Stephen Pugh. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.
A considerable amount of literature is available that is related to older lesbians and gay men, however, it is not, on the whole, gathered within standard texts on gerontology but is dispersed. The nature of the available material is itself diverse, being in the form of explicit research, commentary or narrative/ life history. The majority of the texts refer to older gay men, some address issues for older lesbians and gay men alike, while a much smaller percentage is concerned solely with older lesbians.
While this reflection is not based on an empirical analysis, it is also interesting to note that the studies on older gay men maintain a duality of approach, containing both quantitative and qualitative material. The material related to older lesbians, however, is, on the whole, much more narrative in the exploration of issues and relies on a life history approach to tell individual stories.
The difference in approach is interesting both from a research perspective and in the reportage of the material. The quantitative material lends itself to easy gathering and reporting, unlike the narrative style, which requires a much more careful and detailed review. It is important to note that both styles are valid in research terms and much more narrative/biographical research needs to be undertaken related to older gay men. However, the absence of easily reportable material has the consequence that issues related to older lesbians may be overlooked as commentators have difficulty in reviewing the available material.
On the whole, researchers and commentators in exactly the fields of study in which we would expect older lesbians and gay men to be recognized—social gerontology and sexuality—have largely ignored their existence. As such, asking the question—what about older lesbians and gay men?—requires a leap of thought or an inquiry that takes the individual beyond the accepted knowledge base of these disciplines.
This chapter will explore the available literature and identify a number of key themes, such as ageism and homophobia; accelerated ageing; images of older lesbians and gay men; their social support systems and coming out as an older person. Of equal importance are such issues as researching older lesbians and gay men; the theoretical underpinnings of much of the current research and the assumptions that are made in the literature.
One of the difficulties in writing and commentating on issues related to older lesbians and gay men is one of generalization. The temptation is to assume that the experience of being a lesbian or gay man at a time when criminal and social sanctions were severe and real was awful and affected everybody in discernibly negative ways. However, for some people this was not the case, or at least not the reality for all of the time. The problem of generalization is the subsuming of individual experiences within the context of an assumed overall experience. Patently, this acts in a manner which is as oppressive as denying the existence of an entire group and while this chapter will reflect on issues that have affected older lesbians and gay men as a whole, regard must be given to individual experiences which may be very different.
Discovering that Something was Missing
The disappearance of older lesbians and gay men may seem somewhat analogous to a science fiction tale in which everybody over a given age suddenly vanishes as if to avoid tarnishing younger people. Evidence of this disappearance can be illustrated by the Christopher Street periodical that asked in November 1977 ‘where do old gays go? (Kimmel, 1977a).
In 1982 the New York Daily News, quoting a gay man stated ‘You never see them [older lesbians and gay men] around; after a certain age they seem to disappear. Where do they go? (LaRosa, 1982). A poster for a Toronto gay forum asked ‘what happens to homosexuals over 50? (GLHC, 1985). While these comments may seem to have no other relevance than historical—given the dates—the sentiments expressed are still as valid in the twenty-first century as they were in the 1970s and 1980s.
While gay ageing was ‘discovered’ by gerontologists in 1969 (Weinberg, 1969), Jacobs et al. (1999) comment that the existence of older lesbians and gay men is not recognized within the broad range of gerontology texts and that this literature either: ‘fails to mention elderly gay men and lesbians or provide little discussion of the concerns about aging. This omission reflects the systematic ignoring of and subsequent exclusion of older gay, lesbian and bisexual populations in mainstream gerontology’ (1999: 4). There is no simple explanation for this absence of recognition. We could attribute such a state to the function and operation of major systems of oppression—ageism and homophobia. Equally, we could assert that older lesbians and gay men are the victims of their own, extremely successful anonymity. This anonymity was based on the need to avoid detection at times when same sex relationships were either criminalized or subject to severe social restriction and sanction. For older lesbians and gay men, this was a reality through most of their adult lives and will have informed how same sex relationships were established, how they were conducted and even how the imagery of self was formulated. Jacobs et al. comment that ‘[the] secrecy related to sexual orientation was a common coping response to discrimination, but often resulted in individuals feeling guilty and ashamed of their gayness or lesbianism’ (1999: 3). The consequences of the need to maintain this secret, which some have continued into later life, is identified in the literature as being problematic for the individual older lesbian or gay man giving rise primarily to issues of adjustment, imagery and self-identification.
The Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual gay male relationships over 21 years of age in ‘private’ in England and Wales (the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland did not change for many years) and began a liberalizing process that has changed the environment in which many younger lesbians and gay men now conduct their lives. The 1967 Act passed into law when the current 80 year olds were aged in their late forties and early fifties. The liberalization, which is a consequence of this change in legislation, did not occur overnight, but in fact has been a gradual process which has developed and quickened in pace over the past thirty or so years.
The implications for older lesbian and gay men—for this group of people who were in their forties and fifties at the time of the change in the law—was little immediate change. It was not until this group were well into their sixties before most could identify any appreciable change in attitude. Such changes in attitude or liberalization that we currently enjoy, still has, in many countries, a backdrop of discrimination. Thus, such areas as the age of consent, rights to recognized relationships, the notorious Section 28 (section 2a of the Local Government Act 1988) and archaic attitudes towards lesbians and gay men in respect of childcare, reflect legitimated discrimination based on sexuality. In Britain, the recent debates in the House of Lords in respect of Section 28 and the age of consent clearly demonstrate that homophobia is alive and well within the English legislature.
Given the existence of official, state-sponsored homophobia, what hope is there for older lesbians and gay men who wish to maintain their respect and dignity at times when they may be dependent on the care of others. Such care may be provided in environments such as residential or nursing homes or even in their own homes.
I am a woman paralysed after a stroke from the neck down. How can I ask my home carer, employed to facilitate my ‘independent living’ to switch on Dyke TV (Channel 4, 1995) when I do not wish to reveal my sexual orientation because the carer has already let me know that their opinion that Beth Jordace’s death on Brookside (Channel 4, 1995) was better than she deserved because she was a lesbian? (Brown, 1998: 113)
The common experience of all older people is one, in which age-related assumptions impact significantly on every day lives. The acknowledgement of ageism as a system of oppression is relatively recent. Butler defined ageism as: ‘a process of systematic stereotyping of, and discrimination against, people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this for skin colour and gender’ (1987: 22). The product of stereotyping is to assume that all older people are the same and are thereby treated as a homogenous group. Older people are therefore ascribed identifiable characteristics, which are exhibited by all in the group and recognized by everybody else. Thus, all older people smell, are forgetful, are slow, they live in the past, they are a burden on the rest of society and importantly, being old is a condition that should be avoided (not that one can) at all cost.
The realities of these assumptions are found in such things as television adverts for cosmetics where the imperative is to avoid the signs of ageing. Older people are urged to avoid shopping and travelling at times when younger people are demanding these services. The ‘burden’ imagery has been very powerful in social policy terms when politicians argue that we cannot afford the demands that older people make on the economically active. Pension arrangements in the UK have been changed in line with this imagery as SERPS (State Earnings Replacement Scheme) has been cancelled and the ‘pension link’ has been abandoned.
These stereotypes continue into the areas of sex and sexuality where imagery frequently portrays older people as being asexual. The dominant stereotype is based on the assumption that the young body and only the young body is attractive. Thus, those of us who deviate from this image are unattractive, and who could possibly want to have sex with somebody who is unattractive? Exceptions are identified to this general rule, primarily these are male media stars but the recognition of their attractiveness is set in the context of their exceptional appearance given their age.
The media presentation of Viagra has begun to challenge these assumptions as the major user group is identified as older men. Older people’s, or in particular, older men’s desire for sex has therefore entered our living rooms in discussion with the use of this drug. Unfortunately, this association, while positive in part, has linked older people’s desire for sex with the need for chemical enhancement.
When older people’s sexuality is acknowledged, it tends to be in the context of pathology and the imagery of the ‘dirty old man’ comes rushing to the fore. However, the automatic assumption is of heterosexuality. The possibility of same sex relationships in late life is very rarely considered.
Ageism cannot, on its own, provide a satisfactory explanation for the lack of acknowledgement or understanding of the situation in which older lesbians and gay men are placed. The concept of ‘jeopardy’ and in particular ‘multiple jeopardy’ may help us to understand more easily the day-to-day reality of the lives of older lesbians and gay men. Norman employs the term ‘triple jeopardy’ to describe the situation of older black people living in a second homeland. She comments: ‘They are not merely in double jeopardy by reason of age and discrimination … but in triple jeopardy. At risk because they are old, because of the physical conditions and hostility under which they have to live, and because services are not accessible to them’ (1985: 1). This definition in many ways reflects the position of older lesbian and gay men in terms of the experience of discrimination, ageing, hostility and the lack of suitable services. In essence, this approach identifies the existence of multiple systems of oppression, which intersect and have differing emphases as individual lives are being lived.
As an example, an older lesbian may experience oppression related to her age while out shopping and in doing so she may overhear a pejorative conversation about same sex relationships and feel uncomfortable about the tone of the conversation, given her own sexuality. If this woman was black or experienced a disability, she may equally encounter direct hostility related to her skin colour or her disability. In this respect, this particular older woman’s life has been affected negatively by ageism, homophobia, racism and disability oppression at different times as she conducted her day.
Reflecting on individual vis-à-vis group experiences, which were identified above, a common misconception related to lesbians and gay men irrespective of age, relates to the belief in the existence of a unitary ‘gay community’ in which both lesbians and gay men have equal presence and sense of belonging. The implication is that lesbians and gay men have common interests, aspirations and live similar lives. The reality for most lesbians and gay men is far from this. Jacobs et al. identify that ‘the “lesbian and gay community” is dispersed throughout mainstream society, as well as centered in particular geographic hubs’ (1999: 3).
The hubs that are being referred to are ‘gay’ urban spaces and in particular evening spaces, which are somewhat euphemistically referred to as villages or quarters. These gay hubs are, on the whole, gay male spaces and are based primarily on conspicuous consumption and sex. Thus class, money and time become important features for those who wish to occupy these urban spaces. The presence of lesbians in these spaces may be, at worst, actively discouraged and, at best, tolerated. Where women-only venues are available, they are likely to be very limited in number.
The emphasis in these spaces may also be very different with a concentration on youth and loud ‘boom boom’ music in gay male venues. The assumption of ‘community’ equally ignores the differences in how individual gay men and lesbians network and establish relationships. The commonality rests with a shared experience of oppression resulting from homophobia.
While homophobia is alive and well, a more subtle form of oppression has dominated the lives of lesbians and gay men—that of heterosexism. This form of oppression asserts that heterosexual relations are the norm and that each of us is unquestioningly assumed to be heterosexual. Associated with this ascription of sexuality are assumptions about behaviour, role and the location in which types of activities take place. Thus, the presumption is that all men are heterosexual. They go to work, which is invariably in the public sphere, to provide for their family, they participate in or watch team sports, it is their responsibility to do the garden and maintain the fabric of the house. In the same mode, all women are heterosexual. Women look after the children and while increasingly they undertake paid employment, this represents a second income for the family. The primary sphere in which women operate is the privacy of the home. It is their responsibility to construct and maintain this home for their husband and family.
While these gender roles are somewhat generalized, they feature prominently in the literature related to older lesbians and gay men, and in particular the research undertaken on older gay men. As we will see, assumed gay male gender role flexibility is viewed very positively in assisting older gay men to adjust to the ageing process. Specifically, the references relate to retirement and exclusion from employment.
These gender assumptions have other and more worrying implications, in particular, for lesbians and gay men, who have levels of dependence on others. In such a scenario, the care giving would be undertaken in an atmosphere of assumed heterosexuality unless otherwise asserted. Thus references in conversation may be made to intimate relationships with the opposite sex—girl friends and boy friends. Potentially, care staff, in spite of the wishes and desires of the people concerned, may contrive such relationships without a thought that the person they are caring for may in fact be a lesbian or gay man.
The experience of oppression is not always and at all times negative. A consequence of homophobia is an experience shared by many hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gay men. The movement into another system of oppression—ageism—as we all age, has for Lukes positive benefits as he asserts that ‘gay men cope better with age because deprivation has been their daily fare’ (1973: 26). The broad assumption is that coping with oppressions facilitates the development of skills which in turn informs the individual’s ability to cope with other forms of oppression.
The shared experience of cohorts is particularly important when exploring issues pertinent to older lesbians and gay men. On a broader scale, national and international events which have occurred historically and that have impacted on groups of people in essence can be referred to as cohort effects. As an example, the First World War (1914 to 1918) and the subsequent flu epidemic had a devastating effect on the population in Europe. Both events gave rise to a reduction in the numbers of young men and as a result a reduction in the numbers of men available for marriage, with the result that large numbers of women were not able to marry and thus remained single. This effect is currently working its way through the population as many of these single women are reaching later life.
In attempting to understand this effect in more detail, Ryder notes that ‘each cohort has a distinctive composition and character reflecting the circumstances of its unique origination and history’ (1965: 845). Jacobs (1990) provides us with the following definition of a cohort effect as ‘distinct political and economic experiences (which) separate generations and have lasting impact’ (1990: 350). The terms cohort and generation are used interchangeably. However, in demographic terms a generation refers to kinship links while a cohort is a group born at a particular time in history.
A further complication to this debate arises from the concept of period effects which ‘emerge from the major events that shape the lives of persons who experience them’ (Morgan and Kunkel, 1998: 39). The emergence of AIDS is used as an example of a period effect because it has impacted on the whole population, irrespective of age. While this analysis is somewhat limited, it is possible to conclude that a period effect may produce a groups cohort effect. Thus, AIDS becomes the backdrop for young gay men who are currently exploring their sexuality while for those who are older, it is a disease which emerged after the development of their sexuality and one that should inform a change in sexual behaviour.
Cohort effects also have implications for attitudes towards sex and sexuality. The criminalization of sex between men had the result that many gay men maintained aspects of their lives hidden from the rest of society or entered heterosexual relationships in the belief that this was normal and through which they could avoid public scrutiny. During this period, while the threat of criminal sanction was not a threat for lesbians, the reality of severe social reaction gave rise to similar sorts of coping behaviours.
Cohort effects in reviewing issues related to older lesbians and gay men are very influential as they inform such issues as identification of self, association with other lesbians and gay men, how and in what circumstances relationships were formed and in what circumstances they were conducted. Many gay men and lesbians were both individually and by association, labelled as ‘sick by doctors, immoral by clergy, unfit by the military, and a menace by the police’ (Kochman, 1997: 2).
As a result of this widespread attitude, individual older lesbians and gay men will have conducted their lives to reflect their own circumstances. Thus, some people will have lived openly as a lesbian or gay man and others may well have identified themselves as gay while living with the veneer of heterosexuality. Lee (1989) identifies two solutions for gay men prior to the changes in legislation. The first was to marry and possibly to conduct same sex relationships in secret with an expectation of never living with a lover. The other solution was to remain single with the air of asexuality or disinterest in sex, which by its nature was less of a threat and thereby facilitated the acceptance of the individual gay man. In family histories, how many uncles and great uncles remained bachelors, thereby hiding their gay sexuality?
Inevitably, the covert nature in which many older lesbians and gay men conducted their lives, with the threat of real sanctions if discovered, gave rise to absolute imperative for secrecy. Perhaps a secret gay world consisting of intimate knowledge, of furtive glances and covert introductions. Older gay men undertook the initiation or introduction of younger men into this world. This world of extreme secrecy involved carefully arranged meetings, explicit trust between the individuals, fear of discovery and sometimes financial extortion. In Britain, this world also had a language of its own—Polari—employed to enable gay men to talk in public to each other without discovery, for who would risk telling the police that two men were conversing in Polari without disclosing their own secret?
Images of Older Lesbians and Gay Men
The received wisdom related to older gay men creates an image of: ‘loneliness, isolation, sexlessness, poor psychological adjustment and functioning, fearful anxiousness, sadness and depression and sexual predation on the gay young who reject their company and exclude them from a “youthist” gay culture’ (Wahler and Gabbay, 1997: 9). Both ageist and homophobic attitudes undoubtedly influence this stereotype. To be a gay older person pours on the misery, not least because it is bad enough to be one or the other, but to be both is to double the misery. The stereotype also involves a necessary referent to younger people—without which older people have no existence. Interestingly, Kimmel (1977b, 1978, 1980) identified that older gay men have little contact with younger men—thereby undermining the assumption of older gay men’s predatory behaviour. The basis of this assumption is quite offensive because it potentially facilitates links between older gay men, promiscuity and paedophilia that are unfounded and feed homophobic attitudes.
Older lesbians are frequently portrayed as highly educated, politically liberal, middle-class, professionally employed and unmarried or divorced (Jacobs et al. 1999). In contrast, older heterosexual women are often stereotyped as poorly educated, politically conservative, poor, religiously active, asexual, professionally unemployed and married or widowed.
The literature identifies differing images of older gay men most of which portray positive adjustments to ageing and social networks. Most researchers predicate health in later life with involvement with the wider gay community on the assumption that such involvement equates to a ‘healthy’ acceptance of sexuality. Little or no contact with the wider community presupposes ‘unhealthy’ acceptance of sexuality or denial, which inevitably suggests depression and mental illness.
Kimmel’s (1977, 1978, 1980) work actually found considerable differences between older gay men, thereby recognizing diversity among older gay men rather than the generalizations upon which the stereotypes have been constructed. Weinberg (1969, 1970) identified that older gay men had reduced their involvement with the gay community with increasing age, but that they were not any more lonely than younger gay men. Francher and Henkin (1973) while equally reporting a reduction in involvement in the wider gay community, also noted an increase in the contact that older gay men had with their social networks, both gay and heterosexual. Some researchers observed that older gay men have many gay friends but less heterosexual friends and that in general, gay men had significantly more close friends than heterosexual men (Kelly, 1977; Friend, 1980). Older gay men were also reported as being less worried about their sexuality being disclosed and that they had higher levels of self-acceptance and had an improved and stable concept of self (Weinberg, 1969, 1970; Kelly, 1977).
Many older lesbians appear to view their sexuality in terms of emotional intimacy and personal identification with other women (Jacobs et al., 1999). The literature identifies a contradiction relating to living arrangements as older lesbians are reported to be living with a partner or living alone. Most studies identify continued interest and valuing of sex although celibacy was a feature of many older lesbians’ lives that, for many, was not a choice. The research identifies that the relationship arrangements involved a belief in monogamy (Minnigerode and Adelman, 1978; Raphael and Robinson, 1980; Tully, 1983; Kehoe, 1986).
Kimmel’s (1977, 1978, 1980) and Kelly’s (1977) work acknowledged that sex remained important for older gay men and that they remained sexually active. There was also a recording of a decrease in the amount of sex that older gay men experienced and that they engaged in sex with men of their own age group.
Minnigerode and Adelman’s (1978) small research study explored differences between lesbian and gay and heterosexual older people in areas such as physical changes, work and retirement, social behaviour, psychological functioning, loneliness, sexual behaviour and reflections on the life course. Their research identified indicators of similarities and generational differences. These findings in part reflect the nature of the research undertaken and are repeated time and time again by numerous researchers (Bennett and Thompson, 1980; Goleman Wolf, 1982; Berger, 1984; Gray and Dressel, 1985; Pope and Schulz, 1990; Adelman, 1991).
Bennett and Thompson (1980) in a study of older Australian gay men found that they were not disengaged from the broader community either by choice or by exclusion. However, they did establish that older Australian gay men were more secretive about their sexuality than younger gay men in Australia and that this may be related to cohort effects or of other perceived risks, such as loss of their job. This is in part supported by Gray and Dressel (1985) who indicate that older gay men were more likely to wish to maintain secrecy about their sexuality than younger gay men, but that this did not suggest any significant alienation from the broader community. Goleman Wolf (1982), in fact, on a very positive note, suggests that heterosexuals could learn and benefit from a gay model of ageing. Berger (1984) notes that the issues for older gay and non-gay people were similar with a major feature being self-acceptance.
Adjusting to the Ageing Process
In contradiction to the many stereotypes of older lesbians and gay men, a number of commentators have identified that the atmosphere of repression encountered while older lesbians and gay men were growing up and conducting their early adult lives, had in fact assisted them to adjust to ageing. Frencher and Henkin (1973) were the first to propose the idea that ‘coming out’ as a life crisis assisted older gay men to cope with ageing. Kimmel (1978) also reflects this view. The assumption that is being made is that ‘coming out’ must be a difficult and painful process and having ‘competently’ responded to this crisis, older lesbians and gay men have the skills to cope with other life crises, in particular, the move into retirement.
Berger (1980) refers to the term ‘mastery of crisis,’ which was later endorsed by Jeffrey Weeks (1983). Berger comments that:
There are aspects of the homosexual experience that facilitate adjustment to aging. Social workers who work with the elderly would do well to consider these aspects for what they reveal about adjustment to aging for homosexuals and heterosexual alike … the coming-out period is a major life crisis, which, when resolved, provides the individual with a stamina unavailable to many others. Today’s older homosexual had to resolve a crisis of independence at a young age and at a time less tolerant of sexual nonconformity. He knew that he could not rely on the traditional family supports that heterosexuals take for granted. Whereas older homosexuals are as likely as heterosexual to be alone in old age, they are better prepared for it, both emotionally and in terms of support networks of friends. (Berger, 1982: 238)
Lee (1987) asks whether Berger’s assumption is true or whether some puritanical idea that suffering is good for the soul is present in these comments. Lee goes on to identify comments from a number of researchers who, while reporting on differing problems that older gay men experience, all note that these older men have high levels of self-acceptance and self-esteem (Weinberg and Williams, 1974; Minnigerode, 1976; Kelly, 1977).
A competence model, or more accurately—crisis competence—has been used by Berger (1982), Francher and Henkin (1973), D’Augelli (1994) and others to maintain that older gay men are more able to cope with life crises. In reflecting upon the model, Pope and Schulz (1990) and Kooden (1997) identify that older gay men are able to cope in a positive sense with loss and less rigid role expectations. Friend (1980) identified that the changes in social status and role that occur with ageing are less of a problem for older lesbians and gay men because of more flexible gender roles experienced throughout their lives.
This is an interesting reflection on how lesbians and gay men are assumed to conduct their lives and their relationships. Such comments further reinforce the power of heterosexism as a system of oppression, in structuring how relationships should be and are conducted. Thus in same sex relationships there must be a ‘man’ and there must be a ‘woman’ to undertake the ascribed roles.
Wahler and Gabbay (1997) in their review of the literature, identify a number of themes related to the adjustment to ageing:
- The similarity between gay and non-gay older people in some of the predictors of successful ageing.
- That self-acceptance can be a critical variable.
- That gay men are better prepared for the process of ageing than non-gay men.
- There are some unique challenges to the gay experience of ageing.
In fact, they go on to identify positive benefits of being a lesbian or gay man in late life as they assert:
the literature suggests that older gay men may adjust to aging more easily than their non-gay male counterparts. Further, studies indicate that gay men who have grown to a point of acceptance and celebration of themselves experience the highest degree of life satisfaction and positive adjustment to the challenges of aging, both as gay men and as older individuals. (Wahler and Gabbay, 1997: 13)
However, they do identify a note of caution involving older lesbians and gay men who ‘lack self-acceptance.’ In most of the literature, lack of self-acceptance is inevitably equated to not being ‘out’ and involved with the wider gay community.
Kimmel (1977) identifies a number of other benefits of being an older lesbian and gay man. Such benefits, he argues, are a consequence of many gay male lives not being disrupted by ‘life cycle’ changes such as the death of a spouse; role changes of retirement and the movement of adult children away from the home. He goes on to state that older gay men have a more self-reliant attitude in respect of their own needs based in part on higher levels of earned income and more disposable income in later life.
Older lesbians are reported to have adapted well to the ageing process and to have a positive self-image, equally, they do not experience the acceleration of ageing as fast as heterosexual women (Laner, 1979). Patently, older lesbians and gay men do not lead lives separated from family and friends and many of the life-cycle changes identified by Kimmel (1977) do have an impact on people’s everyday lives. Older lesbians and gay men are touched by the death of partners, parents and friends and retirement or exclusion from work has different meanings for different people.
Also, we cannot assume that all older lesbians and gay men’s lives have been constructed in the same manner and are therefore formatted to look the same. Many older lesbians and gay men will be mothers and fathers (grandmothers and grandfathers) themselves and any event that affects a child can have very profound change potential. Whitford, commenting on his own research, states that ‘a high proportion of all men had children, indicative of the fact that most of these men had been married at some point in their lives’ (1997: 92).
The other comment that should be made at this point relates to the underlying assumption that lies behind much of the research. Ageing is viewed as a negative event, which requires adjustment. The researchers are inevitably reflecting broader social constructs in a society, which is fundamentally ageist. These assumptions do not reflect individual experiences or aspirations. For many older people, retirement is a release that enables them to engage in the activities of their choosing, while for others the move away from the labour market is not wanted and ageing is something to be dreaded.
The Conditions for Successful Ageing
The primary condition for gay men in successful ageing is income and access to financial resources. Lee (1987) comments that this is a powerful indicator in the general population regardless of sexual orientation. Education is also a strong indicator and is related to income. This is again related to the whole population of older people and is not specific to sexual orientation. The presence of a life partner is the third in the correlation with happiness in old age (Berger, 1980; Lee, 1987) with loneliness representing one of the major threats to happiness. Ageing itself is the final aspect in the correlation with satisfaction in old age rather than being gay. This in part reflects on attitudes to dependence and the attainment of goals such as a comfortable home and a sex life. These are again related to the whole population and not specifically related to gay male older people.
The message is quite clear, that happiness or satisfaction in later life is dependent on other factors rather than sexual orientation per se. However, unlike heterosexual older people, the literature identifies an additional factor for lesbian and gay older people. Whilst this factor is identified differently (Wahler and Gabbay  refer to it as ‘self-acceptance’), it relates to publicly disclosing the nature of their sexuality—of being ‘out.’ The literature asserts that being ‘out’ is likened to happiness and the test is participation in the gay community by belonging to gay or lesbian organizations. This is a substantial test that heterosexual older people do not have to pass. Whitford (1997) identifies two aspects to participation in the community. The first is a formal measure which relates to participation with gay organizations, while the second is informal and addresses the characteristics of the social networks or friendships that the older person maintains. This measure identifies the number of gay friends and is specific to the majority of friends being gay. The importance of this latter measure rests with the prediction of positive outcomes in terms of adjustment to ageing.
There are a number of assumptions that lie behind such ideas. The first, as identified above, is that being old is a state that has to be adjusted to and is thereby unpleasant or to be avoided. The avoidance of ageing has become a moral imperative. To be young and active is the state we should strive to achieve. For commentators from a political economy perspective, the world of economic activity—work—is the condition that provides meaning to our lives and thereby to be excluded from this on the basis of age is an inequity. The second assumption is related to being ‘out.’ The process of coming out can be devastating for some people, for others it can be liberating. To assume that happiness is being out denies individual experiences and again establishes a moral imperative—lesbians and gay men must be out to be happy. Lee’s (1989) work cited above identifies that many people maintain wholly satisfying lives while being very private about their sexuality.
Equally, being ‘out’ is not a fixed and complete state, different levels of knowledge exist in various groupings. Perhaps, in order to ensure widespread knowledge of the person’s sexuality, older lesbians and gay men should be made to wear vests at all times with some form of outing statement of self-declaration thus complying with the moral imperative and maximizing the opportunity for happiness. The third point rests with membership of lesbian and gay organizations as a test of the degree of ‘outedness.’ This again may deny the individual’s experience and wishes. In equity, we should assert that heterosexual older people have to join groups in order to satisfy a test of happiness. The theoretical underpinning with this test is activity theory (Havighurst, 1963).
Theoretical Understandings Applied to Older Lesbians and Gay Men
Much of the research, as identified above, maintains, either explicitly or implicitly, a number of theoretical constructs, which guide assumptions made within the work or its conclusions. The most obvious of these is the link between successful adaptation/adjustment to the ageing process and participation in organized lesbian and gay activities.
Lee (1987) comments that activity theory is not an explanation for ageing but rather a recipe for health in later life. In its simplistic form, activity theory asserts a need to ‘keep busy in old age’ with an emphasis on formal activity in social organizations as a means for compensating for the loss of roles through retirement or declining physical strength. Furthermore, Lee (1987) identifies a development of this approach with the emphasis on activity with significant others. This is identified as a move towards a symbolic interactionist adaptation of the theory.
The application of activity theory to lesbian and gay male ageing places an emphasis on the need to maintain sexual activity and to build non-sexual support networks. Researchers see this later imperative as compensation for the absence of families, which are so important in heterosexual adaptation to ageing (Friend, 1980; Raphael and Robinson, 1980).
There are a number of assumptions located within much of this work that inform the conclusions drawn, either directly or indirectly. The first is related to the need to continue to be active in later life per se. Wholesale adoption of this approach does not facilitate individual expression of ageing or reflect how many people have lived their lives. For the older lesbian and gay man there is a double bind here in that they not only have to maintain activity but they must do so in specific ways—participation with lesbian and gay organizations. Failure to do this would seem to indicate that they have not adjusted to ageing and to their sexuality.
The researchers seem to assume that older lesbians and gay men have either been rejected by their families and thereby live in familial isolation, or are estranged from their children, having come out after years of maintaining their sexuality as a secret. This again simply denies the reality for some individual older lesbians and gay men who are welcomed into their families and maintain good relationships with their children and siblings. Of course, for some older lesbians and gay men coming out did result in rejection, but it is too gross an over-simplification to apply this to all older lesbians and gay men.
The final assumption rests with role adoption and the apparent absence of the ‘other’ gender in the lives of lesbians and gay men. Once again there are very big generalizations reiterated in the research which imply that gay men undertake homemaking roles while lesbians adopt more masculine roles in domestic settings. Such assumptions appear to rest with heterosexist ideas of male and female roles in partnerships, thereby when two men live together one of them will become the ‘woman.’ This is equally played out in heterosexual assumptions about sexual activity between couples of the same sex. These ideas are not applied to other same sex groupings such as the armed forces or student accommodation, why, then, should a heterosexual model be implanted in discussions about same sex couples? Here again, individual expression is lost in over-generalized assumptions.
Activity theory is presented in mainstream gerontological texts as a discrete theory that provides a balance for another theoretical construct, that of disengagement theory (Cumming and Henry, 1961). Disengagement theory provides a structural-functionalist explanation of ageing by asserting that we are all socialized to expect to disengage from activities and roles as we age. The ‘emphasis in disengagement theory is on the social actor playing out normatively defined role withdrawal in a universal and inevitable process that fills the functional needs of society’ (Lee, 1987: 44).
As a result, successful ageing, according to disengagement theory, is dependent on older people accepting the process of disengaging as both inevitable and natural. The failure to disengage places the individual older person as a deviant. The theory recognizes gender differences in individual disengagement based on gender roles and that ‘homemaking’ is a role from which women do not retire.
The application of disengagement theory to older gay men is located in the assumption that gay men, necessarily in the absence of women, have to undertake ‘homemaking’ roles. Therefore the shedding of employment roles at retirement is assumed to be less painful and difficult because of the continuation of these other roles (Kutner et al., 1956; Friend, 1980). Hochschild (1975) similarly claims that older gay men are less affected by the disengagement process because they have often lived secret lives which were disengaged from society, thereby disengaging in later life is a return to a state that is already familiar.
Patently, the research which identifies that older lesbians and gay men can achieve high levels of life satisfaction, while not being out, would indicate higher levels of adjustment to ageing by disengagement. Obviously, the counter-argument here is that they were never engaged in the first place and these individuals may experience more difficult adjustment as their heterosexual roles diminish.
Activity and disengagement theory establish moral imperatives related to ageing. Older people must either be involved and active or must reduce their activities to conserve their strength. Both theories deny older people’s individual wishes, experiences and life course.
Continuity theory identifies that ‘there is a clear tendency for aged people to persist with the same relative levels of activity and attitudes as they grow older’ (Palmore, 1968, in Lee, 1987: 45). The approach also identifies that patterns of adjustment to ageing can be identified by the age of 50 years and that a number of personality types are identifiable (Blau, 1957; Clark and Anderson, 1967; Fontana, 1977). Lee (1987) maintains that this approach is very value-laden and implies ‘hierarchical ordering of adjustment patterns.’ Rather than viewing these as personality traits, Lee urges us to regard them as indicators of coping strategies.
In application, Lee (1987) identifies that in a homophobic society, older lesbians and gay men (he refers specifically to older gay men) have developed strategies for coping with discontinuity. Such an approach is particularly relevant to the current cohort of older lesbians and gay men who grew up in a very hostile society. Kimmel (1977) refers to greater levels of continuity for older gay men because they have not experienced their children growing up and leaving home. However, coming out represents significant discontinuity as a result of the reactions of others and may lead to loss of friends and relatives.
‘Coming Out’ or Staying in
The decision to disclose or ‘come out’ about one’s sexuality as a lesbian or gay man can be very difficult and such decisions are made individually. The repercussions can involve rejection by family and friends, loss of employment and for older lesbians and gay men, when they were younger, could have resulted in attempted extortion, imprisonment and exclusion from their children, which still exists in some countries. Disclosure is not a one-off event, but each new relationship or social event may involve a ‘coming out’ process.
The accepted view within a great deal of the literature denies that ‘coming out’ can be very positive. An event that brings to an end having to ‘pass’ as heterosexual and needing to construct pretend families or social life—never daring to admit going to local gay venues. The tension between those out activists and lesbians and gay men who are not as public about their sexuality is often palpable. This tension has a tendency to deny people’s very real fears and significant cohort effects, all of which indicates some very different attitudes, particularly between some younger lesbians and gay men and their older counterparts.
Lee (1989) identifies the distinction in attitude and how people conduct their lives based on the current use of language and public displays as one of political confrontation, which he identifies as the exact opposite of ‘passing’ as heterosexual. This analysis relates to Goffman’s (1963) work on stigma, which arises in part as a result of attributes but also the language of relationships. This distinction between public acknowledgement and private acceptance has prompted quite sharp comments, in fact, Berger (1982) considers the relationship between older and younger gay men to be one of mutual aversion:
to a great extent, older homosexual men do not associate with younger homosexuals, and they believe that younger homosexuals will react negatively to them … A vicious circle perpetuates each generation’s preconceived attitudes towards the other. Negative attitudes on the part of both generations lead to mutual avoidance … the results of this process are all too evident in the gay community … Homosexual rights groups and other civic organizations fail to attract many older gays, and those who do participate rarely occupy leadership positions. (Berger, 1982: 160)
Minnigerode and Adelman (1978) identified that many older lesbians felt that their working lives had been constrained by their sexuality and this was a theme in Chafetz et al.’s (1974) work, where most older lesbians felt that they would have lost their jobs if their lesbianism had been known. A respondent in Tully’s (1983) work, selectively disclosed her sexuality, with her family being less likely to be aware of her sexuality than her female friends.
Lieberman and Tobin observe that older gay men view the ‘closet’ as the ‘only anchor left’ (1983: 348), MacLean (1982) further comments that militant gay men are ‘making a spectacle of themselves’ (1982: 16). Vining (1981) provides some insight into this concern by noting that older gay men feel that current attitudes of tolerance and acceptance could change. Lee’s (1989) longitudinal research identified that the majority of older gay men did not want to have their sexuality dominate or prefix their identity: ‘They have no desire to be known at work or at home as a “gay doctor, gay banker, gay father or whatever”’ (1989: 87).
This attitude influences participation in gay-related organizations, 70 per cent of Lee’s (1989) sample did not participate in any gay organizations. The decision to participate in such organizations involves recognizing that an issue or theme is relevant or pertinent to their life and that such joining would add to a measure of life satisfaction. For the older lesbian or gay man a further decision is required; that disclosing a closely held secret about their sexuality and the associated risk that this knowledge would become uncontrollably public as other members talk to other people. Of equal importance in this decision is the impact of ageism and sexism in limiting participation with groups whose membership may be comprised predominantly of younger men and who may not welcome an older woman.
By contrast, gay activists may urge older lesbians and gay men to share their public persona. This attitude is captured by the editor of The Advocate who, writing in the mid-1980s, comments:
And what are you hiding from? Aren’t you a little tired of the work all this subterfuge requires? … If your experience of coming out is at all like mine and that of millions of others who have come out, you will find that your friends and acquaintances already know that you are gay. And maybe they will feel a deeper respect for you … maybe they will reject you … What then? Read The Advocate and other gay media, and you will find gay people creating new realities, like immigrants, in communities of our own construction throughout the country. There is a place for you, too, in all of this, a place where you can be honest and perhaps find love and almost certainly find friendship. (The Advocate, 20 August 1985: 5).
This issue of public openness, but more importantly participation and contact with the broader lesbian and gay community, has led researchers and commentators to assert that individual happiness for older lesbians and gay men can only be achieved by such involvement. A number of researchers have drawn a correlation between being openly gay or lesbian and life satisfaction. Friend (1980) maintains that the greater the number of interactive roles in which the person is open about their sexuality, the greater is their self-esteem and necessarily satisfaction with their life. Other researchers (Lee, 1989; Berger, 1982), however, do not draw the same conclusion. Lee in fact comments that his longitudinal respondents ‘clearly demonstrated the capacity of gay men to lead personally and professionally rewarding lives, while remaining highly secretive about their sexuality and bearing the burdens of “passing” in a heterosexist society’ (1989: 84). Lee’s (1989) findings are supported by Adelman (1991), who identified a correlation between high life satisfaction and low involvement with other gay men, low levels of disclosure of the nature of their sexuality and a decrease in the importance of being gay. In a similar vein, Wahler and Gabbay (1997) identified the importance of self-acceptance rather than public acknowledgement.
Participation, as we have seen, involves public acknowledgement of one’s own sexuality with all the associated fears and anxieties and possibly acting in a manner that contradicts life-long beliefs and patterns of behaviour. Lee asserts that ‘the self-rated happier (gay) elders were much more likely to participate in the gay community than the unhappy’ (1989: 89). Given that 70 per cent of his longitudinal sample do not participate with the community, the conclusion to be reached is that this group are unhappy. This directly contradicts his earlier comment identified above.
The practicalities of social support assume greater significance for the researchers of issues related to older lesbians and gay men, particularly given the image portrayed by Kehoe of ‘disapproval and distancing by their relatives, [with older lesbians and gay men] left with no meaningful human contacts’ (1991: 137). Francher and Henkin (1973) also noted that while family support may have been withdrawn as a result of the person’s sexuality this support had been replaced by friendship networks.
Kehoe’s image has added to that of Berger (1980) who states:
older [homosexual] men are depicted as isolated from other homosexual males, both young and old, who place great importance on the good looks of youth. Older homosexual men are believed to have unhappy sex lives, if any, and to resort to ‘tearooms,’ hustlers and young children for sexual gratification. They become effeminate, are socially unacceptable to other adults and are labeled as ‘old queens.’ (1980: 163)
Berger’s description of the ageing process that gay men undertake involves desperation, a change in personality and eventually a change in sexual expression. Hardly surprising that older lesbians and gay men become socially isolated.
In respect to older people generally, an association is identified between support network and mental health, in particular depression (Phifer and Murrell, 1989; Russell and Cutrona, 1991). If the primary sources of social support for older people are their relatives, the implications for older lesbians and gay men who stereotypically are thought to live much more isolated lives, are higher incidences of depression. However, in their research, Dorfman et al. have identified: ‘no significant differences between older homosexuals and heterosexuals with regard to depression and over all social support, despite significantly less family support in the homosexual group … Apparently a homosexual orientation among the elderly does not impede development of a socially supportive network’ (1995: 39).
The health-related consequences of this research for ‘friends-based social networks’ are identified by Dorfman et al. (1995) as:
- Friends are more likely to give freely and without obligations whereas families have increased expectations and demands.
- Friends are more empathic listeners than families who have vested interests in avoiding and denying difficult areas.
- Friends provide fun.
They go on to comment that the shared experience of being gay in a heterosexual world has strengthened the relationships that exist between older lesbians and gay men.
Older lesbians’ social support is drawn from within the gay and lesbian community. In times of crisis support is frequently obtained from lesbian friendship networks rather than heterosexual friends, siblings or other family members. Indeed, at such times, there is often a reporting of isolation from the general heterosexual culture. (Albro et al., 1977; Chafez et al., 1974; Minnigerode and Adelman, 1978; Raphael and Robinson, 1980; Tully, 1983). Jacobs et al. (1999) identifies that older lesbians prefer to relate to their own age group for their social and sexual needs, however, 66 per cent of Kehoe’s (1986) survey had been involved in a cross-generational relationship where the age difference varied from 20-53 years. The vast majority of older lesbians in Raphael and Robinson’s (1980) research had lost a partner at some point, with 53 per cent reporting little support after the loss.
The implications are clear. Older lesbians and gay men, on the whole, have vibrant social lives, which involve mutual support. As individuals, they gain a great deal from these support networks, which may include increased enjoyment and happiness with their lives. Such conclusions would make Berger’s (1980) profile of older lesbians and gay men seem irrelevant and not reflective of the reality of older lesbians and gay men’s lives.
In terms of more formal support, Jacobs et al. (1999) identify that older lesbians and gay men may be hesitant in approaching and using social services, even if specific services are available. The rationale that they identified for such hesitance in service up-take is located within older lesbians and gay men’s own internalized homophobia and historical social stigma. The consequence of this internalized homophobia, defined by Kominars as ‘the fear of, and hatred of one’s homosexuality’ (1995: 29-30) can be low self-esteem, greater isolation and poor social interaction. Jacobs et al. (1999) go on to comment that many older lesbians viewed professionals associated with the support services, as not accepting their sexuality and wanting to ‘cure’ them.
While support may be drawn from friends, Berger (1982) notes that other institutional arrangements can impact negatively on the wishes of older lesbians and gay men and deny the existence or access of friends at critical times. Berger (1982) cites institutional policies, legal discrimination, medical oversight and social service agencies’ neglect for much of this negative impact. Thus, hospitals and nursing homes may deny access to a gay partner based on a failure to recognize the relationship and families can and do contest wills that leave property to a surviving partner.
Much of the research on issues related to older lesbians and gay men has been conducted in the United States and Australia, and has interestingly identified the issue of self-identification vis-à-vis age. The reference to accelerated ageing is purely an issue of self-identification and does not imply that lesbians and gay men experience premature ageing directly as a result of their sexuality. The emphasis on the body young being the body beautiful, within the lesbian and gay community (in particular, the gay male community), reflects the extent of ageist attitudes. The result is that people who are in mid-life are, or feel they are, disregarded and no longer attractive or sought after. This belief is reflected in a colloquialism, which asserts that ‘nobody loves a fairy over forty.’
The consequence of this is that some older lesbians and gay men—more notably gay men, identify themselves as old, decades before their heterosexual counterparts. Bennett and Thompson comment that:
because of the gay community’s emphasis on youth, homosexual men are considered middle-aged and elderly by other homosexual men at an earlier age than heterosexual men in the general community. Since these age-status norms occur earlier in the gay subculture, the homosexual man thinks of himself as middle-aged and old before his heterosexual counterpart does. (1991: 66)
The evidence of accelerated ageing is contradictory. Friend (1980) undertaking research in Philadelphia advertised for older gay men with the result that over 90 per cent of the respondents were aged under 64 years—the youngest was aged 32 years. However, Laner (1978) in her analysis of gay and heterosexual contact adverts in newspapers concluded that there was no evidence of accelerated ageing.
In terms of age-related norms, Minnigerode (1976) undertook research to identify how gay men aged between 25 and 68 years old defined themselves using chronological stages in life (young, middle-aged and old) and placed themselves within these stages. All the men in their twenties, 80 per cent of the men in their thirties and 28 per cent of the men in their forties considered themselves as young. The rest regarded themselves as middle-aged. The mean ages for middle-aged was 41.29 years and 64.78 years for old age.
Neugarten et al. (1965) established similar figures among heterosexuals, and Minnigerode (1976) concluded that accelerated ageing did not exist. Kelly (1977, 1980) asked gay men who were aged between 16 and 79 when these stages in life began and ended. The conclusion was that the majority regarded youth as starting before 18 years and ending at 30, middle-age started and finished between the ages of 30 and 50 years and old age started at 50 years. The conclusion reached was that accelerated ageing did exist.
Bennett and Thompson (1991) employed a symbolic interactionist approach in their research on accelerated ageing. Their contention was that gay men live in two worlds—that of the gay community and that of the wider society—thus, an examination of the duality of gay men’s experience was essential in understanding attitudes to ageing. They established that there was no claim for the existence of accelerated ageing based on the gay men’s self-identification. However, they did establish that gay men believe that other gay men view the stages of life as occurring earlier than with the rest of society.
This self-identification has affected some of the research undertaken on issues related to older lesbians and gay men. However, interestingly when asked, the people who self-identify as old recognize a distinction between the significance of age in the gay community and the rest of society.
The emerging research related to older lesbians and gay men does not lead to a unified theory about gay and lesbian ageing and, in fact, as Jacobs et al. (1999) have identified in relation to research associated with social service needs, there are several different and often contradictory theoretical approaches. Equally, some of the literature and research maintain theoretical stances drawn from mainstream sociology, which is not explicitly identified within the material. Hence, the assertion of both activity and disengagement theory as themes within the literature.
Jacobs et al. (1999) in their review of the literature also maintain that other methodological problems exist in the research, related to:
- The use of non-probability sampling because conceptual and logistical problems make a truly representative sample difficult to achieve.
- The nature of the samples employed reflect white, middle-class, educated, urban dwellers.
- Most studies are descriptive.
- Use of non-standardized measures undermines the validity and reliability of the studies.
- Single source data collection (usually interviews).
- Maintaining a sexist bias by not identifying single sex or unbalanced sex ratios.
- A lack of consistency in defining age cohorts.
Harry has identified a number of issues that are related to the sampling of gay men and in recognition of changing attitudes acknowledges that ‘considerable progress in sampling gay men [has been made] since the days when they were routinely gathered from the prison and the psychiatric couch’ (1986: 210). These changes reflect the growing confidence of both the lesbian and gay male population, and also their availability in easily recognizable places. There are also a large number of organizations involving and offering services to lesbians and gay men.
Harry (1986) identifies these later points as particularly problematic in trying to establish representative samples for research purposes. The explanation is related to the dominance of young people in gay areas and venues such that: ‘the oldest and the youngest groups are less likely to go to gay bars, less likely to belong to gay organizations, to have mostly gay friends, to have many sexual partners and to be coupled. Therefore these groups have fewer opportunities to be sampled due to their lesser involvement in the gay community’ (1986: 23). In some respects these comments do not reflect the evidence outlined above about some aspects of older lesbians and gay men’s lives—networks and partners, while other elements do reflect patterns of living. The key appears to be involvement with the gay community, which may mean regular attendance at bars and membership of organizations.
Patently, there are not enough bars in the world to accommodate us if we all choose to go out and organizations would be awash with volunteers if we all had to be a member of such a grouping. Lesbians and gay men, irrespective of age, make individual decisions about their involvement with the gay community. For some people, their decision not to disclose the nature of their sexuality would make such participation very difficult, for others the decision not to participate with the community may be based on class, gender or race. Age may be an additional factor in such decision-making.
Sampling lesbians differs by sample source, as noted by Harry (1986). Bell and Weinberg (1978) noted that two to three times more of their lesbian respondents came from personal contacts, and no respondents came from places of overtly sexual activity such as saunas. The implication that is drawn is that lesbian respondents may disproportionately live in couples who have highly domestic lives, and whose main contact with women is through the women’s movement rather than lesbian organizations.
Researchers who restrict themselves to those who are in contact with the gay community will inevitably be involved with the over-sampling of the same population and miss large sections of lesbians and gay people who may simply not have access to a local community. In doing so, the researchers open themselves to criticism of skewing their samples and thereby leave open to question the outcomes of their work.
Researchers also need to be aware of the underpinning assumptions that they make about what it is to be a lesbian or gay man. Some of the research that we have seen maintains some very questionable assumptions, which seem to be located within heterosexual models of relationships. A powerful theoretical construct that has been exercised through most of the research related to life satisfaction among older lesbians and gay men is that of activity theory and the link between happiness and community participation. As identified above, this is a test that older heterosexuals do not have to pass, it is contradicted by other research and is based on the premise that coming out leads to happiness.
Harry (1986) offers some advice about advertising for respondents in the media. He notes that press adverts are more likely to be attractive to the educated and thereby produce an over-representation of this group. With a degree of optimism in respect of the budgets available to researchers, he goes on to identify that television reaches the broadest audience.
In all advertizing for respondents, motivation to participate is essential, because it involves the respondent contacting the researcher. This issue applies to all ethically sound research, be it ethnography or market research.
Towards a Happier Old Age
Wahler and Gabbay (1997) identify a number of what they refer to as ‘unique challenges,’ for older lesbians and gay men, which includes the dominance of the youth culture in gay communities that gives rise to an early self-definition of age (accelerated ageing). They also identify discrimination as a challenge. Discrimination does exist, both directed towards older people per se and also towards lesbians and gay men. Rather than highlight the negative, we should perhaps seek to reinforce the positive with an assertion of the claim for equity. Equity on the part of age as well as equal treatment for all lesbians and gay men irrespective of age.
To assist the process of equal treatment we need to claim our history—to recognize our past. The current cohort of older lesbians and gay men has lived through a number of unique experiences which includes severe oppression. How many younger lesbians and gay men would recognize and understand the significance of the pink and black triangles (the sign of identification that gay men and lesbians were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied Europe)? We are aware of some of the names and lives of some of the more famous lesbians and gay men—Radcliffe Hall, Oscar Wilde and Alan Turin (the person who broke the Enigma code and invented the computer) but what of ordinary lives? What was it like to be a lesbian or gay man growing up in Manchester or New York in the early part of the last century? What skills did they need in order to survive?
Most of the current cohort of older lesbian and gay men will die in the next twenty years or so. Upon their death, we will lose a great deal of our oral history. As a result we will have to rely on the recorded experiences of a few famous lesbians and gay men that will not reflect the day-to-day life experiences of the hundreds and thousands of lesbians and gay men. The other source of material will be that located in the heterosexual world with the consequence that our history will be written through the eyes of heterosexuals. If our claims to ‘community’ are to mean anything, we must write our own history and therefore we must act now to record this history.
Older People: More Similarities than Differences?
The research that has been outlined in this work, while contradictory in places, does identify that there are a number of similarities between older lesbians and gay men and older heterosexuals. Possibly, the experience of ageing in a youth-orientated society is felt more generally than the issues of diversity that are increasingly being recognized as characteristics of older people.
Lee (1987) concludes that older heterosexuals do not have as much to learn from older lesbians and gay men about coping with ageing as Berger (1982) would suggest and that the major variables associated with life satisfaction in later life were health, wealth and loneliness. Of these, health is viewed as the most significant variable (Larson, 1978) with increasing dependence affecting self-esteem and morale (Clark and Anderson, 1967; Atchley, 1977). Lowenthal and Haven (1968) note that even with the moral support of loved ones and a good income, these do not impact significantly in the assessment of life satisfaction when health is poor.
Income levels were a significant variable in assessing life satisfaction for both lesbian and gay older people as well as for older heterosexuals. Lee (1987) comments that age is no leveller and that in fact the rich fare better in later life as they do earlier in life than the poor. An association with social class is drawn, which identifies that the higher the social class, the greater reporting of happiness in late life and that education was linked to class status.
The other major area of diversity in later life is that of cultural identity and black older people. If similar findings are identified in research related to black older people, then the issue is one of age and the social response to ageing. In terms of the response, the most significant point would be related to resources available for older people post-retirement, whether this is income replacement, access to continuing education or health promotion.
The preceding decades have generated a lot of research and reflection on issues related to black older people and this in turn has prompted gerontologists to have more regard for the existence of diversity within the group of people generally referred to as ‘the elderly.’ It stands to reason that a group of people who have passed a socially constructed age barrier and who may have 40-plus years difference in their ages, will have many differences in life experience.
Feminist commentators such as Arber and Ginn (1995) have encouraged us to acknowledge that the experience of late life is in fact the experience of women reflecting differential mortality rates which have the result that women live longer. The current understanding of late life is very different to the days when disengagement theory and political economy were in their own ways thought to be radical reflections on issues related to age and ageing.
The existence and experience of older lesbians and gay men will add to the debate about diversity in late life and encourage further reflections on the experience of ageing. Necessarily this should impact on service delivery with challenges to current practice and the automatic ascription of heterosexuality, in the same way that services have to consider racial and ethnic differences and the needs of, for example, black older people. As such, models of care will need to be developed or refined to encapsulate such diversity.
The contribution to existing debates on age and ageing is important, but it is not the only impact that older lesbians and gay men will make to gerontology. Existing research already challenges our theoretical understandings of ageing in spite of the incorporation of relatively orthodox gerontological theory. ‘Queering’ the accepted theoretical constructs will in time give rise to better understanding of not only the position of older lesbians and gay men but also older people generally. In contributing to this process an important question that needs to be answered is: can lesbians and gay men make a claim for cultural identity?
The answer to this question will be based on the nature of our differences in relation to heterosexuals. This is not to assert the existence of a ‘gay gene’ that makes us different, but rather the precepts upon which we conduct our lives, interact with each other and the rest of society and reflect on what is important to us as individuals and as a collectivity. It may mean that the shared experience of oppression and discrimination is the only thing that brings us together in some expression of culture, but it may also mean that there are differences and the recognition of these are vitally important.
How much queering gerontology as a field of study we will experience has yet to be fully explored. However, we can anticipate a significant questioning of theoretical assumptions and the potential of new theoretical constructs. We can also expect the development of new knowledge that is specific to older lesbians and gay men as well as that informed by such studies but related to heterosexual older people. We have waited a long time for the ‘discovery’ of older lesbians and gay men, we now wait with anticipation for its effect.