A Little Gray in Their Rainbow, But No Less Gay

I delight in men over 70. They always offer one…

February 25, 2022 / Health & Wellness

I delight in men over 70. They always offer one the devotion of a lifetime,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1893 play, A Woman of No Importance.

Of no importance” is how some LGBTQ+ seniors feel the larger, younger members of the community perceive them. That isn’t a universal attitude, of course, but that concern was common among several topics that they discussed in a series of interviews.

“I crossed an age barrier, and maybe it came with my retirement, and suddenly, I started feeling invisible,” said Caren Dickman, 68, a single lesbian in West Hartford who, until COVID-19, was teaching ESL to adults. “I felt like I was seen as less relevant because I’m not part of what’s going on in so much of the world right now.”

“As with any older person, we just fade into the woodwork,” said Stephanie Hutter, 62, a queer horticulturist and former book editor in New Haven. She’s experienced the generation gap at social gatherings sponsored by the Triangle Community Center. “We don’t have the same experience or even knowledge of each other’s experience, like AIDS. I talk about watching many of my friends die and coming out at the same time, and that’s like World War Two to them.”

“I’m older than dirt, let’s face it,” said Natalie Campbell, 75, of New Britain. She’s bisexual and a widow. “Back in the day, we had so many bars that we could go to where we could relate with people that we knew were the same as we were. They don’t have many places where they can go to meet others, other than online.”

Caren, Stephanie and Natalie are among more than a dozen gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and queer Connecticut elders, ranging in age from 62 to 79 and living in towns from Enfield to New Haven and all across the state, spoke to us about their lifetimes, their loves and their letdowns.

Among their disappointments: What we call them.

“We’re Just People”

“First of all, when you get to my age, we’re not elders. We’re just people,” said Diana Lombardi, 73, of Berlin, executive dir. of the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition. “You don’t feel ‘old.’ Your body might say, ‘Yes, you’re old,’ but your brain is still thinking you’re 20.”

Bill Petrovsky, 68, of Bloomfield agreed.

“Just because we’re retired doesn’t mean we stop thinking,” said Petrovsky, who has been with his 72-year-old partner for 21 years. He retired in 2020 as Director of HIV Prevention and Care Services for The Hartford Gay & Lesbian Health Collective.

“No, I’m still very involved with my music, my HIV knowledge, things like that, and I’m willing to share it with anybody who asks,” he says.

“I worry for them,” Elizabeth, 77, told CT Voice. “Younger people in the LGBTQ+ don’t know their history. This lack of connection with the past, the accomplishments of the past, they’re taken for granted, whatever freedoms we do have now. They could be taken away when we elect the next president.”

The retired pathologist from the Greater Hartford area spent much of her career studying cancer and lost her own wife to lung cancer 20 years ago. Grief is something with which she’s all too familiar.

“Five of the women I’ve been closest with have all died,” Elizabeth said, including one who was murdered. “Another one of them died of dementia:” Author and activist Dr. Sally Miller Gearhart was 90. “She was very well known in the lesbian community.”

Aging Issues

Elizabeth is one of more than 2.7 million Americans age 50-plus who identify as LGBTQ+, according to AARP. By 2030, as more Baby Boomers hit retirement age, the total number of LGBTQ+ people is expected to grow, too, to around 7 million nationwide.

Where are they are going to live? SAGE counts only 13 states with LGBTQ+ friendly housing. Massachusetts and New York offer them; Connecticut, where only 1.1 percent of the state’s LGBTQ+ population is 65 or older, does not.

“I worry about things like housing,” Dickman said. “There are those of us that are not in that upper echelon financially who are looking down the road—not too far at changing housing. How are we ever going to get in there? And once we get in there, are we going to be cut off from our LGBTQ+ community, a community of pride? The baby boomer generation is getting to that point where we’re all going to need a place to go, and there are very few places that are specifically welcoming to LGBTQ+.”

(While these concerns are very real, great strides of acceptance and diversity across the state are being made. See our piece on Senior Living on page 62.)

More than one-third of LGBTQ+ older people worry about having to hide their identity to access senior housing, like Denyse Burke, 79, of Wallingford.

Burke, who goes by “Denny,” came out more than 40 years ago, but knew since the age of 15 she was gay. Even though her right to housing is protected by state and federal law, she said she’s afraid to come out to the management of her senior housing facility.

“I’ve never, ever brought it up, that I’m gay,” Burke said. “I would feel like I’d end up defending myself if I came out to someone here.”

But Burke, who works part time at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, has confided in one neighbor, a cisgender resident in her building.

“She’s great. She knows that I’m gay and it has made absolutely no difference in the world,” said Burke. “She is like the person I wish that I had met and could have married. That’s how much fun we have together.”

Burke has one other confidante: Her identical twin sister, Geraldine, who is also gay and single, and like her sister, is still working in this, their 80th year.

“I retired from teaching in ‘99, and I now have my own business,” said Geraldine, a certified dementia practitioner.

The Burke sisters, identical in so many ways that they are sometimes confused for one another by their friends, are different in that Geraldine lives in her own home in West Hartford and is very open about being gay.

“I’m not afraid to say who I am,” she said. “I was coming out of the doctor’s office, going to my car, and I have a Volvo station wagon, and some guy in the next parking spot over says to me, ‘Well, you’ll never get a man driving a station wagon.’ And I said to him, ‘What makes you think I’m looking for a man?’”

Aging Activists

This July, retired school teacher John Anderson will celebrate 42 years with his husband, retired principal Garrett Stack. “I paid my dues in terms of activism,” he said. Together, they spoke out against an anti-gay federal amendment in 1994 that would zap funding from any school presenting a positive view of homosexuality. That amendment was dropped from the act signed into law by President Clinton. Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation like that, however is not a relic of another time; it keeps being introduced right now across the United States, in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Anderson, who turned 79 in January, was asked about activism then, and now.

“I’ve done my bit,” he said. “We were one of the eight couples to push for marriage right on through the state Supreme Court. Now, do I feel invisible? Or, frankly, that young’uns should be kowtowing to me? No! They’re too busy living their lives. So, I don’t feel slighted at all. I feel proud.”

Finding Joy and Community

“There’s only one way to go through life, and that’s happy,” said Anderson’s husband, Garrett Stack, 74. Stack hosts a radio show of oldies music on WMNR in Monroe, called American Jukebox.

“I’ve got a neighbor whose granddaughter is 13. She came out to me,” Frank Manna of Bristol told CT Voice. Manna is 64, gay, divorced and also a widower. “People say, ‘Well, do you think she’s a little young to know?’ No. When I was her age, I felt the same way. You know what you know.” Manna enjoys sharing that message through public speaking as part of the Connecticut Stonewall Speakers bureau.

Beth Kerrigan and her wife Jody Mock were also one of those history-making couples back in 2008 to fight for the right to marry in Connecticut. As of March, she and her wife are each 67. They call West Hartford home. Kerrigan, a former town councilor and deputy mayor has given up tennis for what she considered an “old people’s sport:” Pickleball.

“It’s extremely addictive,” Kerrigan said. “I realized that now I have like 17 new friends I’ve never met, and all of us have one thing in common: We all love pickleball. Having to come out to them, that never is over. It’s always there, and I’m always very aware of it. Except now, at my age, I don’t care at all, which is liberating.”

Aidan Whittel, a lifelong resident of West Hartford, turns 60 in March and is a trans man. He works as a short-term disability analyst at The Hartford and runs their transgender training. His hope is to bridge the generational gap between young and old in the community.

“I think there should be a way, a clearinghouse, or a Facebook group or whatever group is popular, to have a place where LGBTQ+ youth, trans elders, can all meet and hook up and learn from each other, so that they hear each other. The youth don’t have to reinvent the wheel of what the elders have already done. If they just listened and learned, I think we could learn from each other. That would be my initiative.”

No matter your lifestyle or identity, aging presents challenges. To do so effectively and as happily as possible requires some work, but issues such as community, intellectual stimulation, engaging and, perhaps most of all, attitude, can make this stage of life positive and productive.

Among the resources available to LGBTQ+ seniors is the LGBT Movable Senior Center, which is the result of a partnership between Connecticut senior centers.

You’ll find more resources at SAGEusa.org, AARP.org, Triangle Community Center, New Haven Pride, HGLHC, Yale University Office of LGBTQ Resources, Jewish Family Services and Connecticut Community Care.

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