Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of a story by former INDY writer Barry Yeoman. You can (and should) read the entire piece here.
There are days when I forget I’m gay. I have deadlines to meet, a dog to walk, an appointment with the barber to trim the last of my gray hair. There’s the soup I plan to deliver to some younger friends; they just had a baby and I’m hoping to become an elder in the child’s life. Stepping outside the house I share with my husband, I greet our mail carrier and notice the bamboo is raging out of control again. None of this distinguishes me from my heterosexual neighbors.
It’s a surprising place to find myself after having lived through the most dynamic period in LGBTQ history. We Baby Boomers have one foot in the Stonewall Rebellion — the riots following the June 1969 police raid of a Greenwich Village bar that helped launch the modern-day gay-rights movement — and another in marriage equality. We are the first generation with a wide range of open and successful role models, from out-and-proud entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres to Apple CEO Tim Cook. We can now see our lives refracted back in Coca-Cola commercials and mainstream TV sitcoms. We are also the HIV generation: The virus stampeded through our communities starting in the early 1980s, killing more than 300,000 gay and bisexual men.
“I call this the Gayest Generation,” says Jesus Ramirez-Valles, a professor of community health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of the 2016 book Queer Aging. “They are the first ones to embrace a gay identity. They were full participants in the gay-rights movement. And then they were the worst hit by the HIV epidemic.”
Tony Whitfield, an associate professor at Parsons School of Design, says of gay men, “There’s very little construction of real supporting networks that help us once we age.”
By many measures, the “Gayest Generation” is worse off than our non-queer counterparts. We are less financially prepared for retirement. We have weaker social networks. We face greater health problems, from diabetes to depression. Many of us hesitate to reveal our sexual orientations to doctors, and we worry (with justification) about mistreatment in long-term care. A Harris Poll in 2014 revealed that 32 percent of older LGBTQ people strongly feared “being lonely and growing old alone,” compared to 19 percent of heterosexuals. These disparities are even greater for bisexuals and transgender people.
Indeed, as I traveled around the country between 2014 and 2016, I talked with LGBTQ people, friends and strangers alike, who are socially isolated, emotionally wounded, and financially struggling. Since President Trump took office in January — and stacked his Cabinet with such civil-rights opponents as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price — there’s been an additional burden of fear, even among those who are not isolated or otherwise suffering.
That’s not the whole story, though. I also talked with people whose hard lives have made them — made us — more adaptive, more resilient, and better skilled at demanding respect. These are traits that behoove everyone, regardless of sexuality, to develop as we grow older. While there is no single LGBTQ Baby Boomer experience, this much is clear: As the last of us settle into our 50s, and the oldest reach our 70s, we might just have a thing or two to teach our straight friends about aging strong.
Some hard memories I never want to shake, because they connect me to people I’ve loved. One of them is sitting in a hospital room in 1989, facing my friend Todd, who was teetering on the edge of consciousness. His lips were cracked and his complexion wan and he had lost his ability to speak. Others were there, too, including his mother and an infectious-disease doctor, all of us trying to discern whether Todd was assenting with a faint nod to having an intravenous medication line removed so he could go home to die.
A few days later, I sat again at his bedside, put on a cassette tape, and quietly narrated the Baroque dance steps we used to do together. I didn’t know if he could hear the music, or hear my permission for him to leave us whenever he was ready. He died shortly thereafter, the day before his 26th birthday.
At his funeral, I wailed without shame. I didn’t expect to be doing this at 29. It felt like a dress rehearsal for aging.
The AIDS crisis, which peaked in the United States in 1995 before new medications made the disease more manageable, was the unifying experience for our generation of gay men and lesbians. It didn’t hit all places equally, but few of us escaped. We watched vibrant lives like Todd’s — he spoke Chinese and Spanish, worked with young immigrants, and was equally graceful on a dance floor and a hiking trail — sputter out unpredictably just as they were taking on definition. We became caretakers, volunteers, and activists. We endured regular blood draws, followed each time by days of bargaining: If I’m still HIV-negative, Lord, I’ll never complain about my hay fever again.
The epidemic blew holes through many gay men’s social circles. Some never fully mended. Gary Marshall, 62, divides his time between San Francisco and New Orleans. He is retired from the federal government, widowed, and HIV-positive. When he was younger, Gary cared for many people as a friend and a volunteer. But now, as he contemplates his own future, he finds his network dwindling.
“In my 30s, when people got sick, there was a lot of us that knew each other and could help change sheets,” he told me. But many have died or drifted away, and the survivors have their own health problems, making him wonder who will care for him. “I’m glad I got to see the best that gay men could be. When the chips were down, at the very worst, we stepped up and supported each other when no one else would. So yea for us. But now, I don’t know how much of that is left.”
Katharine Stewart and Jada Walker at their wedding: “Early on, we wrote health-care powers of attorney,” says Jada, “directly because of what we saw happen every day to people at the mercy of others.” Photo by Cassandra Danielle, FireRose Photography.
But AIDS was also a teacher of lessons, some of which are even more valuable now that we’re older. Jada Walker met her wife Katharine Stewart when they worked at an Alabama HIV clinic. Both witnessed the mistreatment that was common at the time. The couple saw unrecognized spouses barred from ICUs and excluded from life-and-death decisions. They saw transgender women buried in male clothing. After one man died without a will, they say, his parents evicted his partner from their shared home.
“That level of disrespect has informed a lot of what we do,” says Jada, who is 56 and lives a few miles from me in Durham, North Carolina. Both women demand that doctors respect them as individuals and as a couple. They treat diagnoses and treatment plans with skepticism: “I want a second and third opinion on everything,” Jada says. And they’ve been careful to get their documents in order. “Early on, we wrote health-care powers of attorney,” she says, “directly because of what we saw happen every day to people at the mercy of others.”
Stephen Klein has learned to value his surviving friends.
Others say grieving inspired them to hold more tightly to those who survived. “Maybe because so many of us found ourselves losing friends to AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s, the friends that we have are even more precious,” says Stephen Klein, 67, a retired library administrator living in Long Beach, California.
For me, the memories that most paralleled my own came from a kitchen-table conversation with Meredith Emmett and Galia Goodman. I’ve known the Durham couple for decades — in fact, I recently unearthed a photo from the late 1980s in which Galia and I huddle with a still-healthy Todd at a Gay Pride rally. All of us are smiling and there’s not a gray hair among us.
By the time that photo was taken, we had all buried friends. We had also compiled a mental inventory of one another’s strengths: who could coordinate hospital visits, who could cook meals or soothe parents, who needed to be present for treatment conversations.
“To have arrived at this age having already lost many people, we understand that you rely on your community,” says Meredith, 57, one of whose mentors died of AIDS. In particular, “Galia and I have noticed how quick we are to deal with death and loss — understanding what rituals you create, how you build community, the length of time that the grieving process takes.”
Those lessons have served the couple well during every life transition since. And it reinforced for them the value of creating a network of human connection to sustain them as they age. Meredith consults with nonprofits for a living. Galia, a 66-year-old artist and calligrapher, belongs to our synagogue’s burial society. They’re active in their neighborhood association, and Galia attends an intergenerational belly-dance class. They’ve been trusted adults in the lives of numerous children. “We are not wealthy in finances,” Meredith says. “But we are certainly wealthy in terms of our community.”