Samira Ahmed 25th June 2019
Society is getting queerer. Fewer people are identifying as straight and a 2017 survey showed the UK hetero population decreased from 94.4% in 2012 to 93.2% in 2017. Matching that, there has been an increase in those identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual from 1.5% to 2.0%, although that latest figure was unchanged from 2016.
That might not seem like much but, in terms of age, there is a huge shift. People aged 16 to 24 were more than twice as likely as anybody else to identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. Only 0.7% of the population aged 65 years and over identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual in 2017. In this group, men are more likely to identify as queer but across both sexes — the older the group, the fewer individuals identify as gay.
A huge factor why many older people have struggled, or are still struggling with coming out was the stigma of being gay in their younger lives. Harry Brown, a university professor who didn’t come out until he was 48 years old, says he was in such denial about his sexuality he suppressed all his sexual attraction, leading him to get married to a woman.
“I was born shortly after Stonewall. I came of age at the start of the AIDS epidemic. I grew up with sodomy laws still on the books. My lesbian cousin had her children stripped from her when she came out. I lived through the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ era,” he explains.
The constant fight to fit in creating a conflict between societies views on homosexuality and Brown’s view of himself. His experience growing up in a far more homophobic time affected his journey to coming out and still affects him today. “The longer it takes you to come out, the harder it is. It’s gut-wrenching enough when you’re in your teens and 20s, to consider how people might view you differently, how being out might disrupt your relationships with friends and family. Those disruptions become even greater as you get older — especially for people who have been married and/or have children.
Gays retreated to the closet and locked the door
“Coming out so late in life is awkward. I’m acutely self-conscious about my lack of same-sex sexual experience and I find that, combined with a lifetime of internalised homophobia, paralysing when it comes to dating — an issue I really need to work on with a counsellor,” he adds.
Leo Chapman, 45, a research and development chemist who also grew up during the HIV/AIDS epidemic points out being gay at the time was considered taboo — at the least. “Anyone who came out was ridiculed as making a poor life choice, being mentally ill or a sick deviant — gay people were terrified of coming out. At the time AIDS was known as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). People called it the gay disease and shunned gay people because they feared that gays were contagious and spreading the disease — gays retreated to the closet and locked the door.”
The Stonewall riots in 1969 sparked from a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, New York City — a gay club located in Greenwich Village — paved the way for LGBT+ activists across America to make significant civil rights advances that rippled across the world.
Things were finally moving in a positive direction for the community; then HIV cases began to emerge. This was a huge hurdle for the community. While AIDS/HIV did not only affect gay men, gay men, in particular, felt the biggest backlash. The mainstream media demonised the LGBT community, referring to the disease as “gay cancer” and the “gay plague”.
But it’s not just in mainstream society that creates a reluctance to be open about sexuality. Within the queer community there exist factors that mean the older generation are out, but not necessarily proud.
Alongside the emergence of a more visible and more LGBT+ community, stereotypes of the individuals within this group have grown, perpetuated from outside and inside.
Sarah Morris, who is 35, says that many do not fit in with “the current climate that makes the LGBTQ+ community seem like some cool kids club where you have to look and dress a certain way to fit in”.
I don’t know where I stand on a lot of things anymore because they change so quickly but I will always support the LGBTQ+ community and stand up for injustice
If this is can be true for a millennial, it could certainly be true for older, more conservative Boomers. Being queer and being a part of an increasingly political LGBT+ community isn’t necessarily the same thing. Gay conservatives, for example, can be ostracised from the community because of their unwillingness to accept the struggle of transgender people as part of their group identity.
Some individuals say, while they support the LGBT+ community and do not feel ashamed of who they are, they just want to live their life without it defining their entire personality. 30-year-old Alice Price says: “While I don’t wear rainbows or have all the bumper stickers, I am very clearly gay and very happily tell people I have a wife. I don’t know where I stand on a lot of things anymore because they change so quickly but I will always support the LGBTQ+ community and stand up for injustice. Most importantly, though, I want my wife and me to have a peaceful happy ending.”
Topher Gen, writer at Gaystarnews and Gayboybible says: “There’s a stigma with age in the gay community. It’s like anyone over the age of 27 seems to be written off. 30 is seen as old by a lot of gays in their late teens and early twenties. Growing old is seen as negative by a lot of gay men. Which is funny because so many of the younger gays that are prejudiced due to someone’s age seem to forget that their ‘twinky’ looks won’t last forever either; they’ll one day be in the same position.”
The LGBT+ community does place a premium on youth, but so does the rest of society
Gen also blames ignorance and a sense of entitlement. Growing up in a more progressive era, the younger generation simply doesn’t see the world the same way. Though it still happens, it’s less likely that a millennial would ever have to hide who they are because it is illegal or seen as an illness or met with extreme violence. Older people need to be supported by the younger generation, to be welcomed into the fold — into a world they helped to build — not outcasted because of superficial prejudice. “What they fail to realise is that they’ll one day be that age. Ageism takes root in denial, in pretending that we’ll never get old. But everyone wakes up a day older.”
Brown says: “The LGBT+ community does place a premium on youth, but so does the rest of society.
“I haven’t felt particularly excluded since coming out. Indeed, I have been surprised to learn about the so-called daddy culture within the gay community. While the name is more than a bit cringe-worthy, it’s gratifying that I can be seen as desirable by younger men.” He too, however, has been struck by the amount of ignorance in the younger generation regarding LGBT+ history.
LGBT+ representation in the media plays a big part in the problem. It has a massive impact on the way that wider society sees these individuals and even how they see themselves. Mainstream culture is trying playing catch-up as it has become obvious that it is impossible to fit everyone into one universal image of queerness.
That said, LGBT+ representation on television hit a record high this year, according to GLAAD’s annual TV diversity report, with 8.8% out of 857 series regulars on broadcast TV openly identified as on the gay, trans, or queer spectrum. And for the first time, LGBT+ people of colour ever so slightly outnumbered white LGBT+ characters on-screen.
GLAAD doesn’t have broken down statistics on the age of the LGBT+ representation but many people think representation is not what it should be for older queer characters. There are some shows and films that are almost universally accepted as making big strides in LGBT+ representation, largely though, many older people feel left behind.
The more all of these identities and relationships are normalised the easier it is for people to be out and comfortable.
“Representation is a funny thing,” says Brown. “We didn’t have much of it at all when I was growing up and what we did have was mostly negative. Still, you can only represent so much and there isn’t a lot out there depicting coming out later in life. Grace and Frankie is a notable exception and it’s a show I quite enjoy although it depicts coming out even later in life than I did after an affair that lasted for decades which isn’t my experience at all.”
This issue is made worse by the lack of key figures for the older community — especially for gay men, having lost a generation in the AIDS epidemic.
“Lack of role models is big in my mind,” says Brittney Miller, a gay woman who came out this year at 33. “The biggest obstacle for me in coming out was the stigma and a little bit of imposter syndrome. I was with men my whole life and it was hard for me to accept that I never really wanted any of those relationships. I was just doing what I was supposed to do.
“When I finally decided to come out I felt like such a fake. I have always consumed media with strong female characters and now I have access to content where those strong females are also gay. That definitely helped me in my own journey of coming out. I think the same goes for all of the older LGBTQ+ community — the more all of these identities and relationships are normalised the easier it is for people to be out and comfortable.”
L, B and T
Historically, lesbians have been either demonised or accepted in different ways. In many respects, they have been sidelined and viewed as less important because of overriding patriarchal values. However, in the twentieth century, lesbianism was more legitimised and there were female bisexual icons like Dusty Springfield who came out in the seventies.
As a society, we have accepted the LGBT+ community when it comes to homosexuality in its simplest form — those who are gay, and to a lesser extent, lesbian — but people are still largely ignorant when it comes to the rest of the letters. Ignorance has made it extremely difficult for those who are transgender or non-binary. For this group, transitioning later on in life brings its own set of troubles.
“If you grew up in a world where gender non-conforming behaviour could get you sent to jail, you’d likely be less willing to express who you were — even once those practices stopped,” says Melody Prisca, a trans woman. “Just decades ago, in the US, you could be arrested for wearing clothing that wasn’t of your assigned gender.”
I came out to myself and then, bit by bit, to everyone else
Fear has played a huge factor in delaying coming out those old and young but, for those who are older who have to deal with past trauma combined with the mostly conservative mindsets of their peers, this is an even bigger deterrent. For some, simple language played a huge part in not coming out earlier.
“I didn’t have words to explain or describe my experiences, so I just felt kind of broken,” says Vicky Whitehall, a 36-year-old software engineer. “The best I could come up with was ‘boy who wants to be a girl’. Most of the time I didn’t really think on it too much. It was only a few years ago when my life was at a point that I could do some hard emotional labour and had words like transgender that I was able to understand and articulate myself. Within a year of that, I came out to myself and then, bit by bit, to everyone else.”
Many of those who transitioned later on in life not only feel excluded from wider society but also the LGBT+ community. A lot of trans and queer events are focused on young people and while, of course, it’s important that young people get the support they need, the older generation often doesn’t have comfortable spaces where they can find this support.
Bisexuality can also be a sticky subject for both older and younger people. Although it has been long accepted as a form of sexuality, it is still denied in certain contexts. Many people who are bisexual are labelled as straight simply because they’ve only ever been with the opposite sex or vice versa for those who have only been with the same sex. Many older people have found that they may as well stick with the script they’ve have handed to them, playing the roles that life has pushed them into.
Perhaps the problem lies with the concept of sexuality itself. What it really comes down to is who you’re attracted to — sexually and romantically. You can’t really help who you fall for and chances are that the people you’ve fallen for are not cardboard cutouts of each other — they were all different but we at one point liked or loved them.
Why is it the concept becomes more difficult to understand when applied to someone attracted to different people regardless of their gender? Our need to label and categorise erases people’s experience. We’re probably attracted to a million different factors in the person we end up with — there isn’t be a set formula for how we should fall in love.
People shouldn’t have to feel repressed and troubled with their identity, expected to fit into a mould that isn’t them, not in this day and age. Regardless of age, individuals should be able to choose who they love, what they look like and who they are. They should be able to do this without being judged and we — whether or not we identify as LGBT+ or a part of that community — need to support them.
Samira Ahmed 25th June 2019