LGBT seniors face unique challenges in Sonoma County
There was the time the Napa draft board ordered Gary “Buz” Hermes, just turned 18, to register with police as a sex offender because he had told the truth: He was attracted to men.
Later, he left San Francisco after a bunch of kids ganged up and beat him with a BB-filled sock. That was 1968, the Summer of Love.
Moved to Mendocino, he lost his job with a nonprofit agency after a co-worker disclosed his sexual orientation to the board of directors. In the days between his outing and his termination, the local sheriff stopped by the home he shared with his partner, apparently to check out the situation. He had to relocate again.
Hermes, now a soft-spoken 77-year-old Sonoma resident, is glad he was never arrested. But he understands the residual wariness of many LGBTQI seniors - those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex - that prevents too many of them from seeking out the help they need as they age.
Despite new rights to marry and share benefits, LGBTQI elders came of age at a time of pervasive persecution, an era when they were widely considered sinners, criminals, mentally ill or legitimate targets for violence. They may find it harder than their younger counterparts to “live out loud,” as a result, scarred by decades in which survival meant keeping secrets.
Even those who took part in the movement for liberation and social justice launched in the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall protests may find they are less willing than they were to risk self-revelation, now that they are somewhat vulnerable and, perhaps, dependent on others.
“There’s this fear when you get older, and as an LGBTQI person, that you’re going to face homophobia again,” said J Mullineaux, founder of the Community Foundation Sonoma County’s 100-member LGBTQI Giving Circle.
“These are the people, many of whom fought for years for civil rights and gay rights, and who may have been some of the first people to come out and be activist about it, and now they’re going back in the closet.”
Hiding who they are
A common consequence is that people who move to institutional settings, for instance, may limit their social, mental and physical well-being by hiding who they are to avoid real or perceived bias or moral judgment.
Mistrust and anxiety about revealing too much to health care, social service or other providers may interfere with adequate care or assistance, advocates say, contributing to the isolation that often also is a factor in their lives.
All kinds of complications can arise and have, advocates say, from clients or patients inadvertently being outed to family members who weren’t already in the know; confusion around family make-up and living situations; and inappropriate comments or questions that assume a given person is straight or gender-conforming.
“There are areas in which there is homophobia and transphobia,” said Nancy Flaxman, a Marin County-based consultant and trainer who has been doing work this year on behalf of the Sonoma County Human Service Department’s Adult and Aging Services Division. “But for the most part, it’s a lack of education.”
An estimated 2.7 million LGBTQI individuals 50 and older live in the United States, according to the LGBT+ National Aging Research Center. About 1.1 million are 65 and older.
Advocacy groups and researchers have raised alarms for a decade or more about specific problems confronting the growing population of LGBTQI elders, even in progressive regions like San Francisco and Sonoma County, which boasts Fountaingrove Lodge, the nation’s first LGBT retirement community.
At greater risk
New studies of this group’s unique challenges reveal significant disparities in their emotional, financial and physical well-being, compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
Seniors in the LGBTQI population are at greater risk of physical disability, depression, a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and poor health, studies show. A significant portion live in poverty but may be reluctant to seek assistance or find out how. The range of challenges is often greater for those in low-income brackets and, particularly, for transgender individuals.
Social isolation - an issue for many seniors - is especially prevalent among people who traditionally have been denied the right to marry, who are less likely than heterosexuals to have partners or children, and who may have suffered rejection and estrangement from extended family. Though they may have had tight, supportive social circles at some point, there may come a point when it’s difficult to lean on one another, especially for those who can no longer drive or support themselves, Flaxman said.