Gay Golden Oldies

In spite of financial hardships, homophobia within the social services and a shoratge of retirement options; a number of older lesbians across the country say that their golden years couldn't be better. Surprising, considering that "The Harvard Medical Guide for Women" (Harvard Press) states that lesbians over age fifty-five are more likely to suffer from depression, higher rates of cancer, alcoholism or to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts.In part due to older lesbians' long standing fear of the health care profession. This makes them less likely than other women to seek a mamagram, pap smear, counseling or general health care. Longtime sufferers of duel discrimination, age and sexual preference, it seems lesbian seniors would rather not get medical attention than face the possibility of further judgement.Cultural Anthropoligist Gilbert Herdt recently told The Windy City Times , "As our society ages and the baby-boomers mature, self-identified gays and lesbians are growing into their retirement years. For the first time in history, a generation will retire who identify as lesbian and gay, and who want to enjoy their later years in the glory of this achievment." Unfortunately, this road to retirement is full of many obstacles and limited support. One University of Michigan researcher on gay and lesbian aging, Beth Harrison-Prado, estimates that by the year 2000 there will be over 2 million lesbians age sixty and over residing in this country. Unquestionably, lesbian seniors who are going to lead meaningful lives must be actively engaged in aspects of life that are interesting, challenging and meaningful. Aging is already difficult when faced with a youth and beauty culture. Lesbian seniors must also confront homophobic care facilities, limited finances and ageism within the queer community itself; one wonders if their needs are really being met or if they have been left to fend for themselves.Who Is Looking Out For Them?The times they are a changin'. But for who? The rise of lesbian chic has lent itself to a new found visibility. Seventy-six year old, New York based Storme De Larverie said of lesbians today, "All of a sudden everyone wants to own one."Virtually overnight lesbians are everywhere. There is one catch, however: they must be young. Older women, and especially older lesbians, are suspiciously absent from our media. It's as if they don't exist. The dyke community is no less immune to the pressures of our societal mantra that youth is beauty and beauty is good. In the rush to give kudos to openly gay stars such as Ellen DeGeneres or Melissa Etheridge the real heroes of the lesbian nation have been overlooked; if not forgotten altogether. The women who risked arrest or were arrested for brazenly loving other women. The lesbians who fought at Stonewall. The women who loved other women intimately before the word lesbian was ever used. The women who underwent shock treatment hoping that it would "cure" them of their sickness that was nothing more than being gay in the wrong generation.It's no secret that the gay and lesbian community is often criticized for its emphasis on youth, vitality and good looks. So, where does this leave gray haired, aging lesbians?"When I was young a lesbian character in a movie either comitted suicide, her lover left her for a man or she ended up in a mental hospital. There was nothing to validate a lesbian lifestyle. I never had any role models," said seventy-six year old Elaine Mikels of Santa Fe.In spite of years of self-hatred, a suicide attempt and a short stay in a mental hospital; Mikels truimphed over her internalized homophobia. Today, she is an activist with The Green Party and a number of women's groups. Mikels is adament that no lesbian will go through what she had to endure. Well into her seventies, Mikels continues to fight for gay rights. Only, one wonders whowill do the same for her when living alone becomes difficult or even impossible?It is well documented that lesbians are statistically less likely to have children and grandchildren than heterosexual women. Consequently, those who outlive their partners often find themselves facing old age alone and feeling disenfranchised from the younger lesbian community. Ironically, the same community that they fought to create and preserve.Clearly, older lesbians are an invaluable, underutilized resource for a confused younger generation. The vast majority of older lesbians are ready, willing and eager to communicate with queer youth who are struggling with their sexual identity. A study conducted by Dr. Herdt at The University of California indicates that this may be just what the doctor ordered. "It was absolutely impossible for lesbian and gay tenagers to imagine life events such as finding a lover, getting a job or buying a house past age thirty-two ... Part of this is due to the fact that most gay teens lack older, successful role models," Herdt explained.This is exactly the fact that hit Dr. Ronni Sanlo like a ton of bricks. The Professor at The University of Michigan found herself approaching her fiftieth birthday and decided to examine her own dialogue with younger lesbians; eventually she became concerned. Sanlo wondered if there was a trend. Further research with the help of her colleague Harrison-Prado proved that it was. The two decided to put their studies into action and they formed a program called the Crossing Bridges Project. They paired younger lesbians, age eighteen to twenty-two, with lesbian seniors age fifty and older. The two women would meet at least twice a week and just talk. The elders reported that they felt needed and connected. The younger women learned to have confidence and pride in their lifestyle.Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources, the project was limited to the Michigan area and unable to happen on a national level. Programs such as these are desperately needed in the gay community for the health and well being of its lesbian youth as well as its aging elders. Ninety-Eight year old Ruth Ellis of Detroit, who took part in Crossing Bridges said, " These lesbians carry me high. It's parties, parties. parties. I'm the oldest that they know of and they take me everywhere. It's these girls that are keeping me alive.".Taking Matters Into Their Own HandsUndoubtedly, many older lesbians adopted a "proceed with caution" attitude about their sexual orientation after growing up and coming out in more hostile times. On the other hand, it seems that gay and lesbian seniors got fed up with the lack of resources available to them and decided to take action. Die hard activists, they fought to carve out their own spaces in the retirement world. It seems that gay friendly retirement spots were few and far between."Older lesbians want an active community where they are in an active family like lifestyle," said Mary Thorndal of the Gay and Lesbian American Association of Retired Persons.In the wake of much adversity, alternative retirement communitites for women such as Spinsterhaven in Arkansas, The Carefree Resort in Florida and RVing Women based in Arizona are sprouting up across the nation.Unfortunately, a lack of monetary resources will often limit women's retirement plans and access to these gay retirement facilities. Assistant Professor of Economics at The University of Massachusettes, Lee Badgett stated, "Lesbians are not high earners such as men, but low earning women. In many cases a lesbian couple wont be able to put money away for retirement."Furthermore, lesbians have a harder time in retirement than straight women because their relationships are not legally recognized. This means that in many cases a lesbian does not have access to her partners funds or insurance benefits in times of need."If you are a female in this world you should be looking out for yourself. Don't rely on a safety net like Social Security. Every single woman should be looking out for her own ass," advised co-founder and publisher of Naiad Press in Talahasee, sixty-five year old Barbara Greer.Interestingly, that is just what many lesbians have done. Older lesbians across the country continue to work well into their seventies, opt for a home on wheels or retire and live off the land to cut expenses. It's no wonder when Mary Thorndal, Executive Director of GLAARP tells the story of a gay man who ended up in a nursing home. Each time that his lover would come to visit they were forced to pretend that they were brothers. Another lesbian who currently resides in a retirement home was afraid to talk to Girlfriends and compromise her closeted status, hence her housing. Stories like these are all too common."The idea of creating GLAARP started from several personal experiences with friends who needed services and couldn't find them ... Many gays and lesbians would prefer, particularly in a vulnerable situation, to be with those who are non-judgemental and better understand their lifestyle," said Thorndal.These sentiments are echoed by other elder gay advocacy groups such as Gays and Lesbians Older and Wiser (GLOW), Older and Wiser Lesbians (OWL) and Lesbians Over Age Fifty (LOAF). Also similar to GLAARP, these groups are funded by private donations or dues. Sustana, the first woman to retire to Spinsterhaven, wrote in The Ozark Feminist Review, "By creating Spinsterhaven, a place for old women to retire and retain their autonomy, the women of this community have shown themselves to be way ahead of the rest of the world."Located in the wilds of The Ozark Mountains, Spinsterhaven will function as a form of communal living where older women can live cheaply and peacefully in some of the most beuatiful scenery this country has to offer.Perhaps the most innovative retirement option for older women can be found in the group RVing Women, Inc. whose unofficial motto is "Home is Where I Park It." These women RVers suffer from Hitch-Itch - the need to move. Age may slow them down some, but it definately has not stoppped these women.Approximately four thousand members strong, RVing Women is the only group in the world devoted solely to female RV enthusiasts. The bulk of their membership is made up of women from fifty-five to sixty-two, yet there are women well into their eighties that participate."We have a fair representation of lesbian couples in the group. They fit in here. People get to know each other face to face and they welcome diversity in the group," said Executive Director, Arlene Van Note.A life on the road is also an attractive option financially. Many RVs can be purchased for well under $10,000 and living expenese, including fuel, are usually only a few hundred dollars a week. For a minimal membership fee with dues women can take RV maintenance classes, master driving techniques, study road safety and be a part of this alternative social community. A study by Canadian anthropologists, The Countses, showed that RVers tend to socialize more than any other group of seniors.One of Van Note's favorite recollections is the phone call she recieved from an 83 year old woman wanting information about learning to drive an RV. She then told Van Note that she had just sold her home and bought an RV without ever having driven one in her life.Van Note commented, "To see older women still out there traveling shows that just because you turn 45 or 50 you don't have to curl up and die."Senior Sex and DatingPart of staying active includes dating, falling in love and certainly having sex. Although positive images of older women as erotic beings are hard to come by, don't let this fool you. Older lesbians report that maybe they used to do it all night and now it takes them all night to do it, but they manage. Older lesbians are meeting one another through periodicals such asThe Lesbian Connection, senior lesbian outings and even via The Internet.Sixty-five year old Ruth Burke of Arizona didn't come out until well into her senior years. Although she knew she was gay, she had never been with a woman before. Determined to find companionship, she placed a personal ad in Curve magazine. A little wary at being the oldest woman seeking a companion; she shrugged her shoulders and went ahead regardless. Soon after, Juanita, also in her fifties at the time began to write to her. The two corresponded for a while until Juanita was ready for them to meet in person."Juanita came out to visit me and it was my first date with a woman. I didn't even know what to do sexually. We haven't been apart since that day," Burke laughed.Admittedly, finding a partner when you are an older lesbian can be difficult. Diane Portilla, 69, of Texas is a member of LOAF, The Texas Lesbian Conference and various other queer organizations. However, this retired systems analyst still has trouble meeting suitable potential partners."I definately have a problem meeting enough available, single, appropriate lesbians that are my own age," said Burke.Other lesbians seniors have no intention of settling down now or ever. De Larverie may be 76, but her job as a bouncer at a lesbian club in New York keeps her nightlife active and that's just the way she likes it. "Oh you better believe I still date. I'm just old not dead," she quipped.Still others are content with the memories of love that a lifetime had to offer. When Ruth Ellis finally convinced her girlfriend, Cicilene, to move with her to Detroit in search of job opportunities; she had no idea that they would remain together for over thirty-five years until Cicilene's death. The way that Ellis describes her years with Cicilene beats any romance novel to date."We were real opposites. Everything about us was different, but boy did we have fun together. We used to love to dance together. I never had another one after Cicilene," Ellis mused.Words From the WiseThe voices of older women are strong and clear. It is not their inability to speak, but rather our inability to hear them. Yes, aging is hard, but it can also be a beautiful and enlightening time of life. Older lesbians are one of the most important and most forgotten resources within the gay community. Their needs in the retirement years are unique and must be treated accordingly. Programs that speak to those needs are desperately needed today and not down the line when it may be too late. If not, the younger lesbian community may lose historical pieces of the path from which they have come."The best thing about geeting older is the wisdom. I can look back now and see a full story," explained Burke.Younger lesbians need to stop fearing the aging processing and start embracing all that lesbian seniors have to offer.George S. Buse wrote in The Windy City Times , "In a way the gay community appears to ignore its seniors in what could almost be described as collective denial ... the picture does not appear more optimistic among lesbians, preliminary studies indicate."If this denial continues lesbian seniors will never have the freedom to age visibly and to be gay with dignity.Research assistance by Kathleen Hildenbrand.Stephanie Tarnoff is a San Francisco based freelance reporter.


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