Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gen Silent: Aging in the LGBT Community and How We Are All Responsible

at 12:03 AM By Kate McDermott

A woman is telling her story: “You expect losses…but you don’t expect to lose everyone…It was horrible. It was vial.” She’s asked about her prognosis. She has lung cancer, about a year ago they told her she had 18 months to live. “I’m stubborn so I’ll probably make it 19 months…I’ve done it alone, and things are getting worse and worse.”

Her name was Krys Anne. Unfortunately she’s no longer with us. “Us” being you, me, and the rest of the world that should have taken better care of her. Krys was transgender. Her story is one of six told in Gen Silent, a documentary screened tonight as part of LGBTQ (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/questioning) Pride Month at Yale.

The way Krys Anne talks, you’d think she was describing a natural disaster, something powerful enough to kill an entire group of loved ones. Rather, hers is a story of abandonment. Family, friends, any sort of support network – all disappeared when she transitioned from male to female. And she was left alone to face a debilitating, terminal illness, as no human being should.

There are five other stories of LGBT aging in Gen Silent. There’s Lawrence and Alexandre, a gay couple who met at Harvard and have been together 30 years. There’s Sheri and Lori, an activist lesbian couple who have been together 45 years. And there’s Mel, whose boyfriend Walter passed away after 39 years together.

Director Stu Maddux, who talked about the film after the screening, said the process of making the documentary was sometimes “really scary, sometimes it was really hopeful.” Indeed, on the surface the five people above seem not to be entirely different from their straight counterparts – in committed relationships for the majority of their adult lives, happily living with the person they love most.

But under the surface, life is hard for aging LGBT people, as they face this country’s rampant ageism and homophobia. The combination is really quite sad. American culture has mostly removed the dignity the aging process is afforded in other countries. But still, many straight elderly people can depend on the support of their families or of nursing homes.

Both can be difficult to navigate for LGBT people. Many are estranged from their families or never had children who could have taken care of them. They are alone in the places that in youth and good health were safe – their homes, couples, and LGBT community.

It’s different for each individual, but isolation is the common theme. Take Lawrence and Alexandre. They had become very comfortable as a couple in their suburban home, until Alexandre got Parkinson’s. His illness became, according to Lawrence, “a threat on their protected environment.” Illness meant facing the outside world and all the homophobia that comes with it. Lawrence, meanwhile, was set on suicide after Alexandre’s death – “Why can’t I kill myself? I have nobody in my life. I have all the pills ready.”

Lori and Sheri were afraid of having to leave their home because of the stories they heard. A gay acquaintance, Bill, had to go to a nursing home, where he “reverted to this whole internalized homophobia” that had been a trademark of the 1950’s, during which they came of age. Sadly, Bill passed away alone. Sheri remains concerned about the possibility of being outside of the LGBT community - “If anything were to happen to Lois, who would come to my aid? All I can think of is gay people.”

So far, Sheri is right – it is gay people who are predominantly trying to fix the problems of aging for those in the LGBT community. The LGBT Aging Project, featured in the film, is a group that provides aid to the elderly and sensitivity training to care facility workers. About 50% of nursing home management tell the project that its staff would not accept gay people. (And this is a group based in that liberal bastion, Boston…)

Still the work of the LGBT Aging Project has produced a great deal of hope for aging LGBT people. Krys Anne was able to get a support network, composed almost entirely of strangers, to give her care 24/7 as she succumbed to lung cancer. Lawrence was able to find a community of people, including a new boyfriend, which saved his life. And more and more nursing home workers are learning how to provide support for the LGBT people under their care.

Perhaps taking care of specific people within the community can remain a predominantly LGBT issue. (It certainly doesn’t have to be, but that’s where it stands right now.) However, it is the still the responsibility of any American with a hearty sense of morality to pay attention to what happens when discrimination takes a toll on someone’s life.

I was asked recently (with regards to the Christopher Yuan incident: http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/apr/01/controversial-minister-draws-outcry/), whether or not ideas in and of themselves can be damaging. Gen Silent is a testament to the fact that they most certainly can. Part of the problem in aging LGBT communities is having to face the homophobia that still exists in actions – in nursing homes, in families, anywhere outside of an LGBT home. But the other part of the problem is psychological. According to Lawrence, the homophobia he experienced every day in his youth became “internalized [until] now all of a sudden you’re at a point in your life where you’re becoming more vulnerable.”

To that end, straight people are often responsible for perpetuating an oppression they might not even realize they are complicit in perpetuating. It can be a hard process to overcome the entrenched cultural discrimination we are all accustomed to. For instance, even progressive college students still have a hard time accepting transgendered people. And just because that acceptance is incredibly important, doesn’t mean the process of getting there isn’t hard. Take, for example, Krys Anne, whose son did visit a few times before she died. He admitted that even though he was relieved when she transitioned because she had been so depressed as a male, he still wasn’t ready to accept her. His admission proves a very important point – it is not the people who struggle with these ideas who are necessarily evil and destructive but the ideas themselves. Still, it is our responsibility to pay attention to what is damaging in our society. Ageism, homophobia, and transphobia continue to exist in America, and it’s time we change that.


Trailer for Gen Silent: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV3O8qz6Y5g s

LGBT Aging Project: http://www.lgbtagingproject.org/

Stonewall Speakers, a Connecticut organization for anyone who wants to get involved during their time at Yale: http://www.stonewallspeakers.org/

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