When my mother became terminally ill, I went home to take care of her without a second thought. I worked as a freelancer at the time, so my work life was portable. As an only child I had no siblings to turn to (or to fight with or resent later). The fact that I am a lesbian was never an issue with my parents.
If anything, having to "come out" only made us closer. In my early 20s I was suddenly in a situation where my parents and I had to work through my declarations of being a lesbian and everything that meant in the early 1980s. I come from a background -- working-class (no complaints) and British (stiff upper lip) -- where we rarely expressed our feelings. In many ways my coming out as a lesbian was an extension of my mother's feminist politics. (When I told them I had something to tell them, her guess was that I was either gay or pregnant.) My father did struggle temporarily with the fact that I am a lesbian, but after I came out to my parents, he told me for the first time that he loved me.
However, as a lesbian caretaker of my terminally ill and elderly mother, I became part of a trend that I came to consider after writing Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters, recently published by Bella Books.
"Out and Aging," a 2006 report, found that 36 percent of LGBT boomers are caring for aging parents. One significant reason that a higher percentage of us care for aging parents than heterosexuals is that we are less likely to have children to care for. Even when we are partnered, we are often perceived as "not having families." This was not the case with me -- both of my parents loved and accepted my partner. My mother left a letter to be read after her death, entitled, "A letter to my unexpected daughter-in-law, Barbara."
It could very well be that people in the LGBT community (which crosses the spectrum of ethnicity, culture, and class) inhabit the role of caregiver in a spiritual sense (much as gays, lesbians, and transgender people inhabited the role of the two-spirit or "berdache" in many Native-American cultures).
It is true that there is a youth culture in the LGBT community (reflected in the gay media and consumer culture), but at the same time we inhabit the role of the "outsider" in society and may perceive the wisdom of elders -- both family members and our friends who have become family -- as important.
Since Tea Leaves was published, I have had the opportunity to talk to many LGBT people who tell me that they were the ones to "show up" when an elderly parent needed care -- even when they had children of their own, and even when they had many siblings. Even those who had tenuous relationships with their parents because of their LGBT status tell me that they were the ones to step in when help was needed.
This past June, at the first annual Pride luncheon at the SAGE Center in Manhattan, I read from Tea Leaves and afterwards engaged the group in a discussion about their own experiences of caretaking. SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) has chapters around the country, and the SAGE Center (located in the Chelsea section of Manhattan and funded in part by the New York City Department of Aging) opened its doors in January 2012 and is the first full-time LGBT senior center. Currently the SAGE Center has 650 members and is planning to open centers in the other New York boroughs.
One man at the Pride luncheon talked about his experiences visiting an older friend who was attracted to him. "We would sing together and dance," he said, "and whenever we danced, he grabbed my ass. I was very firm in telling him that wasn't happening." Some years passed and the older man, who now had dementia, was living in a home. One of the older man's relatives contacted the younger man and asked if he would visit the older man. "I went, and he didn't know who I was, but he asked me if I was there to have sex with him. When I said 'no,' he asked me to leave. I had to explain that I was there to visit him."
I commented that the man with dementia did in fact remember something: He remembered that he was attracted to the man who took care of him.
He remembered that he was gay.
Janet Mason is the author of Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters, published by Bella Books in 2012. She lives in Philadelphia.