In yesterday’s New York Times, columnist Roni Caryn Rabin reported on the results of the California Health Interview Survey. The study, conducted by the by the Center for Health Policy Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, presented alarming statistics about the health of the aging LGBT community in California.
Among the statistics reported on gay men’s health and aging were the following: “Older gay and bisexual men — ages 50 to 70 — reported higher rates of, and physical disability than similar heterosexual men. Older gay and bisexual men also were 45 percent more likely to report psychological distress and 50 percent more likely to rate their health as fair or poor. In addition, one in five gay men in California was living with infection, the researchers found. Yet half of older gay and bisexual men lived alone, compared with 13.4 percent of older heterosexual men.”
Reading this article, I was once again reminded of my early career as a social worker in the field of LGBT aging. In the 1990s I was one of a team of clinicians who presented similar statistics to service providers in order to change public policy and advocate for LGBT sensitivity in programs for the elderly. We were invited to senior centers and other agencies to teach providers how to adequately care for their LGBT clients, and much of our work involved explaining how the stigma of homosexuality impacted that generation of seniors and how agencies need to assess their programs to root out ways they perpetuate that stigma.
We shared our clients’ histories of discrimination – how they had been rejected by families, fired from jobs, dishonorably discharged from the military, harassed, evicted from apartments, beaten, arrested, and institutionalized just for being gay. We talked about the effect this stigma could have had on their self-esteem. How many had to hide their sexuality and create dual lives.
We demonstrated how stigma can lead to shame and low self-esteem, and how many people react to being labeled “deviant” by hurting themselves through neglect and self-destructive behavior.
And, we stated that while things had changed during their lifetime, discrimination was still a reality in the lives of LGBT seniors. Their sexuality was not represented, and often shunned, at the very agencies in which we were invited to speak. The conclusion – “Given their histories of stigma, it is understandable that many of our clients are distrustful of health care providers. It is the service providers’ responsibility to earn the trust of LGBT seniors.”
Our model of service provision came from the clients we served. I had heard many stories of resilience from LGBT seniors, and these people helped me figure out how sensitivity and empowerment can be used to help others who had experienced lifetimes of homophobic oppression.
Reading the New York Times article I was saddened, but not surprised. I had hoped that things had gotten better in the last two decades. That this generation of LGBT elders had not experienced the same health-damaging effects of stigma. And, that service providers had learned to eliminate the barriers that prevent people in the LGBT community from getting the care that they need. But, these statistics show that these problems persist.
While researching Aging with HIV: A Gay Man’s Guide, I interviewed men who shared stories of discrimination. They told how stigma affected their self-esteem and self care. They also demonstrated resilience in the face of homophobic discrimination, how they had built on their strengths, sought out support from the community, and developed strategies to empower themselves and others.
There are many challenges of aging, but for gay men living with HIV they are compounded by the realities of homophobia and AIDS stigma. I hope the release of these new findings encourage a conversation to find new ways to fight stigma and improve the health and well-being of the aging LGBT community.
Follow the link to read the NY Times article.