A Different Kind of Struggle

LGBT seniors open up about their semi-invisible lives

“Gigi” is 68 years old and lives in Northern Kentucky, where she moved five years ago after living in Cincinnati since the 1990s. She runs a small business in the community and enjoys her life very much.

And like many women her age, she is discreet about her sexuality. But this isn’t a result of modesty alone. Gigi is a male-to-female transgender — she’s had facial feminization surgeries and breast implants — and relies upon her own discretion in order to keep her livelihood intact and herself safe.

“I live my life without walking around with a sign on my back,” she says. “I just don’t feel the need to tell everyone in my neighborhood.”

Gigi is also active within Cincinnati’s LGBT community. She’s an outreach associate for CrossPort, a transgender and transvestite support group in Cincinnati that hosts monthly meetings and frequent outings. She travels to schools and police departments to discuss transsexual issues as well as recruit for Cross- Port.

Having transitioned to female at 57, Gigi understands the struggle of coming out later in life. She says there are many elderly transgendered people in Cincinnati, but many of them are still closeted.

“If they’re not out by age 65, they’re probably never going to come out,” she says.

CrossPort, however, might actually serve a dual purpose for Gigi. Although it’s open to all ages (its youngest member is 22), about 60 of its roughly 150 members are above the age of 55, making CrossPort the de facto elderly trans organization in Cincinnati, keeping her in contact with not only her trans friends but people in her own age group.

Gigi’s story is microcosm of a larger societal issue that often goes unnoticed in Greater Cincinnati: The plight of the gay elderly. While Gigi has a wide swath of friends, young and old, there is no dedicated place for her to commune exclusively with the LGBT people her own age.

Prime Time players

Cincinnati offers a wide range of social groups for older people, but there are no LGBT-exclusive organizations. Many groups simply have a large population of older LGBT clientele, such as CrossPort, New Spirit Metropolitan Community Church and Prime Timers.

Prime Timers, a social club for men, might be the closest thing to a senior gay men’s group in Cincinnati. A chapter of the international Prime Timers Worldwide, the group advertises itself as place for older gay and bisexual men and the younger men who admire them.

Steve Howell, 44, a native Cincinnatian, has been treasurer of Prime Timers for three years. Although the club is open to heterosexual men, the majority of Prime Timers are gay.

“It is a place where men can come and socialize amongst other people,” Howell says. “They can actually be themselves and not have to worry about someone seeing them, and they can mingle with their own kind.”

Cincinnati’s is the third largest Prime Timers group in the nation, with 280 members, and the group holds regular monthly meetings. The larger group is also broken up into several smaller groups based on interests, and those groups typically meet weekly. Dining groups, athletic groups and theater groups are among the many choices that Prime Timers offers.

Though a majority of Prime Timers are gay, they’re not necessarily out, Howell adds.

“There are a lot of guys that grew up in a different environment and are afraid of gay people,” he says. “There’s still a lot of fear.”

Prime Timers’ mission is to reach out to these closeted elderly men, but that’s about as easy as chasing a shadow.

“It’s been a challenge for us because we don’t always know where all the older men are,” Howell says. “They think it’s all about sex. That’s what a lot of people think ... dirty old men having sex. That’s not what we are there for.”

Another reason older gay men have trouble attending social groups like Prime Timers is as common among the elderly population as a whole — mobility.

“I would say maybe a third that have mobility issues,” Howell says. “We have guys that come with walkers, guys that are on oxygen and guys that can barely walk.”

Howell says social groups geared toward the elderly are necessary because often older LGBTers are dismissed in the larger gay culture. “They forget about them,” he says. “I think it’s just (an attitude of) the younger generation are in it for themselves.”

Visibility still a problem

Gay elderly visibility isn’t just a Cincinnati issue — it’s a national problem.

Karen Taylor is director of outreach and education with SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian and Transgender Elders), the nation’s oldest nonprofit advocacy organization that assists elderly LGBT Americans. Many of the services, benefits and entitlements available to seniors are largely unknown to the older gay community, she says.

“What happens in reality at the local level is that LGBT older adults are invisible,” Taylor says. The programs serving seniors don’t serve them effectively, she adds, because many attempt to treat everyone the same and don’t take the vagaries of sexual orientation into ac count when providing care.

Once a person turns 60, benefits and entitlements change. Many gay community centers don’t understand how to enroll seniors in Medicare and prescription drug plans. “Our own community may not be aware of how to do that work,” Taylor says.

The LGBT social strata are the lifeblood of gay seniors because often they don’t have the reliable family network that heterosexual seniors have. Two-thirds of gay seniors live alone, and 90 percent of them don’t have children. For most elderly people, spouses and children are the aging population means of staying social and getting services.

“That’s who our aging service system rely on to provide basic assistance at home,” Taylor says. “If we have a population that doesn’t fit the criteria, it means just walking in the door of a senior center where someone says, ‘What’s your wife’s name?’ is immediately a barrier to access.”

History’s lingering effects

Cincinnati LGBT Center Vice President John Maddux, 60, says there’s definitely a lack of social support in the fabric of the LGBT community. He currently doesn’t participate in many activities geared for seniors but spends time with friends exploring personal interests.

Maddux, who’s also an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, takes a more philosophical approach to why gay men don’t participate in these groups.

“I think it’s a sociological phenomenon,” Maddux says. “(The 1950s was) an era when men couldn’t come out, you lived in the shadows. We were all so socialized in a culture where men had to compete with each other rather than nurture each other. I don’t think we really know how to be a part of each others’ lives other than either sexually or in a competitive sense.”

Part of the problem is passivity on the part of institutional structure, Maddux adds. There isn’t enough outreach by gay organizations to their elderly constituents, specifically on the part of the local Center. Other than the annual Pride Parade and the Pride Night at King’s Island amusement park, he says, the Center’s presence in the community has been minimal.

“I would say that our outreach is pretty pathetic,” Maddux says. “The center has to rediscover itself, to redefine itself. We need to ask ‘How can we serve you?’ ”

Michael Chanak, board member-at-large for the LBGT Center, is an anomaly all his own. At 60, he’s an apt jumper through ageseparated social castes of Cincinnati’s gay community. He uses social media to keep up with friends, young and old, and to keep tuned in to Cincinnati’s varied gay world.

“Most of the people in my age group, they’re just not using those things,” Chanak says. “I’ve always been really successful. I’ve been able to have friends and do pretty well for myself. Some are more sensitive to the age issue, especially people in my age group.”

While he wouldn’t mind a social group of people closer to his age, it isn’t a high priority for him.

“I’ve just become well-socialized,” Chanak says. “I don’t feel particularly isolated and my health is still decent enough that I don’t have any disability that limits my (activity).”

Chanak says many of his elderly gay friends have mobility issues that limit their sociability. But for him, he’s still able and still knows how to work a room.

“I’m either a stubborn crazy person or just determined that I’m going to make my way,” he says. “I’m just happy that I got this far.”

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