Living life as an older LGBT+ person.
Getting older without getting old: Living life as an older LGBT+ person
Estimates say there are over 1m LGBT+ people over 50 in the UK. Being an older LGBT+ person comes with a unique set of experiences, like increased chances of isolation and loneliness, a lower likelihood of having family or children who can offer support, and fear about accessing services due to the impact of decades of anti-LGBT+ discrimination.
This, combined with more general examples of ageism, can often make older LGBT+ people feel like a ‘forgotten generation’, who face a double-bill of discrimination. Shockingly, there are currently no LGBT+ retirement communities or independent living centres in the UK. That’s why at Tonic, we’re working hard to create LGBT+ affirming retirement communities that will allow older LGBT+ people to live in a space that celebrates and supports them: a place to live their lives out. One of Tonic’s Community Panel members, Ted, speaks about his experience as an older LGBT+ person.
Hi Ted! Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I’m an 83-year-old gay man and I was born in South Africa, but have lived in the UK since 1961. I’m a retired general medical practitioner (a career I got into largely because of the demands of my family) and I live alone in privately rented accommodation in London.
I had quite a complicated family situation ‒ very traumatic and oppressive ‒ and in my professional life, I felt like I had to put any reference to my personal life and social development on the back burner. I ended up living a double life of surface ‘respectability’, while having casual sexual encounters devoid of any sort of meaningful connection. It wasn’t until my retirement as a GP, when I went back to South Africa for 8 years working in a large theatre’s marketing office as a volunteer, that I was able to finally begin to live how I truly wanted to, free from the shame I was holding. Doing something so different from what I’d been told to do my entire life was fantastic.
What does growing older mean to you?
I like to say, I’m ‘getting older without getting old’. Growing older means I have the freedom to explore previously sublimated ways of being and feeling, but being such a ‘late developer’ as a gay man also means being out of step with the ways younger gay people, who don’t share the same history, interact. My older LGBT+ peers are usually quite isolated, either in partnerships or on their own like myself, which is why the value of organisations like Tonic and Opening Doors London is vital.
Growing up in a constrained environment, I behaved mainly by doing what I thought others wanted of me. But now, my only responsibility is to myself, and I can think freely and openly about lots of things. In a way, it’s like a second adolescence, which is quite exciting. This is why my home is so important to me, and why I want a safe, comfortable place to live without having to negotiate my way as an older person.
How do you think being LGBT+ impacts you as an older person?
As an older gay person who is now free of the ingrained ways of thinking which kept fulfilling others’ expectations of myself, I’m now more curious about the world in general and especially around alternative queer views, of which there are many.
Older straight people often question my solitary existence as if it’s a consequence of so-called ‘deviancy’ which is of concern to me as I get older, and possibly in need of future care. When it comes to solitary older gay people, there can often be a lot of prejudices when it comes to accessing social and care needs. It’s not uncommon to come across staff with restrictive attitudes and lack of understanding of different ways of living. In the past I’ve been asked “where is your wife?”, or “why don’t you have children?”, which then opens up a conversation about my identity.
Why is something like Tonic, an LGBT+ affirming retirement community, something that appeals to you?
My priorities are comfort, safety and community. The thought of being in an LGBT+ retirement community like Tonic, which would serve as a very public and unifying space, would be a very precious development for me. A community that would provide comfortable space for us to live naturally and without explanation of who we were and are now. I see it as a beacon of tolerance and difference in the wider world.
As older people of whatever persuasion and situation, our bodies may be weakening but our minds remain the depositories of life-long experience, which may be of interest and use to succeeding generations. We can’t lose those connections. We deserve the care of attention of society, and to not be forgotten.
What piece of wisdom would you like to share to change perceptions to tackle ageism?
We have such a rich history after being part of the underground for so long, and we can’t lose those stories and memories, they must be shared and told to younger generations to help them understand we’re all the same! One thing I would say is that, while we mustn’t lose sight of the important work still to be done, remember that life isn’t only about theories and politics, it’s about fun too!
Find out more about Tonic’s work here.
LGBT+: The acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, while the plus refers to anyone who identifies within the wide spectrum of sexual and gender minorities
Queer: In the past a derogatory term for LGBT individuals. The term has now been reclaimed by LGBT young people in particular who don’t identify with traditional categories around gender identity and sexual orientation but is still viewed to be derogatory by some.
LGBT+ affirming: The belief that services and support should not only be ‘LGBT+ friendly’ but genuinely affirming of the lives, histories, needs and desires of LGBT+ people. The term does not imply exclusion of those who do not identify as LGBT+ but actively values those who respect and celebrate LGBT+ people.