The word “radical” is often used to mean “extreme” but it also means “root”. Being gay is the root of who I am. All the other aspects of my personality including my elder journey revolve around that core of my being.
Some of us may remember the Radical Faeries who surfaced in the 1970’s. This counter-culture movement emphasized the unique capacity of LGBT individuals to challenge cultural norms including traditional gender roles and definitions of relationships. The Radical Faeries affirmed our differences and were in sharp contrast to those who sought assimilation into the mainstream culture by focusing more on our similarities with non-LGBT individuals.
Since then we seem to have found a comfortable balance, achieving equal rights such as same-sex marriage and the right to serve in the military by focusing on our similarities while still maintaining a vibrant LGBT community that celebrates its uniqueness with pride.
What are the commonalities and differences in our aging? While we share the same concerns as non-LGBT older adults about the “unknowns” (How long will I live? Will I maintain my health, mobility and mental acuity? Will I need care? Will my money last?), there are some unique additional challenges for us. Many of us do not have the support of adult children or other family members; we might not have the same retirement assets as straight couples acquire after a lifetime together, and our long history of discrimination and harassment may have left us hesitant to now access the benefits and services we need.
So how can we LGBT elders approach our aging by focusing on our roots? For starters, I think our long history as “cultural outsiders” gives us a unique capacity to not fall into aging stereotypes and pitfalls. Growing up in a society with such strong gender stereotypes and sexual myths, we who have not fit those norms had to create a unique identity for ourselves. That has better prepared us for facing the “identity crisis” that many face as aging diminishes the sense of self that is tied to cultural expectations, careers, parenting, and independence. We can adapt to age-related changes with a deeper sense of self that is based on the root of our authentic nature, our essence.
Another strength we bring to aging is our resilience. We’ve survived so many individual and collective struggles that our wounds have made many of us stronger. We learned to meet challenges with courage, compassion, creativity, strength, humor, optimism and persistence, as well as an ability to develop supportive connections, so that we are now empowered to enjoy our aging with dignity and pride. Let’s approach our aging radically by remembering our roots and experiencing and expressing even more of our uniqueness!
Buz Hermes is co-facilitator of the Sonoma Valley LGBT Seniors Group and a former staff member of Spectrum’s Senior Outreach Program. He is currently a consultant on LGBT aging and can be reached at [email protected] or (707) 227-6935.