Gay and Gray in Big Sky Country
When looking at those lesbians and gays who came of age in a post-Stonewall era, it can be easy to forget just how much American society has changed, and how different our lives are from those of our forebears. While gay culture, just as much as mainstream culture, has a tendency to over-value youth, the perspectives of LGBT elders are still crucial to shaping the fight for equality and acceptance.
Colorado organizations like SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) of the Rockies, Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, and the Colorado Prime Timers offer elders the opportunity to participate in a much-needed community -- and offer younger generations of LGBT people the chance to learn from those who came before.
"When we were growing up, there was a music circuit that straight people didn’t even know existed. They didn’t know about the literature that we read or the games that we played," said Shari Wilkins, a 65-year-old lesbian and the program coordinator of SAGE of the Rockies. She has seen a dramatic shift in the way gay culture and straight culture interact, saying, "Gay people and straight people were having a totally different experience at the same time in the same place. That caused feelings of paranoia and distrust and a lack of community."
Today, the line between "gay culture" and "straight culture" is blurred, sometimes into nonexistence, as television shows like "Modern Family" and "RuPaul’s Drag Race" are wholeheartedly embraced by the mainstream. While some gay-rights battles remain to be fought, the contested ground has shifted dramatically from the struggles of the previous generation.
"The idea of gay people getting married -- that was wilder than going to the moon," said Cecil Bethea, an 84-year-old gay man. "We didn’t even think about it. What we were most interested in was surviving."
Bethea came of age in an era when homosexuality was a source of shame and fear. At age 25 he moved to Colorado from Birmingham, Alabama.
"Nobody wanted to be gay in those days, so I denied it," he said. "When I was younger there were only three people in my life who knew I was gay. You just knew that if people found out that you would be discriminated against. You wouldn’t be able to get an apartment or a job." Today he’s part of a thriving community, writes for the LGBT journal OutFront Colorado, and shares his life with his partner of 43 years.
In her work with LGBT seniors, Wilkins sees how important that sense of community can be. "For many people, being out has never been an option. Most of them have never been affirmed -- they’ve been told that it’s illegal, that they’re mentally ill, that they’re sinners. But I think that things are changing."
LGBT Senior Groups Offer Connection, Stave Off Isolation
In urban areas like Denver, it’s easy for LGBT elders to maintain a thriving social life and sense of participation in the community through organizations like The Center, home base for SAGE of the Rockies programming.
"I’m with gays at least three days a week," said Bethea. "I go to the Center two days, and then I go to lunch with the Prime Timers once a week."
For seniors farther from metropolitan centers, it can be harder to find social outlets.
"I lived in rural Colorado for a good part of my adult life," said Wilkins, "and it’s a completely different environment. LGBT elders are already more likely to be isolated, because we’re four times less likely to have had children and twice as likely to be aging alone, without a partner. In rural areas, there is such isolation that they can end up totally without a social network. That results in an increased risk of depression and premature institutionalization."
In addition, Wilkins points to political differences between urban and rural areas. "Many smaller communities are very conservative, so people don’t come out at all," she said. "If you’re having issues around sexual health, what can you say to a rural physician who knows everybody in town and may have never met a gay person?"
As Bethea noted, the most important thing is to be accepted by society. Although change comes more slowly to smaller and more isolated communities, the ripple effect of the LGBT rights movement is spreading ever outward.
"Now, I was never an activist, so I’m not taking any claims to what they did," said Bethea, "but had it not been for the activists of my generation we would not be anywhere near where we are today."
"As a young lesbian in Colorado, I didn’t even know there were old gay people," said Wilkins. "These days, there are elders who are open and out, who are viewed as almost parent or grandparent figures. They’re modeling that life doesn’t end at 40, that there are incredible opportunities and chances to become more involved and to have fun. They take risks. They show that it’s never too late to be authentically yourself."
Today, LGBT seniors like Bethea take advantage of opportunities for involvement they didn’t have in their youth.
"My partner Carl and I were in the Gay Pride parade last summer," said Bethea. "We were riding on the back of a convertible and I was waving a rainbow flag, and I said, ’I have really come out now!’"