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Elephant Graveyards
Gay Aging and Gay Ageism in the Year 2000
by Patricia Nell Warren
Originally published in OutWord Magazine 11/99

Recently a New York Times article about the plight of gay retirees made headlines across the country. At about the same time, I read items on the Internet about a few new retirement communities that would cater to gay people. All are still in the planning stage, but hopes are high. One publication exulted over what "the gay community is doing for its elderly." It would seem that gay ageism is "a subject whose time has come."

But has it really? A few weeks ago, responding to an Internet appeal for an older woman writer in dire straits because of illness and poverty, I wrote a check with shaking hand. The emotions stirred up in me by this action were profound. For the ten thousandth time I thought about the stark reality that faces older people in what we term the "gay and lesbian community." Over the last five years, I have written other checks to help other elders through similar dark times.

As one 45-year-old lesbian friend of mine puts it, we are "the age group that dare not speak its name." In recent years, as I passed 60, I have pondered the shabby treatment that our "community" metes out to old people, and wondered why our needs are so invisible to our own kind. As author Shelly Roberts points out: "There are seventy-four million baby boomers. Are there seven point four million gaby boomers facing a... destitute destiny on the horizon? Or, if the Kinseyan 10 percent estimates are as inaccurate as all the other earlier precepts about us have been, [are there] millions more?"

Itís true that mainstream America is not kind to old people either. A Dallas gay father and PFLAG member, John Selig, points out: "Young Americans have no contact with elderly. Young people have no interest in the history and wealth of experience that elderly American have to offer. The social services for the elderly in this country are appalling in general. Many elderly live poor existences. Medical advances are enabling the average life expectancy for men and women to rise. Too bad the amount of respect and inclusiveness are not rising at the same rate."

As the New York Times article reminds us, many mainstream retirement venues do not welcome openly gay people. "In 1996, for instance," the paper said, "a lesbian couple who had shared a home for years were forbidden to stay together in an assisted-living center in northern California, said Doni Gewirtzman of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the gay rights group. And some years back, a nursing home employee refused to give a resident a bath after learning that she was a lesbian, according to the New York chapter of Senior Action in a Gay Environment."

But the gay world is twice as callous, in my opinion. At a recent awards ceremony, when an aging pioneer activist had trouble wrestling his walker to the podium, no one got up to help him. There was this long horrible silence as the awardwinner struggled his way up some impossible steps to the stage. Some people in the black-tie crowd actually snickered. The friend who witnessed this incredible incident told me, "It was one of those moments that made me ashamed to be gay."

Our "community" is now half a century old, if you start counting from those pioneer activists of the World War II era. By now we might have achieved some collective maturity...but often I wonder just now mature we are. We brag a lot about "gay culture." "Cultural maturity" includes respect for elders. Historically, the real communities do cherish their elders, because that is how they roll over collective wisdom and experience to the next generation. To qualify as a community, the "gay community" should have been creating its own safety net for old people, similar to the one it did create for PWA's during the early AIDS epidemic. In this way, we would ensure our cultural immortality, as well as lifelong medical dignity and economic security right in our own world.

What we have done is point the finger at straight people, at their churches and media, at government, and complain about THEIR attitudes. We complain that THEY don't give us the right to marry, the right to insurance and benefits that married straights enjoy...clear into straight old age. What we havenít done is point the finger at our own omissions.

Among other things, we havenít created any temporary substitutes for these missing mainstream rights and benefits, so our elders can enjoy medical and economic dignity till the mainstream is ready to accept them. Even some kind of national emergency fund would do. The Authors Guild and the advertising industry both have an emergency fund for indigent members; there is no reason why we couldnít create a similar fund for our own, to tide elders over till full acceptance comes.

Oh yes, as I travel on book tours, I do see a few bright spots. There is the LGBT wing of the American Society of Aging (ASA, at www.asaing.org), and its newsletter. There is the New York City-based Senior Pride Network, and a scattering of local programs across the country. The occasional workshop for men in over-40s crisis. And -- most importantly -- a dawning consciousness about the positivity of old age, that is happening in gay spiritual circles both Christian and pagan. At the Dallas MCC Cathedral of Hope, for instance, I found a large congregation with many silver-haired members who looked really glad to be alive and participating in MCC life.

Pagan poet/author Michael Gorman echoes this spiritual trend as he says: "Ancient cultures that revered gay and lesbian people as shamans priests, and druids were also cultures who honored their elderly as the "wise ones." A healthy culture is one that refuses to waste the special talents of any of its people, and the experience of time brings great gifts of insight that we are losing through our neglect of the old among us. In the past, when a man entered his "sage" period of life or a woman entered her "crone" stage, people celebrated the fact that they had yet another elder with wisdom to share. They cared well for their aged oracles. We queer folk are the innovators in so many areas. It's time we led the way to the healthy honoring of our elders even as we learn to honor ourselves."

In short, there ARE some enlightened individuals and groups out there who care. But the "gay community" as a whole has a long ways to go.

A typical case of failure to serve old people was one large urban gay community center whose changes I tracked over several years. This center reduced community services in order to focus on fund-raising. The seniors program was shuffled here and there in the building, given no permanent place, till the disgusted seniors finally moved somewhere else. Today this center is a black-tie money machine whose directorship is a ticket-punch to political office in the local mainstream.

Many of our younger movers and shakers resist recognizing the problem -- even the business benefits of obvious solutions. For several years now, senior activist Peter Lundberg and his company, the Lundberg Group, have been trying to launch Our Town, an attractive-sounding gay retirement community in Northern California. But Peter told me in a telephone interview: "So often the gay people who have the money and could be investing into a venture like this simply arenít interested." Across the country, several other gay and lesbian retirement ventures are in the planning stage. But only one that I know of -- Palms of Manasota in Sarasota, FL -- has actually built any homes. Lundberg added sadly that, in his part of the country, the best place for gay seniors is still an Episcopal retirement home in Oakland.

We all know the gay person who had the plush career and retired on interest income, to a nice house in a good neighborhood or a mainstream retirement enclave. Two gay men whom I know, former businessmen in their 70s, have been together for over 30 years, and they now live in Leisure Village in Orange County, CA. I have visited them in their comfortable home. They are enviably well fixed, with a good social life including heterosexual and homosexual friends, passionate shared interests in local politics, and their hobbies -- one in immigrant history, the other in gardening. They do the curmudgeon thing, bickering pleasantly about who does the dishes.

But these two men are the rarity in gay life. Myth to the contrary, most gay people donít have high incomes and they don't retire on fat portfolios or golden parachutes. Over the years they supported themselves with small businesses and independent careers; when retirement comes, theyíre lucky if they have a few monthsí savings socked away. When disaster strikes, their margin can vanish overnight. Several years ago, I witnessed the travail of an elderly disabled HIV+ musician as he tried for several months to find an affordable apartment with wheelchair access, and some affordable way to move there.

Many gay men have made aging complicated and painful for themselves by adopting an ageist caste system that rules their social and sex life. Itís as ruthless as the caste system in India ever was. Goddess help you if you break the rules. "You hang with guys your own age. Young guys don't talk to older guys, or even hang with them," insists a 23-year-old. "It labels you." Evidently the idea of an older sugar daddy is not something that many Generation X'ers want to flaunt. This caste system is extra complicated for men who happen to look younger than their age. Many older men's fragile egos can't handle socializing with men their own age who look younger than they do.

Age caste is most excruciating for men from the 1970s and '80s Generations, who lost friends to AIDS. My business partner Tyler St. Mark told me: "If the rule is hang out with your own age group, who am I supposed to hang out with? Most of my old friends are dead." One 60-something man in Chicago, who used to be a mythic figure in the leather world and also had his losses, says: "I don't go out any more. Nobody there but ghosts."

Many lesbians deal with aging better than gay men do. But for every silver-haired Barbara Gittings (to whom I presented an award last year, who is still out there breaking lances for gay rights in the American Library Association) there are the older women I know who have withdrawn from "community life". "Iím tired of being ignored," said one 50-year-old woman, "or made to feel unwelcome at any women's event where pheronomes are in the air. Iíd rather live in Skokie and babysit my straight sonís kids."

Our media help build those prison walls of youth images. Says Winston Wilde, partner of the late author Paul Monette, "I'm only 42, and I don't read any gay magazines anymore---any--- because I don't see the beautiful faces of our dignified elders. Our Ďcommunityí has thrown them away, like yesterday's trick. I am ashamed of the ageism in gay people, and I refuse to collaborate with it." Few are the magazines -- Hero is among the few -- who dare to consistently portray a positive image of older men. Youth mags like XY do their part to set another generationís feet in ageist concrete, by filling their ad and editorial pages with cutting-edge Peter Pans who may have zits, but no wrinkles.

On TV, or in films now deluging the gay art-house circuit, the age-view is just as skewed. "Edge of 17," "Billy's Hollywood Kiss," "Better Than Chocolate"...the heroes and heroines are almost always young, cute and horny. Oscar-winning "Gods and Monsters" is true to type because it portrays aging director James Whale as pathetically afraid of aging, and avid to get his hands on young flesh. So far, gay film has produced no equivalent of "On Golden Pond." Ironically, documentaries showing gay people over 40 are often produced by straight people who seem blessedly free of age bias. Example: the recent A & E opus on same-sex marriage, which offered positive and dignified portraits of older gay and lesbian couples.

As San Diego law professor Bryan Wildenthal points out, "We do have a few glamorous openly gay stars like Sir Ian McKellen, and political figures like James Hormel and Barney Frank. And sexy-grandmother type Virginia Appuzzo, lesbian activist and recently Clinton's top assistant for White House administration." Wildenthal is right...this could be considered a good start. Yet how typical of our celebrity-obsessed "community" that we honor the rare elder movie-star, but ignore the needs of rank-and-file elders.

Indeed, itís more usual for the gay media to discard ikons when they go grey. In 1994 my company Wildcat Press sponsored a reception to honor Quentin Crisp, then turning 80, during his visit to Los Angeles. Tyler St. Mark and I brought several notable elders, including Morris Kight, Ivy Bottini and Robert Arthur, together with younger people for an evening of storytelling and celebration. Local gay media turned up their noses at our event, but everybody had a great time. "No one ever did anything quite like this for me," Bottini said with tears in her eyes.

Since our elderly are so unwelcome in so many areas of gay life, and since they have made themselves so scarce, what black hole do they disappear into? Have they found some quiet, obscure corner -- like those mythical elephant graveyards in Africa, where people used to think that elephants went to quietly die?

In an article I published in 1996, on my 60th birthday, I first talked about those hidden places where many of our old people quietly slip away to live out their final years and die. I called them "elephant graveyards," from those mythical places that supposedly existed in Africa, because supposedly elephant bones were never found laying around openly on the plains anywhere. Biologists have since proven that these "graveyards" are a myth...elephants do die out in the open. But hey...we don't see old people's bones littering the social savannahs of the gay continent. So where do they go? My 1996 article was published in the Philadelphia Gay News. Though my commentaries usually provoke a lot of mail, this was among the few that met with a resounding silence. I was not surprised. As an author, I have learned to recognize this silence. It was the silence of denial.

Several years ago, when canvassing in West Hollywood to help Jeff Horton to get re-elected to the L.A. Board of Education, I found myself face to face with some elderly citizens who were living isolated in crannies of that city so famed for plastic youth. It was three days before the election. On canes and walkers, they came halting to the doors of their tiny apartments to listen to my spiel. From their comments, it was clear that they'd voted with their feet and left "gay community life" many years ago. They didn't read the local gay press. They had no idea that a gay man was running for city office. My heart sank as I realized that nobody on our PAC had thought about elder gay voters -- a van to get them to the polls (since few of them drive), an outreach to them at an earlier date so they could have voted by absentee ballot.

In recent years, as I travel the U.S., I have seen departing footprints of older people steadily drifting away from gay urban enclaves, into suburbs and rural areas, where they try to hook back into mainstream life. Some migrants have a few bucks and go in search of the "good life". Now and then you see the lucky ones on HGTV, being interviewed in their nice country homes, all smiles, with their dogs, and the picket fence or patio fountain they built themselves. The network never uses the G word, but hey...my gaydar goes off when two guys or two women tour the show-host through that Victorian mansion or Southwest adobe ruin that they restored on a budget. Other migrants simply like the "post gay" climate out there, hoping to enjoy a little acceptance in a gay-friendly mainstream neighborhood, sometimes even returning to their home state.

But there may be a darker, sadder side to this emigration. Across the nation, I see attendance at some Pride festivals falling, community centers folding, local publications and bookstores closing down, AIDS organizations faltering, and the surviving infrastructure focusing on frantic fundraising to survive. A business friend told me of his recent shock on visiting the Castro in San Francisco, finding signs of "urban de-gay" there, with some clubs gone and some stores boarded up. Do the slumping statistics reflect vanishing old people? Do older people stop supporting our "traditional" social infrastructure because they have no place in it? By moving away, are older people declaring that our definition of "community" is mentally, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt? As gay people age, do they find it discouraging and depressing to participate in our so-called "community life?" Do they have a queasy feeling that what happens there is never about them, or for them?

Among my own elder friends, a few have made this move "somewhere else" -- including Robert Arthur, septegenarian Hollywood actor and gay pioneer. Several years ago, Bob turned his back on Los Angeles, where heíd lived since the 1950s -- where most gay people seemed to have forgotten his activist achievements as co-founder of Log Cabin Republicans and Project Rainbow. It was hard to blame Bob for moving back to his familyís old-time seat in an obscure town in Washington State, and taking back the birth name of his locally prominent family, the Arthauds.

Separatists grumble about "post-gaying" and "mainstreaming". Yet what have they done to create senior support in our gay urban enclaves, where youth, beauty and tricks are ever the driving force?

One of my grimmest stories comes from a resort city, supposedly a mecca for retired gay people. "You'd better have money if you retire here," says Bill (not his real name), a gay man in his late 60s. He moved to that area with illusions about the fun old age he was going to have. Lucky for Bill, he had worked for Los Angeles County for many years, and had his small pension. It was barely enough to feed him and his pet lizard, and pay rent in a tiny gardener's cottage, but he hoped to get a job and stay socially active. He wanted to afford having a car. And he was lonely.

In spite of his resume as a social worker and talk-show host, Bill couldn't break into the snobby gilt-edge social circles. He couldnít get a menial job, even a volunteer post. All the GLBT orgs and businesses in town wanted to hire cute young things. It took a year of hiking around in the fierce heat (because he didnít have a car), before Bill finally got hired... as a shipping clerk. And there were no community services for gay seniors, he says. Today Bill spends lonely weekends in his cottage with his TV and his lizard.

Why doesn't Bill move back to L.A.? "Things aren't any better there," he says.

Do these things happen only in the world capitals of skin-deep youth? They can happen anywhere in the U.S. I have met many older people in my book-tour travels, who have given up on "the community" and now live recluse lives. Recently a Kentucky man in his 50s told me he was tired of having his efforts to find a partner rebuffed. "Old guys want young guys," he said. "Young guys want young guys. Nobody wants an old coot like me." So he sold his property and moved to the Caribbean, where he prefers worrying about hurricanes to worrying about his bald head. Now he is REALLY alone. "But not more alone than I was in Louisville," he told me in an email.

In Colorado, veteran activist Frank Whitworth, founder of Ground Zero, had this to say: "Approaching sixty, I have already begun to feel the "aloneness" of aging. Despite the fact of being an active gay community leader, most of those in the movement are younger. We work together but there is little social connection. At a time when we most need companionship, our community deserts us. I'm not looking for an occasional care package as I grow older. I want to be included, welcome, and truly a part of the crowd, not just an observer."

Today, few people recognize that ageism may be one reason why so many young gay men veer back to unsafe sex...why so many young people attempt suicide. How can our youth have self-esteem, or give a hell about safer sex, when they know that they can't avoid aging...when old age is despised as something dirty and shameful? If I were a gay kid, and saw old people laughed at, barred from gay bars and sex clubs, banned from magazine covers, etc., I would definitely get the message.

Gay kids also figure out intuitively that being old may mean giving up your home and going back in the closet -- perhaps even giving up your partner of many years -- so you can end your days in some dusty mainstream senior trailer park. How do they know this? Because they seldom see any role models of happy active old people living openly and happily in gay urban areas where youth congregate.

Statistics are hard to come by, but I suspect that the suicide rate among older gay people is higher than we care to know. It's also likely that some gay and lesbian homeless are elders who had no friends or support networks to help them avoid medical or financial disaster. There may even be gay people among the homeless who are currently being swept into prisons or mental hospitals by growing anti-homeless phobia in many cities.

Now that I am 63, Iíve seen little change in gay-world attitude. The "public" deaths in our world are mainly high-profile murder victims and people with AIDS. Indeed, most of our support networks for estate planning, medical needs, viatical insurance and other end-of-life needs, are focused on PWAs -- who tend to be younger men. We have built a whole pathos around the premature death of a young goodlooking guy -- yet few of us think what will happen to all those aging HIV+ men who survive to old age with better treatment and better attitude. We need to be especially concerned about those aging men who once believed they would die, so they spent their savings and sold their insurance, and now have nothing.

Elder lesbian and bisexual women get short shrift when it comes to emergency medical consciousness, since so much of our health and medical infrastructure focuses on men with HIV. When I flip through a gay magazine that is supposedly "general interest" (meaning aimed at both genders), I find that advertising often focuses heavily on men's physical or emotional or medical needs (hair loss, cosmetic surgery, penis enlargement, drugs, life insurance, etc.). Only now is our world awakening to women with HIV and others among the 80+ autoimmune diseases that affect women. We also have shockingly little in the way of geriatric services for women.

"For most of us," one senior told me bitterly, "dying means dying alone. Dying behind closed doors...in a hospital where the staff won't let your partner visit you. If you have a partner, that is. Or it means being found on the bathroom floor by your landlord after you've been dead for five days."

It can also mean dying violently. An old man's chances of being murdered in a moment of loneliness and vulnerability when he tries to buy a little warmth (because he canít get it socially for free) are statistically very high. His life may be taken by a young hustler bent on robbery or gay-gashing. When our media complain about violence against gay men, they seldom comment that the victim is often old, because we have built another pathos around the young handsome murder victim. As I write this, the latest elderly murder victim is a 67-year-old Rhode Island gay man, who was found in his bedroom, naked and dead of blunt trauma head injuries.

Yes, the kids may hoot at some elderly forgotten activist as he totters by on Santa Monica Boulevard. But in their hearts, the kids know that someday the snickers will be aimed at them. So they'd rather die young.

Some fundamentalists have it half-right when they insist that all gay people die young. Statistically speaking, they are wrong about us. In spite of disease, substance addiction, anti-gay violence and suicide, significant numbers of us do live to be physically old. Yet emotionally, mentally and spiritually speaking, many of us do "die" young. We "die" by degrees, as we buy into that myth that life ends at 30. Working with youth, through two different positions in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I find that more and more young people are having a horribly stressful time on their 20th birthday. "If you donít have a career or a partner by 22 or 23," one of them told me, "youíre screwed. No one will look at you."

While I deplore that hatred that some heterosexual religious fundamentalists direct at us, I notice that they are ahead of us in their willingness to help one another keep a lifelong hold on medical and economic dignity. Senior planning for the future, and senior care, are basic social principles in the religious-right world. They take to heart the teaching of Jesus that you can't preach the Sermon on the Mount till you've fed the multitude. We need to do the same.

As the United States argues over same-sex marriage, it is my opinion that getting the right to marry is not the key issue. Acceptance of the individual, throughout his or her whole lifespan, is the issue. If white-haired individuals aren't accepted and celebrated even in the gay world, why should the mainstream be pushed to accept the idea of white-haired gay couples living happily together? Let alone be pressured to provide benefits for these couples when the gay world provides so little?

In a word, we can't sermonize to old people about "gay pride" if they don't have decent housing or food, or money to pay their doctor bills, or a good social life.

What can old people contribute to the gay world? The same things that old people have always contributed, all over the world, in every society. The kind of perspective that can only be gotten by living for 70 or 80 years. The kind of understanding of your own mortality that nobody has at 20. Valuable experience and information that often can only be transmitted orally. During my recent visit to the MCC youth center in Dallas, two dozen young people expressed their interest in gay history, and a wistful wish that old people would spend time with them and teach them about it. Said one 15-year-old girl: "Itís way more interesting when you hear about history from somebody who really lived through it."

For myself, since I wonder where I will wind up in 20 years, I've made efforts to counter this trend. As an author, I'm trying to make some breaches in that Great Wall of youth images. In my ongoing Front Runner series of novels, I focus on the aging of gay man Harlan Brown and lesbian mother Betsy Heden, and a few other characters. On the personal front, I cultivate a garden of friendships and mentorships with young people, with the hope that these blossoms will still bring color to my world 20 years from now.

But my personal willingness to use the term "gay community" came to an end the day I wrote that check. "Community" means all of us, numerically, including the old. I wonít use the term again till weíve earned it...and I will do my part to help bring those changes about. Till then, we need to stop kidding ourselves. Age bias is destroying the very gay world that we're trying so hard to build.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

Author's note:
Patricia Nell Warren, author of The Front Runner and other bestselling novels, also writes provocative commentary for many gay and mainstream publications. She serves on the Human Relations Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

 


 

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