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LGBT People: Let's Talk About Ageism

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In a recent op-ed in The Advocate (“In Defense of Aging”), screenwriter and author Jon Bernstein explores how gay men understand their own aging, given their traumatic life experiences and the cultural obsession with beauty and youth. Bernstein invokes Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a grim novel about the consequences of vanity, authored by a “middle-aged man” who died in “shame, poverty and exile after a series of public trials that punished him for his sexual orientation.”

To frame his overarching argument, Bernstein recalls the agony of living through the early years of the AIDS epidemic (“The grim reaper was forever lurking in the shadows”) and draws from this experience to craft a hypothesis: gay men in this time period witnessed many of their friends die in the 1980s, later saw their friends survive as highly active antiretroviral therapy emerged in the mid-1990s, and now struggle with serious concerns such as “taking their own lives.” What’s the ultimate result of these life experiences on gay men, according to Bernstein? A fraught relationship with aging. “The problem is that we don’t know how to get old,” Bernstein surmises.

Though I’m uncomfortable with Bernstein using his personal experience to universalize the experiences of gay men in his age cohort, he brings up valuable arguments. Mainstream culture and various sub-cultures often conflate beauty with youth, and self-worth with appearance, which leaves many people -- not just gay men -- feeling unattractive, insecure and potentially depressed as they age. (The health and beauty industry rabidly sells us and profits off these notions, with astonishing results.) AIDS severely impacted the mental health of many people who survived it, largely LGBT and people of color, while wiping out a generation of LGBT leaders. Finally, my experience running a national policy advocacy program on LGBT aging routinely shows me that LGBT communities haven’t properly made room for older people who feel “aged out” of social venues. As evidence of this age bias, review an LGBT magazine or a calendar listing of activities at your local LGBT community center.

But the main explanation for why we “don’t know how to get old” as LGBT people -- and which Bernstein never states -- is that we rarely discuss “ageism” in honest, engaging and structural terms.

Ageism -- when manifested as age-related bias and discrimination aimed at older people -- has detrimental effects on all adults as they age, in particular elders. Ageism can mean the attitudes we internalize about our bodies and our life chances over time. It’s the dreaded birthday; the off-handed remark about “feeling old” or “being too old”; disparaging jokes about seniors; or the paternalism that presumes older people as incapable of their own decision-making, antiquated in their viewpoints, or as asexual (as leaders in the HIV field have described). Ageism is the obsession with products, medication and surgeries to keep one feeling and looking younger. It’s Dorian Gray.

Ageism (coupled with ableism) helps explains the general lack of accessible spaces that make it possible for more frail older people, or people with disabilities, to participate fully in civic life. It’s the lack of positive and fuller representations of older people -- especially LGBT elders -- in media and the entertainment industry. And it’s the multiple ways in which public policies neglect, discriminate against, or underfund older people and their programs -- in particular people of color, women, LGBT people, and transgender people. More broadly, ageism is the root of the silence itself -- with ourselves, our friends, our community leaders and our elected officials.

If we could open up the discourse on ageism in our communities, we could speak honestly about the hardship that comes with aging without veering into over-generalized pathologies or victimization (i.e. aging leads to suicide, “shame and exile”). The hard truth is that research shows that many LGBT older people have smaller support networks and are at greater risk of social isolation, which can complicate their quality of life in later years. LGBT elders face challenges with securing affordable housing; accessing LGBT-sensitive home and community-based supports; managing their health and health care, including HIV; securing employment and avoiding poverty; dealing with the physical and mental health effects that come with having survived decades of discrimination; and finding intergenerational community and kinship networks as they age. "Many of us feel like we lose a connection to our community of support when younger generations ignore us or brush us aside," wrote Bernstein. He's right -- and the research agrees.

If LGBT-based discrimination and stigma have colluded with racial, economic and gender inequality to form a labyrinth of challenges for LGBT people over the life course, then ageism creates one more maze for elders. But the ways out from these problems are wide ranging. They are both personal -- as in how we can plan for retirement, for example -- and political -- as in how we can strengthen and reform the social safety net through policy reform, cultural competence training, general education and dedicated funding to LGBT-specific services and programs.

Invisibility is perhaps the greatest ill associated with ageism -- and this extends to the ways in which we don't adequately honor older people who have improved our lives as LGBT people for generations. Yes, hardship comes with aging -- but it also creates resilience and leadership. In that spirit, I honor the brilliance of LGBT leaders who have inspired my political consciousness: Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, Adrienne Rich and Gloria Anzaldua, among others, and I’m grateful for the roads paved by many of today’s elders who are LGBT.

I also honor the innovators who sparked a large-scale movement for LGBT aging and have dedicated their careers to creating institutions, programs, research projects, and media that will improve aging for LGBT elders for generations to come. (Of deserving attention on the topic of ageism is Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, which more than any other organization in the field has dedicated its work to education on “ageism.”)

And I honor the mentors who taught me to tackle the web of ageist attitudes, behaviors, societal norms, and institutional and political barriers that burden all of us as we age.

Because it’s not just how we look on the outside -- it’s how we reform these systems from the inside.