Aging Out: Exploring Ageism and Heterosexism Among African American Lesbians and Gay Males (Black History Month)
In honor of Black History Month, the Diverse Elders Coalition is featuring stories relevant to black aging during February. A new story will be shared every Wednesday, with additional posts shared throughout the month. Be sure to visit diverseelders.org regularly during the month of February.
People are complex, and African-American older LGBT adults are no exception. They live at the intersection of multiple identities experienced over the life span, in a culture steeped in racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism and homophobia. African-American lesbian and gay males experience at a minimum two hostile environments: being lesbian or gay in a heterosexist society; being a person of color in a racist culture; being female in a sexist culture; and being old in a youth-worshipping culture.
Moreover, research shows that living with racism on a daily basis influences the health and well-being of African Americans, leading to major gaps in health and financial equality, higher levels of infirmity and chronic illness, even earlier death than other populations. African-American elders are likely to experience poverty at more than two times the rate of all other older Americans.
This article comes from research cited in Lift Every Voice: Treading our Path, (NGLTF Task Force, 2012) that tells the stories of lives lived and the very real problems of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender African Americans coming-of-age and how those experiences shaped their lives as they grew older. People remember being conflicted in telling family members their sexual orientation and sexual identity, fearing rejection and abandonment. A 66-year-old African-American lesbian woman described it this way:
- “I knew I was different as a child. … But I guess I was in my early teens [before I knew the words], because you don’t know what the word is. When I was coming up, the word was bull dagger. It was so negative, so you still don’t know. You are a kid; you don’t know, there were no words for it, I hate that word. It’s just I’ve gotten older, I just, ugh. … That’s so derogatory. It’s negative.”
Many older African-American lesbian women and gay men have experienced a sense of grief and loss from being alienated within one’s own race and ethnicity because of perceived sexual identity and orientation. Often the disaffection happens early and scars last for life. Many elders speak of living in hostile environments within the African-American community. As this 63-year-old African-American man explains:
- “I know I have an androgynous look, it was even more so when I was younger. So therefore, there was some discrimination against me by assumption rather than fact because they would look at me and because I am androgynous looking they would assume. … One of my issues being African American and looking like this was really when I came out in college in the late ’60s at the height of the Black Power Movement and I was distinctly told by a couple of Black organizations at the time, ‘we don’t want your kind here.’ ”
Suspicions of institutions and institutional care are a shared ancestry of African Americans. This is also a shared experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people coming of age in the decades of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Institutional bigotry, hatred and stigma has led to medical classification and criminalization often resulting in forced psychiatric treatment of LGBT people, and loss of family, church, employment, housing and other community structures. Such bigotry is still found in the medical profession and in church. Listen to the stories of three African-American elders:
- … You have to be careful with that [advising providers that you’re gay] because the minute you tell a medical person that you are gay, they automatically, in 90 percent of the cases, will assume you’re HIV positive and start to treat you that way.” (63-year-old African-American gay man)
- I grew up in the church. I was baptized when I was about 11 in the Baptist church. I came to D.C. and joined a world-renowned Baptist church. I sang on two choirs, was a part of the missionary group. … I met a very nice young lady and we were going to get married so we sent some invitations to people at the church. … There were some people on the Deacon and Trustee Board who brought me before the church. … We got into this thing about what the Bible did and didn’t say, but they put me out anyway. … It still hurt me deeply. It was one of the deepest hurts I have had in my life to be put out of my church that I have put so much love and energy…” (72-year-old African-American lesbian woman)
- In a workplace situation, for example, I might not get an assignment that I know I am qualified for, know that I’m the best person for it, and don’t get it. Is that because I am old? Is it because I am Black? Is it because I am gay? (69-year-old African-American gay man)
On the other hand, experiences related to aging for African-American LGBT older adults are similar to the dominant population in terms of feeling a lack of consideration and reverence for aging. People were vocal in describing their frustration because of the challenges they face as they age as LGBT people.
- “Well, I would say that getting older in this country is difficult because we have no reverence for the elderly, which is not true in a lot of cultures. So when you add another … stigma to it now, not only am I old, I’m old, I’m an old African-American female. And females in this country, at least my experience has been that you don’t enjoy the same reverence as males do and then when you add African American to that, then it’s even less. So now, I’m already down pretty far, and then when you add being a lesbian to that, that puts you in the toilet.” (67-year-old African American lesbian woman)
Thoughts on Moving Forward
As we move into old age, people need assistance and services to provide for housing, meals, medical care and transportation. Therefore, it is important that programs that serve elders, African Americans and LGBT persons eliminate barriers to participation in such programs. Barriers can include assumed heterosexuality, lack of respect for one’s personhood, fear of being harassed by staff or clients in long-term care facilities, and fear of being “outed.” We should acknowledge and affirm the lived experiences of this population. Such affirmation and acknowledgement often offers a respite from loneliness, depression and internalized homophobia.
Also it is particularly important to maintain a culturally appropriate and sensitive environment, one that dismantles the institutional levels of racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism. Services should be presented and delivered in a manner that encourages LGBT older adults to access available care. Be mindful that African Americans and other people of color may require additional markers. These markers include photos in marketing materials, and office staff that “looks like me.” Cross-cultural training in issues important to people of color, older adults and LGBT individuals helps those in aging services provide an enhanced quality of life for elders of all types; decreases mental and physical health impairments; reduces social isolation and leads to a willingness to reach out to traditional and alternate aging services for support and care.
Dr. Imani Woody is the CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults, Inc. and the SAGE Metro DC representative to SAGENet – SAGE’s network of local affiliates around the country – that work to reduce isolation, improve financial security and enhance quality of life for LGBT older adults. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.
Research in this article is from Lift every voice: A qualitative exploration of ageism and heterosexism as experienced by older African American lesbian women and gay men when addressing social services needs, UMI3481368.
This article by Dr. Imani Woody originally appeared on the American Society on Aging’s blog. Read it here.
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