Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I am a 77-year old gay man

There is help for older gays but few know where to go for it and if they do, are embarrassed to ask for it. It is important to let it be known that help is available, where it can be found and that it will be offered with dignity.

by Leon Liberman
(pictured above, with Fausto Fernos, at the Generation You forum)

I speak from my conditioning and experience only. I don’t claim to represent those of other aging gay men and most certainly not those of lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders about whom I know little and with whom I don’t relate.

Words such as gay, dating partner and community are not comfortably used by me. I didn’t grow up with them as young gays have. I use them but prefer companion to partner which to me smacks of a business relationship, society to community and resent the assumption that because I am gay, I should automatically accept to be included in some kind of fraternal-like brotherhood that represents me socially and legally.

My conditioning and experience is far different than that of younger gay men. My spheres of awareness and reference are also different. When I grew up, being gay was thought of as a shameful illness and something dirty. It was kept secret from family and friends for fear of punishment and ridicule. If confronted with it, it was vehemently denied. My father once asked me if I was a pervert. Of course, I told him that I was not and it was never mentioned again. My parents were not sophisticated people. Had they known and admitted that I was gay, they would have thought that they were responsible for me having been that way and would have been shamed by it. That was the prevailing attitude of the times.

I did everything possible to avoid suspicion or confirmation. I lied more times than not about how I met the people I knew and where I was going or had been.

Now, of course, things are different. Parents can be told and are supportive, families watch gay pride parades together, television programs have brought non-threatening gay relationships into homes where the subject had never been brought up, celebrities and elected officials admit to being gay without their careers being affected and schools and religious, government and privately funded programs offer counseling, opportunities and defense. I recently saw a cartoon of a five- or six-year old who had just come home from school that day. The caption was “Today I learned that gay also means happy.”

How old is older within the gay community? SAGE is a national organization meaning Senior Action in a Gay Environment yet SAGE as it is used at the Center on Halsted, Chicago’s new gay community center, stands for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders. Elder is a word that should only be used with statesman. You have to be 62 to collect Social Security, 65 to qualify for Medicare and 65 to get a discounted RTA pass. The Center on Halsted considers 45 the starting age for participation in its senior programs. Elder at 45!

There are those who need support from families and friends more than others, especially those with few friends or who have outlived friends and companions and those without families or good family relations. If you are dependent upon such support, there is the tendency to respond to it as you are expected to so as not to jeopardize the needed support and provision and seem ungrateful. There is the danger of losing the support.

Financial stability is a major concern of most aging gays as it is of non-gays. Not everyone saved their money and bought a condo. There are those who end up being dependent on Social Security, SSI and Medicaid cash benefits and health care and food stamps. Some with low incomes are eligible for VA pensions, health care and other benefits. A friend in Florida found such dependency so humiliating that he ended his life. Sometimes there is a problem in coordinating benefits and help in finding out about entitlements is not easy to find.

Some if not many older gays are HIV Positive or have AIDS and when they were diagnosed were convinced that death was imminent. They used savings, maxed out credit cards, quit jobs, sold life insurance policies and withdrew retirement benefits to live well until they died. New treatments prolonged lives and now they find that they have no means, no nest egg, are plagued by creditors, are unemployable and forced to throw themselves on the mercy of SSI, Medicaid and charitable institutions.

How are older gays thought of by other gays and straights? More times than not, straights think of them as predators and even pedophiles. Younger gays think of them as lecherous old men who make unwanted advances.

All older men whether gay or straight still have sexual fantasies and desires and they’re not about men or women their age. For older gay men, meeting someone in a gay bar seldom if ever happens. Most bar clientele is very young and not interested. Options are few. Men of means can pay for sex and considering the number of ads for services or escorts in gay publications, many do. Others forcibly resort to dangerous behavior in public places and darkened porno shops and theatres. The risk of catching venereal diseases and worse is high. Health conditions are never revealed. Chances are taken out of necessity and not by choice.

There is help for older gays but few know where to go for it and if they do, are embarrassed to ask for it. It is important to let it be known that help is available, where it can be found and that it will be offered with dignity. Those who are HIV positive or have AIDS should choose treatment from doctors or facilities that are familiar with problems peculiar to older gay patients and can accommodate their needs by directing them to the services that they require if they’re not provided in-house.

[Read Leon's answer to "how are you healthy?"]


  1. This is excellent to see! I think it's not so much that younger queers don't *know* these things (like, I wasn't surprised by any of the points he makes) but that we don't keep them in our heads. This seems like history but there are so many people alive who were shaped by the history.

    Actually I take that back, the point he made that I had never thought about how if you were diagnosed w/ HIV in the early years of the epidemic, you would logically treat it as a death sentence and not be planning financially for decades of life extending in front of you. That is really cruel irony, these men who grew up in hiding and so excluded from society, then having their financial futures taken away too.

    I hope this opens a lot of eyes, thank you for it!

  2. Also, at least in my city (NYC), the group that has most opened my eyes to older gay men's experience is the Radical Faeries. They seem to do a great job of respecting elders relative to queer community in general. Maybe there could be a story on here about that, since there are faerie pics here as a weekly feature. They are sort of like the male equivalent of the womyn's lands/communities movement, except they are way more open to all kinds of gender expression and all genders.


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