My name is Laura and I am a heterosexual.
But, I shouldn’t have to tell you that.
Recently, I was asked to write an essay on the very real barriers that Lesbian/Gay/Bi-Sexual/Transgender seniors face. Sure! I said. Some of the people I care about most fit in this category. I’m all for fairness, education and equality.
But when I got to actually writing, I was stumped.
You, see I haven’t had the experience of being LGBT in America.
I have family members who are gay. I have other family members who I long have suspected are gay, and just haven’t admitted it to themselves (but would likely be much happier if they did.) I have friends who are gay. I thought I understood that purposely making themselves an object of juvenile jokes and immature mocking was not something that anyone would do as part of a ‘lifestyle.’
I thought I understood.
In going through the research and reading the stories of those who have experienced first hand the tragedy of prejudice and the pain of stereotype, I thought I ‘got it.’
But I really didn’t get it.
I’ve never had to explain to anyone that my female room-mate is not also my lover, even though, at my age, I have been asked if I was secretly lesbian (because I am not married.) Made me angry when it happened. However, I did not ask myself why.
Had I been healthier and more just in my own heart, I might have grinned and said, mischievously, “Why? Would you like a date?”
Perhaps that wouldn’t have been the appropriate response. Such well-intentioned (I hope) folks might just be speaking from the way they were taught. Speaking out the things they were educated to fear. Maybe.
As I struggled through my essay, I kept repeating one thing-no one should have to justify who they are in order to obtain needed services or equal justice under the law. NO ONE should be made to feel like a second class citizen because of who they love and wish to share their lives with. No one should be used by cynical politicians who stir up fear to obtain votes.
I am humbled, upon completion of my essay, because I realize there is so much I have yet to understand. Acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance is often the start of the search for higher truth.
I’m ready to seek that truth, and to live in a world where whole groups of individuals do not have to hide their hearts and who they love for fear of rejection.
Will you join me?
NOTE–If you’re interested in the essay, here it is;
Ask any well-meaning heterosexual person, and they’ll load you up on stereotypes.
Gays allegedly set a better table than Martha Stewart. Lesbians can bench press more than the most testosterone loaded guy at the gym. There are hundreds of misconceptions that are swapped around in literature, television, movies, etc.
But what if, (what if) it is actually harder to spot someone whose orientation is LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual or Transgender) because they have the exact same needs as heterosexuals?
What if they, like straight folk, are just trying to live their lives and want love, affirmation and safety like everyone else?
This would be a good enough assumption if it the needs stopped there. However, as the baby boomer and Generation X groups age, some huge problems come to light.
Those problems lie with the straight majority’s perceptions, and perhaps hidden prejudices against those who want and should be able to show pride in their orientations.
These often hidden hostilities can come out towards aging LGBT individuals in how such groups are treated when seeking social services, medical assistance or even something as simple (seemingly) as equal representation under the law.
Today, there would seem to be large acceptance of same-sex relationships. On the same media that keeps stereotypes alive, there are also healthy depictions of LGBT relationships.
However, which depiction is more believed by the straight majority?
One need only to look at the most recent election campaign waged by Kentucky Republicans to see that sexual orientation is a hotbed of controversy. It is an area where politicians shamelessly attempted to pit one orientation and its lack of understanding (and fears) against other orientations to gain votes.
Political commercials showed ‘all-American’ (if there is such a thing) Caucasian males who proclaimed that they believed marriage should be between one man and one woman. They ignored the large minority of LGBT voters and attempted to make discrimination and hate-mongering towards this group a way to show evidence of their Christian and family values.
Where was the disconnect? How did they forget that as politicians, they are to serve all peoples, not the ones most similar to themselves in belief and orientation?
When did the LGBT population and its very real needs, especially as they age, become a pawn to gain votes and political power?
It would seem that politicians are the last to realize the purchasing (and voting) power of those voters whose rights they step on.
As the business world has caught onto the reality of minority financial power, we have seen more inclusion of minorities in advertising, both in print and visual media. However, we are slow to see a commercial showing a Lesbian or Gay couple in a breakfast cereal commercial, let alone a McDonalds shot.
These individuals and their families represent a growing and more vocal population in our country. Their needs are the same, especially as they age, as any heterosexual individual or family. Yet, the LGBT population often fears the awkwardness of approaching clinics, social workers, doctors and other professionals for fear of rejection in a way that heterosexuals can’t truly imagine.
Given this political climate, and everyday experience, as the LGBT population ages, there is an understandable hesitancy, to approach service providers.
Even with the most well-intentioned heterosexual, a lack of cultural training and understanding of the LGBT population can lead to hurtful exchanges where the person of the minority orientation feels the need to explain or justify why they are who they were born to be, something that a heterosexual never has to do.
The perceptions and the hurt that exist between the LGBT population and the heterosexual population can create a barrier to sharing the common experiences of aging and actually create larger obstacles than should have to be there for populations which have much more in common than they have in difference.
In a policy brief by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the following is stated to highlight the concerns of this very vulnerable group of seniors
“While sexual and gender minorities have many of the same health concerns as the general population, they experience certain health challenges at higher rates, and also face several unique health challenges. In particular, research suggests that some subgroups of the LGBT community have more chronic conditions as well as higher prevalence and earlier onset of disabilities than heterosexuals. Other major health concerns include HIV/AIDS, mental illness, substance use, and sexual and physical violence. In addition to the higher rates of illness and health challenges, some LGBT individuals are more likely to experience challenges obtaining care. Barriers include gaps in coverage, cost-related hurdles, and poor treatment from health care providers.”
These are formidable concerns without adding the issue of the need for meaningful and informed dialog between the LGBT and the straight community. Meaningful, forthright conversation is needed between the two groups in order to encourage LGBT individuals to be more vocal about what they need, and what they desire to have happen in their decisions about healthcare, residential, legal, marital and especially end of life decisions.
If one follows the huge political debate on granting the LBGT population the right to marry who they choose (a right most heterosexuals have always enjoyed) it is easier to understand the hesitancy to approach an entity which might judge first, and empathize second, or not at all.
The fact that it takes a national election (recently in Ireland) to grant a basic civil right that majority populations takes for granted shows how far we, as a human population have to go, before tolerance becomes a norm, and not a refreshing difference in our interactions with one another.
As our society embraces diversity as a natural part of life and nothing to sneer at or make fun of, our children and hopefully other younger members of society are learning tolerance from the cradle. This will, hopefully, in times to come encourage greater equality for all individuals.
However, the problem remains–what about now?
Tolerance, as most fair-minded folk would like to see it, doesn’t come close to being in existence when it comes to aging LGBT seniors and service provision. What can be done?
According to the most recent census, the over 65 population is one of the fastest growing population in America and will reach over 80 million by the year 2050. As many as 3 million or more currently identify themselves as LGBTQ.
LGBT seniors face higher rates of poverty, social isolation, health disparities, and marginalization than any other demographic. While 75% of LGBT seniors live alone and lack family support, they are 5 times less likely to access much needed services including health care, senior centers, affordable housing, and government subsidy programs for food and utilities. (Henry J. Kaiser family foundation)
Because this group faces such specific needs, how does society in general respond to what is a growing crisis in service provision? Some suggestions to address the issues that prejudice and ignorance have created might be as follows;
1. Mandate education about sexual orientation to be part of cross-cultural education for any government funded agency providing services to seniors.
2. More grant opportunites at local, state and university level to study the unique issues of the LGBT population with a focus on solution-based thinking.
3. Government based intervention to investigate and prevent discrimination towards LGBT who seek out services.
4. Education at a public level (commercials, advertising, etc.) to break down exisiting barriers and misconceptions about what the LGBT orientation is.
5. Opportunites for meaningful conversation to break down existing barriers between the straight and lbqtg population (Love Boldly, etc.)
6. greater prosecution for hate crimes against this population, to include penalties if decreased service provision can be linked to orientation, and fines for politicans who use this fear and misunderstanding of this group to gain votes.
When it comes to beginning dialog, how do we ‘do’ meaningful? What is meaningful?
First, it is important to realize that every individual has their own unique story. Those who hear that story may not be able to find commonality with the storyteller, but likely there is something the hearer will find in common. We all experience love, sadness, hope, grief, fear, and worry. We are all wired to need comfort, joy, encouragement and a listening ear.
In the following story, shared by Moses, an HIV/AIDS Outreach Specialist with the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, we see many of the above experiences that are common to all. However, while the emotions are common, the LGBT population experience other circumstances that the straight population rarely if ever faces;
John Moses and his partner Mark have been together for 18 years. He says they are very happy together … yet, he is afraid. On November 15, 2014, Moses recalled events from an earlier chapter of his life in Atlanta, when he was 29: the day the man he loved died from HIV.
“I’d lost my life partner, and at the same time, his family came in and changed the locks on my house and had my belongings in a black trash bag that I dragged to the front of the house and climbed into a cab and made my way back to Lexington, Kentucky.”
Two decades later, that experience still haunts him. “I have fear that if one day something happens to Mark, the exact same thing is going to happen. That his family may come in, and change the locks on my house, and take my belongings, and I think that’s a fear that seniors in the LGBT community face.”
It is possible that many seniors fear the loss of their home, freedom and independence due to dementia, but what about the reality of seniors, fully decisional, who are treated as second class citizens such as Moses?
In states that do not allow same sex marriage, straight adults would have a legal recourse if a long-time partner died. They would likely not be put out on the street with their belongings in trash bags. However, Moses’ situation paints a picture of human beings with the same needs, feelings and (supposed) rights being treated in a vastly different and more unjust way.
In a recent Lifeline conversation with Troy Johnson, Director of Lexington Senior Pride Initiative, a very real concern and threat to dialog is the perception (justly obtained in some cases) that someone who identifies themselves as Christian will reject a LGBT individual seeking services or simply compassion.
While loud and strident right-wing groups have made this unfortunate perception seem more common than it is, the perception remains. Why would anyone approach a ‘helping’ group/entity if they foresee more stigmatization, more rejection and more stereotyping?
It is a struggle that both the LGBT and the straight community must acknowledge and share if gains will be made in addressing the growing needs of the Baby Boomer and Generation X population. The problem won’t go away.
The time has come to pay attention to the very real needs of a people who should not be afraid to hide their love or orientation away in order to be treated fairly.