OpEd | The Aging Homosexual
by Carlos T Mock, MD
Joe B is sixty eight years old, lives alone, and seldom socializes. He’s one of the growing number of gay men who survived the AIDS
epidemic and lives with survivor’s guilt. Joe watched most of his friends die, was active in organizing vigils, marched with ACT-UP to get the
US government to react to the disease that killed both of his lovers. Joe clearly remembers erasing everyone of his friends from his “little
black book” as they died one by one. A full generation lost to HIV/AIDS.
Joe lives comfortably from his savings and retirement - he’s one of the lucky ones. LGBT people are of all ages, and the young and the old
are particularly economically vulnerable. Among members of same-sex couples in the United States, 7% are 65 years of age or older and
28% are disabled. Nearly 6% of individuals in same-sex couples receive Medicaid or other government assistance for those with low
incomes or a disability. Some of Joe’s friends are HIV positive and can barely pay for the very expensive medications that are used to keep
their virus in check.
I encountered him this Sunday afternoon at Chicago’s “Sidetrack Show Tunes.” Joe can sing most of the songs and knows most of the
lines that the audience has created for the sing along. However, Joe complains that he’s become invisible to the LGBT community.
“These kids are all on their phones. They are not even here.” Joe told me as he pointed to three very attractive young men who - even
though were clearly together - were talking to each other and they were toying with their phones. “If they wish to use Grindr, I’m fine with that.
But why bother coming to a bar if all you’re going to do is look at your phone.”
I tried to update Joe on Grindr. The app makes use of the device's geolocation, which allows users to locate other men within close
proximity. This is accomplished through a user interface that displays a grid of representative pictures of men, arranged from nearest to
farthest away. Tapping on a picture will display a brief profile for that user, as well as the option to chat, send pictures, and share one's
location. Joe was not impressed.
“All they have to do is look up. They’ll see the guy they are flirting with. Besides, There's a new flake in town, and he's popping up
everywhere. He’s the cute guy that flirts like crazy, but never quite commits to seeing you in person.” He points toward he’s new Apple 6S
phone and shows me a list of pictures of men he’s been “texting” with. Then he adds: “I call him ‘The Typist’ because he'd rather type out
vowels and consonants into cyberspace than talk and laugh in real space. The Typist never EVER suggests meeting even after he tells you
how much he wants you.”
We pause because the finale to “Les Miserables” is playing and Joe hands me a red flag so I can join him in the flag waving.
I had had one too many to drink so I thanked Joe for a wonderful evening and rushed home.
I woke up next day with a hangover. I consider myself very lucky to be in a sixteen year relationship but I often wonder what would happen to
me if I were to become single. Would I date? Could I date? Would I be another Joe?
I read an article in the Washington Post that said: “Loneliness, long a bane of humanity, is increasingly seen today as a serious public
health hazard. Scientists who have identified significant links between loneliness and illness are pursuing the precise biological
mechanisms that make it such a menace, digging down to the molecular level and finding that social isolation changes the human genome
in profound, long-lasting ways. Not only that, but the potential for damage caused by these genetic changes appears comparable to the
injuries to health from smoking and, even worse, from diabetes and obesity. The scientists’ conclusion: Loneliness can be a lethal risk. And
the United States — which so prizes individuality — is doing far too little to alleviate it.”
The primary risk factors for social isolation affect older LGBT adults in unique and disproportionate ways. LGBT elders are more likely to live
alone and with thinner support networks. Additionally, the research shows that LGBT elders face higher disability rates, struggle with
economic insecurity and higher poverty rates, and many deal with mental health concerns that come from having survived a lifetime of
discrimination. Location-related barriers coupled with stigma and discrimination can make it difficult for LGBT older people in many parts of
the country to find the LGBT-friendly community support they need to age successfully and avoid social isolation.
Perhaps the older generation’s biggest sin is that we did not teach our younger children our history - but that doesn’t excuse our community
from taking care of the ones who came before us and made a world where same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.
Next time you’re in public put down that phone and say hello to an older man. Remember that that old creepy man and the people of his
generation are literally the only reason you can walk down the street holding your boyfriend’s hand and not get attacked - or that you can be
at a gay bar in the first place. It is because he fought and bled, buried his friends, marched, rallied and stood up - that the world you live in is
better than the one he grew up in. If you think that your fading youthful beauty is God’s gift to the world, consider the contributions that man
made that paved the way for an entire movement. If you think that old man is creepy, or perhaps he’s checking you out - who cares? Every
aspect of your stuck up world was built on the sacrifices that old man made. And maybe he’s really old; but guess what, that man can’t help
his age. You on the other hand can help your attitude.
It’s time for the young ones to start caring about our community’s future. Try saying hello next time you’re in a bar. Volunteer, get involved
and defend all the advances that were forged by the ones you are ignoring. Don’t take your rights for granted: The African American
community did, and their rights are eroding as we speak….
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