There's a feeling that after you reach a certain age in the LGBTQ community, you simply don't exist. With the current landscape of queer culture and advocacy so focused on the voices and feelings of millennials and Gen Z, there’s a growing concern that older members of the community – the same people who fought for the rights and liberties many young queer people take for granted today – are being forgotten about.
Known as LGBTQ elders, this demographic of people, along with their unique set of needs, are not being factored into the discussion as the drive for greater tolerance and equality marches on. As a result, many LGBTQ elders are feeling displaced and alienated from a community that continues, for some, to be all they have as they enter their later years.
"I really don’t fit in with the LGBTQ community,” David Parker, a 72-year-old gay man living in London, tells me. In the early 1980s David was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and chronic active hepatitis B, which meant he had to stop drinking when he reached his thirties and enrol on a 12-step programme. He was on the first Human Interferon drug trial carried out in the UK and, of everyone on the trial, he was the only one who survived. Due to his health he’s had to manufacture a life that’s separate from drinking and drugs, to the point where his friends tend to be younger than him. "They’re all in their twenties, thirties and forties, but I don’t mind it much," he reassures me. However, it does mean he misses out on events like Pride, which at their core are meant to bring the community together. "I haven't been to a Pride event in years. Why? Because I don’t like the idea of being surrounded by people drinking from tins at 10 in the morning."
The issue of queer spaces being somehow always tied to either alcohol, drugs or nightlife remains a longstanding bugbear in the community, especially when more LGBTQ elders find themselves not drinking because of medical reasons, or simply because they don’t find the spaces welcoming. This has led to some completely distancing themselves from the scene, and forgoing being part of the community altogether. "As I've gotten older I’ve tended to stay away from queer organisations because I find them actually quite toxic," says Lee Hurley, a trans man living in Northern Ireland. Having spent many years living as a lesbian woman, Lee knows all too well how a lot of the limited services available to older queer people are automatically geared towards only gay men and nightlife. "For older trans men there's next to nothing available to us, unless you want to get involved in the backbiting that tarnishes these organisations."
Perhaps less apparent is that, among LGBTQ elders, there's a concern that the community itself has moved on into territory that just doesn't sit right with them. Case in point: the word "queer". Spaces, events and organisations now adopt the word queer as their default term for anyone who falls under the LGBTQ umbrella, but using the word so freely risks leaving some LGBTQ elders out in the rain. For many, it's still considered a derogatory slur and can sometimes trigger past trauma. "For many LGBTQ people, 'queer' is just something you don’t say, and there continues to be a lot of debate around it," says David. "But I think a bigger issue is that our generation isn’t aware of how the language has evolved, which is why it needs to be explained to us."
With an obvious limit on spaces and events readily available to them, LGBTQ elders have taken matters into their own hands by way of the internet, more specifically social media. Beyond the murky depths of Grindr and other dating apps, sites like Facebook and Meetup have really empowered LGBTQ elders to create common interest groups where they interact and organise weekly or monthly meet-ups. These groups range from gay stamp collecting and trans walking tours, to weekend visits to the seaside when the weather permits it.
"There’s a tendency to think LGBTQ elders aren’t tech savvy, but they are!" says Simon Le Vans, 53, a DJ at south east London stalwart the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. He believes LGBTQ elders shouldn’t rely solely on their local council or government to create social hubs with them in mind. "What people fail to remember is that it was my generation who were using the Gaydar chatrooms to talk and interact with one another in 1999, and it essentially socialised us on how to use sites like Facebook to our advantage, which is what we’re doing now."
Though using the internet has proven fruitful for many LGBTQ elders, and has given them thriving social lives, it can’t rest on the shoulders of queer people once again to fight for the right to be accounted for. Especially for queer elders living in provincial towns and cities where access to queer safe spaces can often prove challenging. But it seems that wider organisations and charities are now beginning to realise this. In America, the non-profit organisation SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) took to congress to demand improvements be made for care and services designed for LGBTQ elders in what was its first ever National Day of Advocacy (the 13th of March). And to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the first ever LGBTQ elders housing project is set to open in Brooklyn later this summer, albeit with protesters in tow. There are also future plans to expand into the Bronx and Manhattan by 2020 to remedy the lack of safe and affordable housing many older LGBTQ people are struggling to find.
In the UK, the tide does appear to be turning, with more organisations emerging to put the welfare of LGBTQ elders at the forefront. The charity Opening Doors is committed to providing space and creating events for older LGBTQ people. Membership is free and offers a range of services to combat social isolation and promote interaction. But more than creating services exclusively just for older people, there’s a real push to encourage places that promote greater intergenerational interaction where both young and older queer people can talk and learn from one another. The London LGBTQ+ Community Centre, which successfully raised over £100,000 in 2018 to assist with its development, hopes to achieve this. "Knowing about our history is such a big part of knowing ourselves," Georgia Whitaker, a volunteer at the community centre, explains. "The queer experience is different for different people, and we really want to create a space for dialogue and interaction that includes and respects LGBTQ people of all ages."
One such space already doing this is London-based LGBTQ bookshop Gay’s The Word. Having recently celebrated 40 years in business and witnessed other crucial queer spaces like First Out Cafe close its doors in 2011 (yet another casualty of the Crossrail development), the bookshop has long been more than just a place that houses queer literature alongside the latest issue of Attitude Magazine. For LGBTQ elders, it's provided an essential space to turn to for information on housing and social events. Trans London regularly use the space to meet up, and after noticing the lack of queer spaces for women on offer, Gay’s The Word hosts a weekly lesbian discussion group.
Most importantly, however, it’s a place where LGBTQ people of all ages can just be. "The bookshop has been around for as long as my generation has been out, so it’s a part of their history, as it is mine," Jim MacSweeney, 59, owner of Gay’s The Word, tells me in the middle of the busy bookshop as people from all across the world visit and ask him questions about books and local queer history. "Thirty years ago, Gay’s The Word changed my life, and it continues to do so every day. We get people from ages 16 to 90 that come in for the books, or for just a chat. It’s great to see."
It’s clear that more needs to be done to meet the needs of LGBTQ elders as they get older, to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, whether that's from within the community or the result of a concerted effort from government. But one thing is clear: LGBTQ elders don’t want to be pitied or looked down upon – the internet has enabled this generation of queer people to mobilise once again and fill the void created by people who don’t see them at all. Above all else, what LGBTQ elders want is a connection, both to their history and with each other.
"The emotional impact of the AIDS crisis has never been properly addressed for a lot of us," David explains. "There are so many of us who are still angry and we haven’t properly dealt with that. We need greater facilities created with us in mind because the disease took most of our generation away and we’re the only ones left."