NEW YORK--What does it mean to be old and lesbian?
This week, with many events celebrating Lesbian and Gay Pride, culminating in marches in cities across the country on Sunday, many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities take time out not only to march for their rights but to consider their lives. And the week may be especially significant to those who came of age at a time when fewer lesbians could not be openly homosexual.
For some women, it is a time to celebrate and feel healthy and proud; for others, it is a painful time of feeling invisible, misunderstood, and marginalized. For still others, it is a bittersweet blend of both.
Pat Durham, a 74-year-old Northern Californian, likes getting older. "You can be who you want to be," she says, "you have a great deal of freedom."
But 64-year-old Rosalie Regal of New York is angry that "old lesbians and gays are almost invisible in our community . . . There seems to be no vision for anyone beyond 60, life is nothing but a void, and old age is a terminal disease. The only old women who are recognized are those with money and power."
Durham and Regal were among some 600 women and men who recently gathered here at Fordham University to tell their stories, air their concerns, and get answers to their questions, at the second annual conference of Senior Action in a Gay Environment, usually referred to as SAGE, the nation's oldest and largest organization dedicated to older members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
Terry Kaelber, executive director of SAGE, estimates that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people over the age of 60 number more than 3 million, and like the aging population as a whole, is growing quickly.
"Older gays and lesbians experience a double whammy," Kaelber says. "They are marginalized in their own community for being old and in the senior community for being gay."
Kaelber says research shows that health and well-being in old age is inextricably tied to the existence of friends, family and community. Yet, the current population of older gays and lesbians are twice as likely to be without a partner as the older heterosexual population; twice as likely to live alone and nine times more likely not to have children. Many, therefore, struggle with getting older.
Many of the women attending the conference seemed to have an easier time with the aging process than the men. While many men over 50 are coping for the first time with finding and creating community and support, many of the women said their experiences in the feminist movement had prepared them well for getting older and staying connected to others, as well as accepting the physical changes to their bodies that come with getting older.
"I don't dye my hair, I don't have plastic surgery. I look like an old woman and that's exactly what I am," said one speaker. "I don't try to 'pass.'"
Workshops and plenary sessions covered topics ranging from innovative housing for gay and lesbian seniors, to living with HIV/AIDS over 50; financial planning; care-giving for aging lesbians and gay men; mental health and activism.
One model program exits in Houston. In a volunteer program called AssistHers, teams of lesbians regularly provide a full range of home support services--from carpentry to reading books--to other lesbians with chronic or disabling illnesses.
A workshop on sex for lesbians over 50 was jam-packed and spirited. Most of the women agreed that while their bodies had changed, their "reckless passion" had subsided and some physical changes sometimes make sex difficult.
However, one 64-year-old participant announced, "Sex for me at this point is the best it's ever been."
Virginia Appuzo, former assistant to President Clinton for Management and Administration, encouraged those present, whatever their political beliefs, to continue to press for more national political support.
"Nearly seven and a half years into an administration that has been fairly friendly towards the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender community, what have we won for the community's elders?" she asked. "The answer is, very little of substance."