3 min

Finding homes for aging queers

with same-sex marriage behind us, there remain many issues we need to continue fighting for. Will those issues have the same profile, the same media-driven urgency that equal marriage rights did? I seriously doubt it. That focus was unique. Far more likely is a return to the dynamic previously used in our struggles: having several irons in the proverbial fire at once.

Some of the issues I see arising in the next while, in no particular order, are: trans and intersex, queer youth, queer elder, censorship and sexual freedom, homo/bi/trans/lesbophobia in the schools and workplace, anti-queer violence issues, queer parenting and international persecutions.

As a 51-year-old man, I find that the looming issue of care for queer elders is increasingly crowding into my consciousness and striking a stabbing fear into my heart. In 10, 20 or 25 years — not long — I will most likely be in a care facility.

What will I face? Will I be forced to return to the closet I abandoned in 1979? Will I be separated from my life partner, Terry, who at this point I have already spent 25 years with — half my life? Will I face neglect or abuse? Will I be pushed off into a corner and overmedicated? Will I have nothing to look forward to but death itself? It’s a terrifying prospect.

Being openly gay and pushing for equality has been difficult enough these last 20-odd years. While not always as supportive as it might have been, I at least had a community around me. At the very least I had Terry. If I insist on remaining openly gay in some institution what support systems will I have?

Virtually none.

The very people I spend my days, and nights, surrounded by will be, by and large, the very people I fought against all my life. Will the facility’s administration ensure I can live openly as a gay man? Not when the families of my coresidents are hollering for the administration to “do something about that horrible old man” and perhaps threatening to pull their family member out of the facility if this “outrage” continues.

Shortly after I came out I struck up a correspondence with a wonderful man, in his 80s at the time, who lived in a care facility in Edmonton. Sven Sandburg was a delight: highly intelligent, accomplished and a bit of a shit-disturber.

In his single room he had a large ornately framed print of a beautiful nude Victorian-era youth. Sven liked boys. Staff and other residents constantly complained about it. Sven refused to allow administration to remove it. He had books on gay liberation, politics, ethics and queer spirituality. Administration found them “disturbing” but couldn’t do much about them. He also had a collection of gay porn magazines that staff members were constantly removing and he was constantly replacing.

When I visited him in 1981, he invited me to lunch in the main dining room. He shared a table with some little old ladies and another man. Sven, ever the Swedish gentleman, introduced me as his “friend.” I was not yet 30. I was uncomfortably aware throughout lunch of eyes glaring at me over the soup and entrees, and of the loud sighs and impatient clicking of tongues when Sven and I dared to discuss the state of gay politics with each other over lunch. I don’t know about them, but I know I was offended by the strained atmosphere and clear signals of, if not hatred towards Sven, then certainly extreme dislike. The man was considered a pariah.

Unless attention is paid to the particular issues facing an aging gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans population (a process that has only barely begun, at best), we will all face scenarios where our identity — be it one of sexual orientation or of gender identity — is dismissed or actively penalized. I do not look forward to my daily needs – my life – being managed and controlled by some over-worked and underpaid careworker with issues about me being gay.

If we are old, frail, in ill health, possibly mentally incapacitated in some way, without access to the very systems we spent many years building, and isolated in a care facility — warehoused, in effect — we are stuck. No family, chosen or otherwise, to advocate on our behalf — and zero hope.

Some of us with financial resources may succeed in accessing facilities with better resources. Perhaps. But those of us without a bank full of RRSPs or some other major financial cushion to rely on, will be stuck in state-run institutions suffering from staff shortages. We’ll face a dingy life of indignity and deprivation.

It will, I suspect, matter very little that we have rights and legal recognitions in place (and transfolk don’t even yet have those). Those rights may not follow us to morbid institutions, to a disempowered life at the mercy of others and with no assigned advocates to ensure proper treatment for queers. Such environments tend to be a world unto themselves in many respects. We are only now starting to hear about the elder abuse in facilities — private, public and charity — we had assumed would take care of us as we grew old. If such horrors happen to seniors with family actively looking out for them, what on earth awaits those of us without the same interveners?