Bridging the LGBT Generation Gap: Respect Your Elders, Young Queers

Age is a strange thing in the queer community. We measure our lives by two numbers: the standard Number of Years Lived As a Sentient Human, and Number of Years Lived Out. By these standards, one could be 45-years-old and still be considered a babygay if that closet door has only recently been flung open. I’ve been on this planet 27 years now, but only eight of those have been spent as an out lesbian. So I guess I’m roughly a second-grader by queer standards, which is cool, because second grade was good times. I recall making some rather thought-provoking postmodern popsicle-sticks-and-Elmer’s-glue art that year. Needless to say, I’m often perceived as a babybutch by my elder queers (despite how obscenely old I feel when I realize that today’s college students were born in the 1990s – an entire decade that I remember). That’s also cool, because I love chatting with older LGBT folk, even if they are fighting the urge to pat me on the head and send me off to my 8:00 bedtime.

As I you might have gleamed from some of my previous posts, I’m fascinated by queer history herstory, specifically butch-femme, specifically during and pre-Stonewall. Maybe it comes from reading books like Stone Butch Blues and The Persistent Desire. Or maybe it comes from an idealization of the old dyke bar days: a time of loving in smokey underground dives and running from the Boys in Blue that sounds very exciting and romantic to a spoiled 21st century queer like me, but was probably actually terrifying.

Whatever the reasoning, I’m always on the lookout for new media on LGBT history, which is how I came to watch the documentary Gen Silent. Set in my own little city of Boston (which I didn’t realize until I started watching and was stoked to see all my hangouts), Gen Silent focuses its lens on the plight of LGBT elders. We meet a cast of diverse, lovable people who are struggling with some very serious problems – from a 60-something gay man overwhelmed by guilt after placing his older, ailing partner in a nursing home to a late-middle-aged trans woman dealing with both family rejection and lung cancer. As the film explains, far more LGBT seniors are living alone than their heterosexual peers. There’s a number of factors at play here:

  • LGBT seniors are less likely to have grown children to care for them.
  • LGBT seniors are more likely to be estranged from their families.
  • LGBT seniors are less likely to seek needed medical attention, due to a fear of homo/transphobic healthcare providers.
  • LGBT seniors living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities often face a “re-closeting” – that is, being forced to hide their sexuality or trans status in the presence of staff or other seniors who are hostile towards queer people. (Only about 30% of Americans 65 and older support gay marriage, according to most polls.)

Since you really need to watch this fantastic film for yourself, I won’t give too much else away. I will say, however, that it broke my damn heart into roughly a bajillion pieces. Knowing that all these brave and proud people – who survived the McCarthy-era witch hunts, who stayed strong in the face of police brutality, who smashed bottles and threw fists to kickstart the Gay Liberation Movement -were being forgotten was more than I could handle. It made sad, then it made me angry, and then it made me determined.

My new mantra for 2012 is “See Something, Do Something.” Sort of like those subway safety PSAs, except less about backpack bombs and more about community building. I feel like I’ve spent too much time simply being upset about injustice and not enough actually doing something to combat it. So when I started to enter my Queer Hulk raging-on-Twitter mode, I told myself, “No, Bren. Less e-smashing, more direct action.” After using the Google Machine to find out more about the aid organizations featured in Gen Silent, I emailed the coordinator of Out to Brunch, a monthly meal and social program for LBT elder women that’s co-sponsored by the LGBT Aging Project, and asked what I could do to help.

Fast forward to this past Saturday, when I spent most of my day setting tables, putting up Valentine’s Day decorations, and serving food at the Roslindale House community center. In between all that, I got to hang out with some seriously awesome queer folk – both young volunteers like me and the older women who were our guests of honor (some of whom were even in Gen Silent). You guys, it was a total blast.

I have absolutely no idea where the stereotype of the sweet, innocent, and demure little old lady came from. Have you ever met an elderly woman who was actually like that? I mean, my 96-year-old great aunt has a mouth on her that could make a drunken sailor blush. And it drives me nuts when people talk to seniors as if they’re giant, white-haired toddlers. Look, these are full-grown adults who have been living, loving, fucking, dancing, drinking, and raising hell longer than I – or my parents, for that matter – have even been breathing. So it was very refreshing to be with volunteers who didn’t talk down to the seniors, and with seniors who had no problem making dirty jokes in front of a fresh-faced zygote of a dyke like me. I’ve never heard so many Valentine’s Day-inspired “I have a heart-on” jokes in my life.

The highlight of my day was meeting an old-school butch. She strolled right up to me and introduced herself as Frances (“sometimes Clark”), and we had an excellent conversation about butch names, haircuts, the pressure to transition, and the pre-Stonewall days (“You kids have it so lucky today; back then, you would get arrested for not wearing at least three pieces of women’s clothing”). During the meal, I watched her joke and flirt shamelessly with nearby femmes. Man, I want to be just like Frances when I grow up. Nice to know that butch swagger is forever.

I knew before the day was half over that Out to Brunch is going to be a regular event for me. It’s an honor to be able to spend time with such a fun, feisty, and downright inspiring group of women, and I can’t wait ’til next month. Maybe Clark will teach me some of her moves – if I can keep up.


17 thoughts on “Bridging the LGBT Generation Gap: Respect Your Elders, Young Queers

  1. Clark sounds entirely awesome. It’s great that you can go to an event like that–I really wish we had one around here.

    There’s another great essay about older gay peeps at , though it focuses on gay men by virtue of being a GQ article. It would be fascinating to read something similar for older lesbian vets. I know a woman (who would probably smack me if I referred to her as “older”) who was kicked out of the Coast Guard when a couple of her resentful coworkers outed her, and I’m sure plenty of your other readers could put you in touch with people with similar stories.

  2. I try to do my part by sleeping with women at least twice my age on a regular basis. TAKE THAT documentary makers, I am dooing soooo much more for the community. :p

    Great post, seriously.

  3. I love this! I’ve been working in eldercare for a couple of years now and I have found that until I specifically say, out loud, no beating around the bush, that I am a lesbian, elders are quite hesitant to mention it. I’ve asked every single partner community I go to visit how they would handle a same-sex couple because I want to know where is best for them here.

    I came out in 1987 and people think those bar raids were long gone by then, but it’s not true. Oh, not for the “3 pieces of women’s clothing” thing but drugs. Drugs that were at least once that I know of FOR SURE, planted by cops as an excuse to arrest a butch. Not kidding. Anyway, one time, I was at a bar being raided and freaking because a) it was my first time and b) I went to a Catholic college – getting arrested might have caused me problems. So, these three older, very Old School Butches, surrounded me, and pushed me to the back of a crowd of butches. All of those butches in that bar, at least 50 of them, keeping me safe from the police. Who, while they liked to arrest butches, liked to harass femmes in a whole other way. If they’d have made us line up, I guess I would have been screwed, but they didn’t.

    I’ll never forget them. After that, whenever I’d go to that bar, I’d see one of them and they’d wink at me and say something sweet and I’d always send over a pitcher of beer. I fell in love with every last one of them that day. So when someone asks me why I like butches, I tell them this. I learned what it felt like to be cared for and loved at the hands of about 50 strangers. How many women can say THAT? πŸ™‚ Now that I’ve written an entire blog post here, maybe I’ll go write one of my own!

    • Wow, that is the best story I’ve read all day (even better than the one I wrote ;)) – thank you for sharing it with us all! There’s really nothing like an Old School Butch, is there? Well, except for an Old School Femme, that is…

  4. And PS I wish we had something like that community center here! I need to move to a proper city, I tell you. πŸ™‚ And I think about that scene in Stone Butch Blues when I talk to any of the seniors who are planning to move themselves. The one where her friend is forced to wear a dress? Who knows what it is in this elder, whether it’s gay or something else, that they are being forced to put away out of fear? I like to think that it changes how I deal with them. And that’s enough commenting for one day.

  5. I was lucky enough to grow up not only with a lesbian parent, but with a femme mom and butch “dad”.

    Those women rock. Many of the who were around when I was born are still around now. They’re cops, cable people, firefighters. I’m so proud to be in thier lives, and they’ve got some kick ass stories. I’m 35 and came out at 17, so I’m old hat, but I’ll always stop to chat with the elders in our community.

  6. And PS I wish we had something like that community center here! I need to move to a proper city, I tell you. πŸ™‚ And I think about that scene in Stone Butch Blues when I talk to any of the seniors who are planning to move themselves. The one where her friend is forced to wear a dress? Who knows what it is in this elder, whether it’s gay or something else, that they are being forced to put away out of fear? I like to think that it changes how I deal with them. And that’s enough commenting for one day.

  7. Viva la eternal butch swagger!

    We have an event called the Rainbow Banquet up here where Syracuse University basically has a giant dinner for all the graduating LGBT students and the president of the LGBT group does a big presentation. It’s pretty spiffy, with lots of queers to celebrate with! There are other speakers, such as SAGE (a group for older LGBT folks). It makes the world of a difference to volunteer, doesn’t it? At least it feels that way. πŸ™‚

    • That dinner sounds pretty amazing! Wish my college had thrown us queers a party like that; I would have loved it (also, free food).

      I’m really, really glad I started volunteering. It’s such a rewarding experience!

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