In honor of February being African American History Month, SAGE has been highlighting our diverse programs, constituents and stories relevant to black aging. Look back at our featured stories for the month. For our last post of the month, Dr. Imani Woody of SAGE Metro D.C. and is the founding director and CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults, a developing LGBT friendly residential housing in Washington, DC, explores issues on ageism and heterosexism in the African American lesbian and gay communities.
People are complex, and African-American older LGBT adults are no exception. They live at the intersection of multiple identities experienced over the life span, in a culture steeped in racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism and homophobia. African-American lesbian and gay males experience at a minimum two hostile environments: being lesbian or gay in a heterosexist society; being a person of color in a racist culture; being female in a sexist culture; and being old in a youth-worshipping culture.
Moreover, research shows that living with racism on a daily basis influences the health and well-being of African Americans, leading to major gaps in health and financial equality, higher levels of infirmity and chronic illness, even earlier death than other populations. African-American elders are likely to experience poverty at more than two times the rate of all other older Americans.
This article comes from research cited in Lift Every Voice: Treading our Path, (NGLTF Task Force, 2012) that tells the stories of lives lived and the very real problems of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender African Americans coming-of-age and how those experiences shaped their lives as they grew older. People remember being conflicted in telling family members their sexual orientation and sexual identity, fearing rejection and abandonment. A 66-year-old African-American lesbian woman described it this way:
- “I knew I was different as a child. … But I guess I was in my early teens [before I knew the words], because you don’t know what the word is. When I was coming up, the word was bull dagger. It was so negative, so you still don’t know. You are a kid; you don’t know, there were no words for it, I hate that word. It’s just I’ve gotten older, I just, ugh. … That’s so derogatory. It’s negative.”
Many older African-American lesbian women and gay men have experienced a sense of grief and loss from being alienated within one’s own race and ethnicity because of perceived sexual identity and orientation. Often the disaffection happens early and scars last for life. Many elders speak of living in hostile environments within the African-American community. As this 63-year-old African-American man explains:
- “I know I have an androgynous look, it was even more so when I was younger. So therefore, there was some discrimination against me by assumption rather than fact because they would look at me and because I am androgynous looking they would assume. … One of my issues being African American and looking like this was really when I came out in college in the late ’60s at the height of the Black Power Movement and I was distinctly told by a couple of Black organizations at the time, ‘we don’t want your kind here.’ ”
Suspicions of institutions and institutional care are a shared ancestry of African Americans. This is also a shared experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people coming of age in the decades of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Institutional bigotry, hatred and stigma has led to medical classification and criminalization often resulting in forced psychiatric treatment of LGBT people, and loss of family, church, employment, housing and other community structures. Such bigotry is still found in the medical profession and in church. Listen to the stories of three African-American elders:
- … You have to be careful with that [advising providers that you’re gay] because the minute you tell a medical person that you are gay, they automatically, in 90 percent of the cases, will assume you’re HIV positive and start to treat you that way.” (63-year-old African-American gay man)
- I grew up in the church. I was baptized when I was about 11 in the Baptist church. I came to D.C. and joined a world-renowned Baptist church. I sang on two choirs, was a part of the missionary group. … I met a very nice young lady and we were going to get married so we sent some invitations to people at the church. … There were some people on the Deacon and Trustee Board who brought me before the church. … We got into this thing about what the Bible did and didn’t say, but they put me out anyway. … It still hurt me deeply. It was one of the deepest hurts I have had in my life to be put out of my church that I have put so much love and energy…” (72-year-old African-American lesbian woman)
- In a workplace situation, for example, I might not get an assignment that I know I am qualified for, know that I’m the best person for it, and don’t get it. Is that because I am old? Is it because I am Black? Is it because I am gay? (69-year-old African-American gay man)