What happens when you’re old and gay?

Opening Doors

Some of the members of Opening Doors, from left: Donald Black, Tom Devine, Alexander Duncan, Willie Millar, Lyndon Scarffe

Angelo Marcellini is 75 and lives in sheltered housing in London. When he’s in the lift, his fellow residents won’t join him. If he comes in, they leave. Only two of the households on his floor speak to him. Angelo is gay. The managers of his sheltered housing are evangelical Christians and they won’t help because they don’t like him either.

Many older people are having to find new ways to live, but perhaps none as obviously as gays and lesbians. Previous generations of older gay people weren’t out; they were invisible throughout their lives and expected to stay that way when they became old or vulnerable. But for the current generation, that’s simply not good enough. Civil partnerships and equality legislation have changed Britain. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people know they are entitled to to be acknowledged for themselves. They no longer have to pretend to be something else.

The progress that has been made is the direct result of the campaigning and suffering of the older generation; by rights gay elders should now be celebrated by a society that has finally found itself at ease with their sexuality. But when I went to see a group of older gay men who meet to discuss issues affecting older gay people and asked what these were, they said: ‘persecution, depression, suicide, homophobia.’

Some of the men I met at the Opening Doors discussion group in Camden had experienced a lifetime of prejudice. Growing old had simply added another layer of trouble. Donald Black, 76, said he had suffered from manic depression all his life – caused, he believes, by deep, unexpressed anger. He ran Britain’s first gay wrestling group for many years, but after he had to stop wrestling because of high blood pressure, he found the telephone calls tailed off. His main adversary now is loneliness.

Several of the men never came out. Willie Millar, 74, ‘confessed in a letter to my sister a few years ago. She replied but didn’t refer to it.’ Alexander Duncan, 68, recently lost his lifetime partner: ‘When Gary died, his sister was very good on the telephone, but I didn’t go to the funeral. I was never an official partner. I was never embraced as part of the family.’ Tom Devine, 66, has ‘never told my family. Being gay is an essential part of who I am but it’s not all of who I am. I have never had a partner.’

Older gay men face not only the normal ageism from younger people and society at large; they also face the residual generational prejudice of their peers. Old habits die hard, it seems. ‘There are millions of activities for pensioners,’ Alexander Duncan says, ‘but the participants don’t take readily to an openly gay man. How often have you gone into a pensioners’ group and seen two men dancing, or even holding hands? I volunteer at a lunch club as part of a mixed group of straight and gay helpers, and when we explained that we were a gay group, one old man got up and left.’

‘We all want to mix,’ says Lyndon Scarffe, who says he is 69½, ‘but it can be difficult. You often encounter what my partner calls the “Jennifer’s O’levels people” – the grandparents who only want to talk about their grandchildren’s exams, whereas,’ he says mischievously, ‘we want to talk about the gym and opera.’ Alexander agrees: ‘If you go on holiday with a group of older people, in the evening after dinner they talk about their grandchildren and the photos come out. We have never had that form of life. And then, sometimes, if people realize you’re gay and want to accept you, they go into this high camp, Graham Norton-type voice and routine. I point out that if they were sitting next to a black person, they wouldn’t think they should mimic their voice. We’re the last people straights think they can laugh at.’

Many older gay men live alone. They mostly don’t have children and grandchildren, which makes it harder to get involved in intergenerational activities. Loneliness can be a serious problem. A lack of support networks can make LGBT people more reliant on professional services – but professional services often aren’t geared up to meet their particular needs. The evangelical Christians running Angelo’s sheltered housing are unsympathetic (this is putting it politely) to his situation as a gay man. ‘I am,’ he says, ‘an abomination where I live. I came to London from Italy in 1958, because in Italy it was impossible to be gay. I love London. But I do not love where I live.’

The fact that so many have struggled to come out now leads to an underestimation of their numbers and needs. And prejudice generates a vicious circle. Alexander talks about not being able to dance with his partner Gary at family weddings. Lyndon asks if he ever tried, because he and his partner have done, and they found that after all they were accepted. Studies have found that many older gay men and women believed that services are prejudiced, and so don’t come forward and ask for help.

Opening Doors, which is mainly funded by the Lottery, is run by Camden Age Concern, with backing from Age Concern branches in the City of London, Hackney, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. It combines practical help, such as computing courses, telephone advice and a befriending scheme, with a range of social activities. At least half the men I met were actively engaged in leafleting and seeking out potential members. The aim has been both to provide direct services to often isolated older LGBT people and to raise awareness of issues affecting them among service providers at large.

The six men I met at Opening Doors (more than 250 men participate in the project altogether, while there is a smaller group of around 100 lesbians) were agreed that the group provides tremendous social and emotional support. ‘Old people don’t want to be burdensome. There’s a lot to be said for something that enables people to get together to pool resources, to help each other,’ says Tom.

Alexander sees the Opening Doors activities as ‘a relaxed and safe environment, in which I can be myself. I can walk into a room and not have to pretend. A lot of straight men of our generation think you want to rape them. We do worry that with austerity and cuts, people might wonder why gay men need to be separate and different. But the truth is straight people don’t always want to be with us. And our experiences of life have been very different from theirs.’

Opening Doors has succeeded in bringing together gay men with varied backgrounds – some who have had long happy and successful relationships, others who have never really had a relationship at all; others, like Donald, who had a ‘business arrangement’ for many years. Some have been depressed; others have found delightful liberation, ahead of their time, in not having to play straight games. A few have been out since their twenties, more never  – although, as Lyndon points out, ‘the closet is a revolving door. I came out at the age of 25, but I was a teacher, so when Section 28 came in, I went back in. And then if you go on holiday in a group, and single room supplements are high, you may share a room with a man, and then it becomes very awkward to say that you have a partner at home.’

For the first time in history, a generation of out young people is coming of age. The society they are entering is not perfect: gay men still cannot give blood; there is homosexual bullying in schools and a YouGov poll found that one in eight LGBT people in Britain had experienced harassment on account of their sexuality. But the new Conservative Prime Minister hosted a reception at Downing St for prominent members of the gay community last week. And Alexander recalls that at the first Pride march he attended ‘the police wouldn’t turn their backs on us. That was only 15 years ago. Now, the police liaison officers we have in Camden are really good.’

The older generation of gay men has lived through a bruising history. In their youth, they were harried as criminals. Later, they faced the stigma of HIV and Aids. Most of them suffered multiple bereavements. As late as the 1990s, they had to put up with the government-sanctioned loathing embodied in Section 28. It is hardly surprising they feel they have a lot to talk about.

Through the discussions they have in Opening Doors, this pioneering generation is able to articulate their needs, which are of a kind that have never been felt or met before. (Care homes for the LGBT community are high on their list – ‘not because we want to be in a ghetto,’ Alexander says, ‘but to have the choice.’) They are able to help each other out of loneliness and isolation. Perhaps most importantly, they are able to make the case publicly – many of them for the first time in their lives – for everyone else to respect both their equality and their difference.

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3 thoughts on “What happens when you’re old and gay?

  1. An excellent article which addresses a real and little talked about issue. In the metropolitan western world, where everyone is allegedly ‘out and happy to flaunt it,’ this is a timely reminder of another reality.

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  2. Great piece. Opening Doors is clearly a great scheme. Relationships are vital to aging well. People are more likely to be healthy, happy and active the more they have relationships that help them to connect, get out, do things with other people. If you suffer the double discrimination of being old and gay then finding and sustaining those relationships is very much harder. Many of these men had suffered loss and hurt. Opening Doors works because it’s helping them connect and relate.

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