For older people, reaching out to the youth-obsessed LGBTQ community for the first time is rarely an ideal experience.
SueZie, 51, and Cheryl, 55, in Valrico, Florida in 2015. This portrait and others featured here were part of the photo project To Survive on This Shore, an exhibition featuring transgender and gender-variant people over the age of 50. Photos courtesy Jess T. Dugan
Identifying as both masculine and feminine has been a part of Marcus Perry's life since adolescence. Knowing other boys didn't feel that way, and feeling pressure from society to be more masculine, Perry said he struggled to fit in while growing up in the 80s. As a man, "being feminine or expressing femininity in Western culture was considered weak or wrong," he said. "So I tried my best to hide that side of me."
In his 40s, Perry began letting some of what he termed his "hypermasculine" expression soften. But it wasn't until earlier this year that he began reading about genderfluidity—the movement, popular among young people, to express one's gender beyond the binary of male and female. Now 52 years old, the San Francisco resident recently began identifying as genderfluid and androgyne. "It hasn't been easy to come out as an older genderfluid person," he said. "The LGBTQ community sees that expression of gender to be a newer and younger thing."
As a 52-year-old bi woman, I can relate to Perry's sense of being at odds with a modern queer community that often seems obsessed with youth. Though I came to understand I was bisexual in my 20s, the realization was largely moot, as I had already been married to a cisgender heterosexual man for several years. Today, 24 years later, I still am.
For years, I accepted the idea that if I was with a man, I was straight. That was the principle passed on to me by a well-meaning gay friend, one of the first people I talked with after realizing I was attracted to women. Unless I was going to leave my husband, he told me, it really didn't matter.
Except it did. To me. For nearly half my life to follow, I felt like I was keeping a part of myself hidden—like I was lying to everyone except my husband.
As often happens with major milestone birthdays, my 50th led me to question what "bisexual" meant to me, and what role I wanted my sexuality to play in my life. It became obvious to me that being bi wasn't about the gender of the person I was with, as I'd assumed for so long; it was about who I was in the world. Then came the Pulse shooting last year. I was suddenly made acutely aware, in a way I had never been before, that the "B" in LGBTQ referred to me, and that I hadn't thought of myself as straight in years.
But that was the easy part.
People like me, born in the 1950s and 60s, are part of the Stonewall Generation. We witnessed the birth of the gay civil rights movement and saw America slowly come to accept the LGBTQ community, as well as the devastation wrought by the AIDS crisis. But things aren't always easy for those of us who come out or connect with the LGBTQ community later in life.
"Sometimes I worry we think someone who comes out later in life or transitions later in life is starting at ground zero," said Dr. Vanessa Fabbre, an assistant professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis. Alongside her partner, photographer Jess T. Dugan, Fabbre created To Survive on This Shore, a collection of portraits and interviews with transgender and gender-variant people over the age of 50. A selection of those portraits, all of subjects who came out after turning 50, are featured here.
Their experiences, she said, reveal the way we move through the world having been informed by our past, and the walls we all build within ourselves in conforming to particular definitions of identity. "I think a lot of the issues that come up in LGBT spaces are because, as individual people, we internalize society's forces," Fabbre said. "They work within us, and sometimes it's hard to figure out what's me and what's society, and where is the conflict inside of me."
Coming out or otherwise making major realizations about one's self later in life, Fabbre noted, "often reflects a sense of awareness about time and time left to live." She mentioned interview subjects she'd encountered in her research who have literally estimated the time they had left and realized they could not continue living as they had been. "There's a sense of urgency that helps you break down walls and pursue what feels right to you," she said.
"The LGBT community is great at building chosen families," said Serena Worthington, a director at the LGBTQ elder advocacy organization SAGE, but people coming out later in life may not be aware of resources, such as coming out groups and local LGBTQ centers, available to them. That's why she encourages older people looking to connect with the queer community to seek out LGBTQ affinity groups within organizations like AARP or Human Rights Campaign. And building networks of support, Worthington added, is supremely important—especially as people age, and especially within the LGBTQ community, where traditional support networks of family and friends may be harder to maintain after someone comes out.
Worthington emphasized that the sheer amount of resources available for the LGBTQ community online is staggering—a fact Marcus Perry discovered as he began reaching out to genderfluid communities on the internet. "I've recently found a few Facebook groups for non-binary people. One in particular is geared toward people over 30. The support that I get from the people on these groups is tremendous," he said. "I don't know what I'd do without them."
For someone like Inez Schaechterle, social media has been essential in building a support network for herself while living in Holbrook, Arizona, a rural town roughly 90 miles from the nearest city with a gay community. Now 53, Schaechterle came out as bi while living in Storm Lake, Iowa, a little over two years ago. Friends there threw her a rainbow party to celebrate, and she keeps in touch with them through Facebook. While she's the first to admit that her epiphany had very little effect on her external world, internally it changed everything for her. "It allowed me to settle a tension I've experienced all my life," she said.
"There's this extra level of consciousness about how the world perceives you and how differently you've been treated" when one comes out later in life, Fabbre said. "Trans men talk about that a lot because they lived in a world where, even if they were very masculine and butch, they were still perceived as women and experienced sexism in all its forms. To then move through the world, sometimes as straight men, sometimes as gay men, and to experience how people treat you differently gives you that extra form of consciousness about how society works," she said. And the diversity of experience that older people bring to the table when they do come out, she added, is one that can only strengthen the LGBTQ community and society as a whole.
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