Elderly Gays Fear – and Fight – Return to Closet

Feeling free to be ourselves, less inhibited and more comfortable in our own skin, is one of the pleasures of growing older. But for some gay, lesbian and transgender people it’s the opposite story. As they age and need home-care or residential care, they feel they must hide their true selves and “pass” for being straight. The closet can feel the safest place to be.

In a touching video made for ABC Radio National, 76-year-old Brian visits Norm, the love of his life, in a Catholic nursing home: “I’m always fearful of the fact I might say something [to give us away] or he might say something and we get treated like dirt,” Brian says. “……I can’t let this lot here know.” A brilliant American video called Gen Silent captures the fear felt by elderly gays, lesbian and transgender people about aged care services. One person was told: “It’s not too late for you to be cured.”

But the baby boomer generation that ‘came out’ in the 1970s and fought for gay rights is fighting again – this time to reform the aged care system. And it seems many aged care providers in Australia, including Catholic ones, are willing to learn. How are the needs of gay, lesbian and transgender people different in old age from heterosexuals’? Paul van Reyk 62, a gay activist of 30 years’ standing, put it like this: “If I get feeble and need home care workers, I don’t want to have to take the pictures off the wall….as a gay man there’ll be possessions that give people clues. I want a service that accepts me for who I am. If I go into a nursing home, I don’t want to watch We’ll Meet Again [with Vera Lynn]; I want to be able to see The Rose [with gay icon Bette Midler].”

In other words, Paul wants to be free to be himself. Lack of overt discrimination is not enough. He doesn’t want a home care worker to recoil if he shows affection to a man, or turn frosty should he want to be taken to the Gay Mardi Gras parade. He wants to be welcomed as a gay man who’s been part of gay culture. “Discrimination is quite subtle but it cuts really deep,” he said. I met Paul at a forum in Sydney organized by The Aged Care Rights Service (TARS) and ACON, the health advocacy group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. The event was one of several held in the lead up to Saturday’s Mardi Gras parade. And along with the gay film festival, known as Afternoon Delight that’s part of NSW Seniors’ Week, the forum’s focus on elder rights is indicative of a growing interest in aging issues among the LGBTI community.

A significant number have partners and many have children (especially those who’d been married). But for others without close family ties or partners, the question of who’ll care for them in their frail years is particularly pressing. “There are people in their 80s who are going into nursing homes now that aren’t ready for them,” Paul says. “I want to make sure the system is ready for me.”

The last Federal Labor government made significant reforms. Despite opposition from the Coalition, it made it illegal for Commonwealth-funded faith-based aged care providers to discriminate against people from the LGBTI community. (They’re still free not to hire LGBTI staff, however). The LGBTI community is also included among “special needs” groups, such as Aborigines, that aged care providers must cater to in order to meet accreditation standards.

Labor also made a small sum of $2.5 million available to train aged care workers in confronting their own prejudices and dealing sensitively with the special issues that might confront gay, lesbian and transgender elderly people. Given Treasurer Joe Hockey in Opposition condemned the training funds as a “waste of money” and said, “It’s something individual operators should be providing, not hardworking taxpayers,” there are fears it will be axed in the May budget, just as the training program is being rolled out. “We’re absolutely concerned that [the Coalition government] will reverse it,” said Craig Gear, president of TARS.

Yet many aged care workers may have much to learn. Paul points out a high proportion comes from the South Pacific, India and East Asia where homophobia and/or religious fundamentalism are strong. Even workers who say, “I don’t discriminate, I treat everyone the same,” may have no idea of the traumatic experiences some elderly gay and lesbian people have endured. Said Gai Lemon who runs workshops for aged care providers for the Queensland Aids Council: “People in their 70s and older were criminalized, marginalized, traumatized …they have specific needs because of their past experiences.” UnitingCare Ageing has taken a leading role in liaising with the LGBTI community and in being part of the pilot training program. Its director Steve Teulan has publicly rebuffed Mr Hockey’s remarks. “People coming into aged care today were subject to prosecution for their sexuality; we know they’re very anxious about accessing aged care,” he told me. “It’s right for the government to fund training to relieve their anxiety and ensure they feel welcome.”

To be able to show affection to a partner who is sick, dying, or suffering dementia, and to feel free to be our authentic self….surely these are the hard-won rights of old age, regardless of our sexual orientation.

Here’s the trailer for Gen Silent

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Adele Horin

Adele Horin

Adele Marilyn Horin was an Australian journalist. She retired in 2012 as a columnist and journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald. A prolific and polarising writer on social issues, she was described as "the paper's resident feminist.