Gay and Lesbian Aging

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Gay men and lesbians (females) are both defined as homosexuals. Homosexual is defined as a preference for emotional and sexual relationships with persons of the same sex. The terminology used, however, indicates a sense of personal and cultural identity. Homosexuals are typically hidden and fearful of disclosure, whereas gays and lesbians are socially open (out ) in many walks of their lives (e.g., home, work, and school). Homosexuality as a concept was defined around 1869 and became more widely identified as the "disease of effeminacy" as popularized by the trial of Oscar Wilde. As we enter the twenty-first century, American society views homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. The social history of homosexuality has seen the status of the entity change from a sin to a crime (either against nature or the state), then to a sickness or disease, and finally to an alternative lifestyle on the margins of society. Homosexuality remains a crime or is considered a disease in many parts of the world. In the United States, for example, many states maintain laws that make sodomy a crime, including consensual relations between adults in private.

Most of the research on homosexuality examines gay men with some scant attention paid to lesbians, and even less research is available on older gays and lesbians. In terms of gays and lesbians, older generally refers to those over age fifty. Much of the early research about homosexuality focused on determining the causes or finding an explanation for the homosexual phenomenon. The emphasis was on determining a homosexual's level of normalcy or abnormality. By seeking the causes in order to logically progress toward finding a cure, past research demonstrated the lack of acceptance of homosexuality in American society. More recent research has been devoted to understanding homosexuality and exploring gay and lesbian issues, although homosexuality is still considered deviant by the general population.

With the increasing population of older adults in American society, there will be an increase in the number of older adults who are gay or lesbian. It is important to consider the myths and realities about aging in American society, examine differences between older gay men and lesbians, explore the issues relevant to aging gay men and lesbians, and consider differences in the situation for older homosexuals across cultures and time.

Myths and realities

Many myths abound about gay and lesbian elders. Older gay men are stereotyped as isolated and lonely, increasingly effeminate, and prone to pedophilia. Older lesbians are stereotyped as emotionally cold, lonely, frustrated, and overly masculine. Although a small number of older gays and lesbians fit these descriptions, the vast majority do not. Due to more relaxed gender roles of gays and lesbians, older gays and lesbians may be better equipped to deal with gender role changes (men becoming less masculine and women becoming less feminine) that commonly accompany normal aging.

Most older gay men and lesbians appear to be reasonably well adjusted and integrated into social networks composed primarily of age peers. Commitment to one's sexual orientation and integration into the gay community are predictors of good psychological adjustment for gay men. Older lesbians generally expect to grow old gracefully, while remaining interested in life and involved in the social world. Positive adjustment to aging among older gays and lesbians can be attributed to a life course of experience in dealing with problems associated with stigma and society's negative attitude toward homosexuality.

In terms of social support, older gays and lesbians draw more support from friends, and older heterosexuals draw more support from family. Homosexuals often use fictive kin, substituting friends for traditional family relationships. These confidant relationships can help to resolve fears associated with aging. Homosexuals also have extensive family ties and long term committed relationships among older gays and lesbians appear to be more common than previously assumed.

Gender differences

Lesbians and gay men represent two distinct communities and the issues of each group differ. Older gay men are likely to either be in a long-term relationship or not in one at all, with a small percentage having numerous short-term relationships. Although they tend to maintain positive attitudes regarding their physical agerelated changes, older gay men appear to be more concerned with this than their lesbian counterparts. Furthermore, older gay men are likely to be more financially secure than older lesbians, due to gender inequalities across the life course.

As a result of the virtual invisibility of older lesbians, they are more likely to be ignored at the level of policy and practice. Older lesbians are likely to have practiced serial monogamy. They usually report a positive self-image and positive feelings about their identification as a lesbian and generally do not report fear of changes in physical appearance associated with aging. They express greater fluidity in their sexual orientation, are more likely to have been heterosexually married, and are more likely to have children than gay men.

Major issues with aging

Aging gays and lesbians face the same issues as heterosexual people, such as health and financial concerns. Issues unique to older gays and lesbians relate to society's failure to accept or inability to understand their sexual orientation. Same-sex relationships are generally not legally sanctioned or recognized in the same ways as heterosexual relationships. This can lead to difficulties in managing terminal or chronic illness or partners being unable to collect insurance or pension benefits, because these special rights are reserved for relatives. Similarly, if the gay or lesbian partners or persons significant to either of them have not clearly defined the relationship, others may fail to acknowledge the severity and nature of the loss upon the death of a partner. In addition to the lack of recognition of the emotional needs of the grieving partner, financial and property issues may ensue.

Cultural and subcultural variation

An understanding of homosexuality should be viewed within the cultural context of a particular society. Ritualized homosexuality has been widely reported throughout Melanesia and is understood by anthropologists as age-structured homosexuality. In Sambia, for example, the psychosocial and sexual development in males from middle childhood through old age is regulated through the initiation process controlled through the men's secret society. Adult men initiate boys by inseminating them, but as adults they go on to marry and have children.

Issues typically faced by older gays and lesbians will be exacerbated or mitigated by their cultural or ethnic heritage. In general, gays and lesbians within ethnic groups with particularly strong family ties (e.g., African American, Asian, and Latino/a) and those that place a high value on gender roles may face extreme difficulties perhaps even being forced to choose between their family and their homosexuality. Traditional Native American cultures, on the other hand, do not tend to divide sexuality into a dichotomy of male and female. Instead, they tend to view people as having both male and female spirits and are generally more tolerant than other subcultures and ethnic groups, especially those coming from European and Eastern cultures.

Historical variation

The experiences of today's older gays and lesbians must be understood within the historical context in which they came of age. Today's older gays grew up in a time of severe homophobia and with a lack of positive role models. Being gay or lesbian put individuals at risk of arrest or institutionalization. Therefore, older gay or lesbian individuals and couples often did not develop a conscious personal identity as gay or lesbian and often do not use that terminology to describe themselves.

Riots following police raids at New York City's Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969, led to the development of the Gay Liberation Front and the gay rights movement that forced the non-gay society to address homosexuality. Today's younger gays and lesbians tend to encourage coming out or coming out of the closet. There are a number of different levels and ways that a person comes out, but the process follows a continuum from self-acceptance to general disclosure. Older gays and lesbians have generally been reluctant to embrace this process, especially after a lifetime of successfully hiding their homosexuality. Gays and lesbians who have grown older following the gay rights movement have existed in a social climate that tends to be somewhat more tolerant of homosexuality (other than the period following the emergence of AIDS, when gays were targeted as the cause).

The future

There have been dramatic social and health changes since the 1980s that will likely have an effect on future generations of older gays and lesbians. Gays and lesbians are much more activistoriented than in previous decades (other than the initial gay rights movement associated with the 1970s). These advocacy efforts are aimed at policy and legal implications associated with the issues addressed above. Overall, there seems to be a greater social tolerance of same-sex orientation as reflected in the emergence of domestic partnership policies, more realistic portrayal of gays and lesbians in the media, and an overall greater awareness of gays and lesbians in American society. As a result, it is likely that some of the issues faced by older gays and lesbians today will be different for older gays and lesbians in the future, especially those who grew up and grew old after the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and who were involved in the ensuing gay rights movement.


A few organizations directed toward older gays and lesbians have emerged, primarily focused on providing for social service needs and advocacy. These organizations include Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), Pride Senior Network, Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network (LGAIN), and Gay and Lesbian Association of Retiring Persons (GLARP).

Dena Shenk James R. Peacock

See also Gender.


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