Imagine you’ve been with your partner for 30, 40, even 50 years. She needs fulltime nursing care now, care that you can’t provide by yourself. Imagine that the home health care worker arrives on her first day, takes one look at the photo of the two of you celebrating your anniversary and declares, “I’ll pray for you. It’s not too late for you to be saved from the evils of homosexuality.”
Sound farfetched? It’s not. As the first “out” LGBT generation reaches old age, more and more people are finding they need to retreat to the closet if they want to get the medical care they need. An Australian study reported in the Canberra Times last February found that “an alarmingly high number of senior LGBT people would rather commit suicide than risk abuse from a ‘prudish and conservative’ aged health-care system.”
Filmmaker Stu Maddux captures that agonizing situation in his documentary “Gen Silent.” Over the course of the hour-long film, he profiles a lesbian couple, a gay couple, a transgendered woman, and a gay man, each dealing with serious health and aging concerns, each trying to find a way to be who they are at an extraordinarily vulnerable time in their lives. He shot over 80 hours of film in the Boston area, including heartbreaking scenes of KrysAnn, the transgendered woman, who was facing imminent death and who had been abandoned by her family after she transitioned late in life. A Vietnam veteran, her last fight, he reports, was getting the military cemetery to put her chosen name on her grave marker.
The lesbian couple he profiles, Sheri and Lois, have been together over 40 years. They were among those who fought the first battles after Stonewall for LGBT rights. Together they run a B&B in Boston’s South End, and continue to work for progressive causes. But Lois worries about their future. “We put our heart and soul into the movement,” she says in the film. “I have been open for many years, but I would hide again if necessary to survive.”
The documentary has been shown at a number of film festivals (including October’s Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival), and will be shown again at the Northshore Senior Center in Bothell in January.
Maddux is pleased with the film’s transition from festivals to other venues. He is encouraged that it is receiving a warm reception among professionals in the field of senior care. “We don’t attack the nursing home industry,” he says. “We just raise a flag to something they don’t quite know how to address yet.”
Maddox, who has won six Emmys for his work in television as a reporter and anchor, admits to being a bit surprised at where his career is today. “I never thought the world would get to the place where I could be an openly gay filmmaker and make a living out of it, and help people this way.” Among his earlier documentaries is “Bob and Jack’s 52-Year Adventure,” a story about an Army sergeant and his commanding officer who came out to the troops in their unit and are still together.
He is now focused on developing a curriculum based on the documentary that can be offered to health care professionals as a continuing education credit. The film is already being used in several places as a training aid. He plans to have the curriculum completed—along with the DVD release of the film—by Spring 2011.
The DVD will also include what he calls “little treasures” he was forced to cut from the film, such as stories Lois and Sheri tell about being followed by the FBI at the beginning of the women’s movement, and their gleeful retelling of finding an electronic bug in their house.
Maddux says that change has to come on the local level. He encourages people to reach out to their county or state department of aging to start a dialog about the issue.
“One screening at a time. Start talking about it,” he says.
He hopes the film will also help connect the generations of LGBT now present in the world. “We have an intergenerational disconnect. Every generation feels it is going through the same problems again. I feel really strongly that for a culture to survive, it has to have a sense of its history. If we don’t have a sense of our history, they will be able to marginalize us,” he continues.
History, he says, isn’t a film or a dictionary or a website. “It is a younger person having a conversation with an older person—an oral tradition.”