Originally published in The Boston Globe.
Older Gays Still Hesitant About Coming Out
Many find it hard to forget threat of being stigmatized
Phil and John have lived together in a house in an affluent suburb west of Boston for 27 years. They began dating in 1974. Two years later, they moved in together, and they have been a couple ever since.
Phil, 63, said he never heard the word “homosexual” until he was in the Army in 1963. He has never told his family that he is gay, nor does he tell his friends from church or the veterans community he spends time with. He didn’t want his last name or his hometown published in this article.
“I’m not in hiding,” Phil said. “But I guess you could say I haven’t really come out. I’m from a generation where most of my contemporaries would be uncomfortable with it pushed in their faces. And I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable.”
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has estimated that there are between 1 million and 3 million gays and lesbians in America over the age of 65. They came of age at a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy kept lists of gays alongside his famous lists of communists, when the words “gay” or “homosexual” were rarely spoken, and when same-sex attraction was widely considered immoral, or a mental disorder.
This social climate shaped a community of individuals that, in general, can be more reluctant to speak out and identify themselves than some of today’s younger gays and lesbians. And as this population ages and requires more attention and services, some feel that it is becoming more important to create spaces of support where these seniors feel comfortable seeking help.
“These seniors have faced a lifetime of extraordinary stigma,” said Amy Hunt, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Aging Project, an organization based in Jamaica Plain that works to educate people about the special concerns facing gay seniors.
“It’s a very, very invisible population,” Hunt said. “These people came of age in a different time, when it was illegal to be a gay person.”
Phil said that, although he doesn’t advertise his sexual orientation, he and John don’t hide their relationship, either. They go to the same doctor and accompany each other to appointments. They share a telephone number. And Phil said that he has been bringing John to celebrate the holidays with his extended family for decades.
“My partner is included in everything,” Phil said, “and I take that as full acceptance. Friends and family who know me well obviously have made an assumption, but for anyone who hasn’t, there’s no need to make them uncomfortable.”
Hunt, who is 40 years old and a lesbian, frequently speaks at senior centers and health-care facilities in Greater Boston. She said that health-care workers and seniors often tell her they don’t have elderly gays in their midst.
“I say, that’s impossible,” said Hunt. “It means they are either chasing them away, or that they are serving them but are missing some very important things. Some people don’t even think that gay seniors exist at all, like gay people have some kind of expiration date or something. But they’re everywhere.”
At the Needham Senior Center this fall, a room of 30 seniors and care givers listened to a talk given by Hunt. Ruth, an 89-year-old Needham resident who didn’t want to give her last name, said that she didn’t think there are any gay or lesbian seniors who attend the center but that she wouldn’t mind if there were.
“It would bother some, though,” she said, “but they might be too well-bred to show it. This is a broad statement, but I don’t think the senior community is accepting of gays and lesbians. It’s still a tee-hee kind of thing.”
“There’s a lot of laughter behind people’s backs and making fun of gay people,” said Phyllis, a 76-year-old Needham resident who lives in a retirement community and declined to give her last name.
Some, such as Hunt, think this intolerance in parts of the senior community is based on a lack of information. So, she works to educate people not just about the presence of gay elders, but also about how many issues facing all seniors, such as health care and financial planning, can be more complicated for gays. Same-sex couples are unable to take advantage of many of the support systems that federal and state governments have created to provide for elderly couples.
For example, Social Security pays survivor benefits to widows and widowers, but not to a same-sex partner. Medicaid protects the family home when a spouse has to enter a nursing home, but no such protections exist for same-sex partners.
Gail Horowitz, a Boston lawyer who specializes in elder law and estate planning, said there are several documents that gay couples should have to establish basic rights such as hospital and nursing home visitations, burial preferences, and inheritance - all issues of concern to most aging seniors.
But even this paperwork, which can cost couples between $1,000 and $4,500 to create, is not absolute insurance. Horowitz said that even when she draws up legal documents, such as health-care proxies and powers of attorney, couples can never be 100 percent sure they are protected. Because a legal statute gives these powers to next of kin, family members could contest the documents.
Horowitz said there is no legal paperwork to get around inheritance-tax laws. A married person can die and leave everything to his spouse without being taxed, she explained, but if a gay man leaves everything to his partner of 30 years, estate taxes will be charged.
“You can have every document you want in place,” Horowitz said, “but if you’re not a spouse, you’re not family.”
And, although the right to marry could solve all of these legal and financial discrepancies, marriage is a complicated issue for some in the older gay community. Phil said that, although he and John already consider themselves married, they don’t know if they would choose to tie the knot officially.
According to Ed Ford, 60, president of the Boston Prime Timers, a social club for hundreds of older gay men throughout New England, some older gay couples are hesitant about marriage because it makes the relationship a matter of public record. And after a lifetime of trying to protect themselves, some gay seniors might not want to take the risk of revealing their orientation - even if same-sex marriages do become legal.
“They’ve lived a lot of their lives in the closet,” he said. “They’ve lived their lives trying to get away from the cameras.” Ford himself, however, hopes to marry his partner of 14 years next year.
One lesbian in her late 50s who lives in the western suburbs and declined to give her name plans to marry her partner of 25 years as soon as she can. For her, gaining the right to marry is not about financial and legal matters as much as it is about feeling like a second-class citizen.
“There are privileges inherent in the word ‘marriage,’ and I am not going to be approached as a spouse without it,” she said, adding that, in considering marriage, gay couples shouldn’t w orry about causing discomfort to others.
At the Needham Senior Center, one audience member asked Hunt what the seniors could do at their center to make the place more open and welcoming to gay and lesbian elders. She suggested prominently displaying a mission statement declaring the center’s dedication to serving seniors regardless of sexual orientation, and murmurs of approval rippled through the audience.
Director Sharon Lally said that the center is up for reaccreditation this year. As part of the process that runs through June, she said a committee will look into the mission statement, which currently makes no mention of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
“They’ll be looking with an eye for gender bias and sexual orientation bias and make sure we’ve addressed these issues.”
This article originally appeared in The Boston Globe on January 11, 2004.