950s, if they were recognized as a distinct group at all.

The publications of the homophile movement where older lesbians and gay men would have been expected to receive kinder attention on the whole did not recognize this population, their pages being filled with poetry, fiction, and discussions on ways to improve the status of homosexuals in general in the United States. An examination of the Index to The ADVOCATE, 1967-1982 shows only intermittent coverage of our aged, with most of the stories filed from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC and New York City and reflecting more the random inclusion of elder gays into already existing community center programs and politics. One exception to this is Stephen Greco’s 1980 article on SAGE, a national organization founded in 1978 in New York City with the purpose of advocating for and providing programs of services to the LGBT elderly. SAGE would continue its work into the age of the Internet and remains a principal player in the LGBT social services sector.

Berger Gay and Gray In the same year that SAGE was founded, Raymond Berger began a groundbreaking research project which would culminate in 1982 with the publication of Gay and Gray: The Older Homosexual Man, the first such academic study of a group of LGBT elders. His commentary on their situation is telling:

In my studies the greatest grievance, it seems to me has been the way older gay men and lesbians have been relegated to a land where they are never seen or heard from. Like the Amerasian child of the conflict in Southeast Asia, the older homosexual is not wanted by either side- by the gerontologists or by the homosexuals. Having completed this study, I am more disturbed than ever about the fact that almost every gerontological researcher and commentator has chosen to ignore older folks who happen to be homosexual. Can these researchers believe that homosexuals self-destruct at the age of forty? Or have they simply been unaware of the millions of older persons who are homosexual? And have the gay male and lesbian communities been so oblivious to their own futures that they have succeeded in excluding older persons from their bars, their organizations, their literature and their social activism? Since it is true, as one commentator has noted, that the elderly are one minority group we all aspire to join, this exclusion has served the gay and lesbian community badly (Berger, p.10).

Berger notes in the introduction to his study that it is based upon questionnaires completed by 112 older gay men, from which pool ten were selected for in-depth interviews. Six of these interviews form the first section of Gay and Gray, followed by chapters reporting on the general characteristics of older homosexual men, factors in their lives contributing to successful social and psychological adjustment to the aging process, and the life condition of these men as affected by diversity, prejudice, emotional and medical needs, legal issues, institutional policies, and the relative absence of social services such as retirement communities and organizations devoted to their needs. A unique feature of Gay and Gray is the inclusion of the full texts of the advertisement of the study, the instructions for the interview participants, and the questionnaire itself.

Three years later, a second work on older gay men was issued by Crossing Press: Vacha Quiet FireQuiet Fire: Memoirs of Older Gay Men, adding seventeen more in-depth interviews done between 1978 and 1984 to challenge inherited stereotypes. The compiler, writer and social services administrator Keith Vacha, notes in his summary that he did not use a questionnaire but rather allowed his participants to speak freely of their life histories, plans and goals. His findings agreed with Berger in that very few of the men in his study approached the stereotype of the lonely old queen, with many of them rather in long-term relationships and with younger friends, a healthy attitude towards their significance of their careers, and a spiritual dimension of some kind. A degree of balance began to appear in the LGBT aging literature with the publication in 1986 of the groundbreaking anthology Long Time Passing: Lives of Older Long Time PassingLesbians, edited by Marcy Adelman, followed in 1989 by Lesbians over 60 Speak for Themselves. The relative absence of book-length examinations of older LGBT people in the 1980s should also be considered in the context of the AIDS pandemic.

The 1990s opened with the publication of the anthology Gay Midlife and Maturity in 1991. Its thirteen papers (ranging in subject from the status of lesbian and gay aging studies to support networks and the dynamics of intergenerational relationships) originally appeared as a themed issue of the Journal of Homosexuality in 1990, and three of them also appear in the second expanded edition of Gay and Gray, issued in 1996. The new volume features a delightful (if brief) introduction by Quentin Crisp and a lengthy prologue which assesses the progress made on the study of older gay men since the original 1982 publication. The full text of the original book is retained, augmented by four additional chapters reprinting scholarship on older gay men originally published in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1976 and 1990. Between 1991 and 1999 no fewer than seven books on male and female LGBT elders were published. San Francisco’s Spinsters Book Company continued the trend begun by Long Time Passing with its 1991 collection Lesbians At Midlife: The Creative Transition, An Anthology, and in 1993 Lambda Gray: A Practical, Emotional, and Spiritual Guide for Gays and Lesbians Who Are Growing Older marked the beginning of a new genre of books intended to provide advice and perspective on aging and the changes it brings to gay men and lesbian which would continue into the twenty-first century. A revised edition of Long Time Passing was published in 1996 as Lesbian Passages: True Stories Told By Women Over 40, and the following year saw the appearance of two further works, Gay Men and Aging, by Lester Brown, and Social Services for Senior Gay Men and Lesbians, by Jean Kathleen Quam, the latter a republication of an issue of the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services. Gay Men and Aging adds data on the impact of AIDS on older gay men and evaluates three then-recent master’s theses on attitudes towards aging among gay men completed between 1991 and 1996. The genre of senior lesbian autobiography continued with the publication of the edited volume Gay Old Girls by Alyson Press in 1998, adding the diverse life stories of thirteen women ranging in age from sixty to eighty-five and representing communities from the 1920s to the 1950s. The decade closed with a book from Alyson Press, Are You Ready?: The Gay Man’s Guide To Thriving At Midlife, authored by San Francisco psychotherapist Rik Isense, and Lesbian Epiphanies: Women Coming Out In Later Life, by Karol L. Jensen.

The millennium began with Marcy Adelman’s edited collection of papers, Midlife Lesbian Relationships: Friends, Lovers, Children, and Parents, which the preface describes as focusing on “relationships with friends, lovers, parents and children and experiences with dating, recovery, and loss” (Adelman, p.xiii ). It is another example of a themed issue of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services published in book form. Two other less known publications which appeared in 2000 were the inaugural issue of the short-lived bimonthly periodical Ripe: Gay, Lesbian, And Transgender Midlife And Older, and a report from the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, Outing Age: Public Policy Issues Affecting Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, And Transgender Elders. Golden Men: The Power of Gay Midlife, by Harold Kooden, added a male perspective to LGBT midlife studies. This viewpoint was continued in 2001 with Alan Ellis’ Gay Men at Midlife: Age before Beauty.

Another development of the new century was the inclusion of LGBT elders within broader works in gerontology examining specific issues of the total elderly population. An excellent example of this is Age through Ethnic Lenses: Caring for the Elderly in A Multicultural Society (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) which contains the article “Caring for gay and lesbian elderly” by Jacalyn A. Claes and Wayne R. Moore. In 2002, the Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies appeared from Sage and included Stephen Pugh’s essay on “The forgotten; a community without a generation: older lesbians and gay men.” A similar essay by Ellen McMahon was published the following year in the collection Geriatric Sexuality on “The older homosexual: current concepts of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender older Americans.” The role that had been and could still be played by LGBT seniors was the subject of another volume which also appeared in 2003. In The Changing of the Guard: Lesbian and Gay Elders, Identity, and Social Change, author Dana Rosenfeld explored the shift in the meaning of being LGBT for fifty men and women over sixty five living in the Los Angeles region and the evolution of LGBT nature as social identity rather than a physical phenomenon. 2003 also marked the thirtieth anniversary of the removal of homosexuality from the category of disease by the American Psychiatric Association. The remainder of the opening decade of the twenty-first century witnessed the continued growth of awareness of the LGBT senior population as a topic in need of adequate study. A useful volume for librarians and their patrons on the state of knowledge about the LGBT elderly, Gay and Lesbian Aging: Research and Future Directions, appeared in 2004. It was edited by cultural anthropologist Gilbert Herdt, who had conducted another study of an age cohort within the LGBT community of Chicago later published as Children of Horizons. The ten chapter volume contains papers given at a conference held at San Francisco State University in October 2001, and the rationale for the volume given by the editors is worth examining:

The year 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark “declassification” of homosexuality as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association in 1073- a watershed in the lives of gays and lesbians in the United States. It seems fitting at this time to examine how the generation of lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who led this social movement are themselves now moving into midlife and beyond. Moreover, this occasion provides a unique opportunity to examine how the baby boomers and their peers are confronting the prospects and problems of aging in the United States and other countries. We believe that these critical issues in research and policy have only begun to be addressed by gerontology and the social sciences, and we welcome this opportunity to raise a new agenda in research and policy for the 21st century (Herdt and de Vries, p. xi).

The thread of works looking at LGBT seniors in relation to social service agencies begun in 1997 with Gay Men and Aging and continued during the first decade of the new century with the publication in 2005 of Midlife and Older LGBT Adults; Knowledge and Affirmative Practice for the Social Services from Haworth Press, followed in 2006 by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Aging: Research and Clinical Perspectives, and in 2008 by Social Work Practice with Older Lesbians and Gay Men. The stream of accounts of older women in the LGBT community continued as well, with the notable collection Whistling Women: A Study of the Lives of Older Lesbians published in 2005. This volume relates the life journeys of forty-four lesbians between sixty-two and eighty-two years of age across a time span from the Great Depression to the days of the gay liberation movement. It was joined later in 2005 by a second collection entitled Lives of Lesbian Elders: Looking Back, Looking Forward, and an essay in The Cambridge Handbook of Age and Ageing on “Gay and Lesbian Elders,” by Katharine R. Allen.

The second decade of the 2ist century opened with an update of the 2000 study of older LGBT people done by the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. In the new “Outing Age 2010” (issued both in print and online) the areas of concern in the original study were evaluated to determine the degree of progress made in the intervening decade. It was joined in March 2010 by Still Out, Still Aging: the MetLife Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Baby Boomers issued by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The full text of the report can be found online at https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/mmi/publications/studies/2010/mmi-still-out-still-aging.pdf. Librarians will also wish to consult “Aging and Sexual Orientation: A 25-Year Review of the Literature” by Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen and Anna Muraco, which appeared in 2010 in the journal Research on Aging and examines fifty-eight articles on older LGBT people published between 1984 and 2005. The essay provides a valuable core list illustrating the direction of the first quarter-century of LGBT elder investigations since Gay and Gray. 2010 also saw the publication of Growing Older: Perspectives on LGBT Aging, edited by James T. Sears, author of several works on Southern LGBT history, and Older GLBT Family and Community Life, the publication in book form of a special issue of the Journal of GLBT Family Studies dedicated to the late pioneering lesbian activist and writer, Del Martin.

Nancy Knauer’s Gay and Lesbian Elders: History, Law, and Identity Politics in the United States appeared in 2011 from Ashgate and, in the preface, she notes that the volume is an outgrowth of a 2009 article on LGBT elder law. Readers will find the three chapters in the opening section on history especially valuable for the background and context they provide on “The Making of the Pre-Stonewall Generation,” “Pre-Stonewall Views on Homosexuality,” and “Gay and Lesbian Elders in the New Millennium.” The many significances of having life journeys recorded and shared as factor of worth in eldercare and creating a sense of continuing community was the common thread to the books on LGBT aging which debuted in 2012: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ageing: Biographical Approaches for Inclusive Care and Support, edited by Richard Ward, Ian Rivers and Mike Sutherland, and Old Lesbians and their Brief Moments of Fame: A Collection of Brief Stories of Fame, compiled by Joy D. Griffith. The latter is an array of self-chosen moments when the women involved felt themselves powerful and influential.

The most recent years have witnessed the diversity of available writing on LGBT elders continuing to increase. In 2014, Midlife and Aging in Gay America: Proceedings of the SAGE Conference 2000 offers four of the keynote speeches from the conference and eight of the presented research papers on topics as varied as vision, film representations of intergenerational relationships, caregiving, and mental health. The current year matches this with an article in the collection Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Civil Rights: A Public Policy Agenda For Uniting A Divided America on “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender aging in these divided states,” while the continuing battle to challenge stereotyped images of LGBT aging in social research is reviewed in Paul Simpson’s Middle-Aged Gay Men, Simpson Middle Aged Gay MenAgeing and Ageism: Over The Rainbow?. Community-based Research on LGBT Aging (a themed issue of the Journal of Homosexuality in 2014) opens with an excellent paper on LGBT aging which notes that “much of the community-based research contained in this special issue was necessary because questions about sexual orientation and gender identity are not regularly included in state, regional, and national planning research, nor in federal data sources” (de Vries and Croghan, p.18). And a forthcoming 2016 work illustrates the distance the recognition of older LGBT persons as a part of our greater community that both holds living memories of past LGBT social, legal, and political realities and refuses to be limited by inaccurate stereotypes has come over the last five decades. In its title, the Handbook of LGBT Elders: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Principles, Practices, and Policies firmly places these people as a legitimate community deserving of investigation and assistance from a broad range of subject fields. The constantly changing information landscape of the silvering rainbow that is the world LGBT population will continue to provide librarians and their patrons with challenges and joys for many years to come.

References
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Claes, Jacalyn A. and Wayne R. Moore. “Caring For Gay and Lesbian Elderly” in Age through Ethnic Lenses: Caring for the Elderly in a Multicultural Society, edited by Laura Katz Olson. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001 : 217-229.
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Vacha, Keith and Cassie Damewood. Quiet Fire: Memoirs of Older Gay Men. Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1985.

Copyright R. Ridinger 2015.

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