Growing older in the LGBT community is charged with its own specific issues, not least the perceived ageism of the scene. But as these inspiring elders prove, living into your queer golden years comes with unexpected benefits. Words by Ciara McGrattan. Photos by Mattias Pelizzari.
Alan Ambsy (Age: A State Secret)
“I wouldn’t change anything about my life now, but I did prefer it years ago because being gay used to be an adventure. It was illegal and it was great fun, and there was always things to do. If you went to a party and the police raided it, you grabbed the nearest lesbian and pretended she was your girlfriend. We have it easier now, but it’s not as much fun.
I remember when the law changed in England, talking to gay guys in London who were in their late 60s and 70s, and they were saying the exact same, even then: it used to be more fun. And a lot of them were in World War I and they said they city was full of soldiers and sailors. It was paradise, they told me.
Younger people can’t understand what was going on years ago, and the way it was. Somebody read my book recently and said they didn’t realise that there were so many homophobic attitudes going around in Ireland back in the day.
Loneliness can be a problem for some older LGBTs, but as I say, your friends get older with you. A lot of my friends have passed on, and that’s a terrible thing. I suppose not being able to get around is another thing, the ailments that come with age. Years ago there was a problem that if you had a partner and they died, you could be thrown out of your house. That happened to friends of mine.
I suppose the good thing about bein older is just being acccepted, still being able to work, have lots of friends, and being able to do what I want, when I want. I’ve never experienced any ageism. If I did, I’d give them a smack in the gob!”
Claire Farrell (72)
“I suppose you could say in the early days I didn’t have words to describe who I was, what I was. I couldn’t be out as a transgender person in the workplace, or anywhere else for that matter, so that was really difficult – although I’m not the type of person who’s a shrinking violet! In late 1979 a friend and I opened a trans club in what is now the Turks Head. That went on for a number of years but I moved away from it because I got into politics. I am a former Dublin City Concillor.
My 25 year-old self was afraid anyone would discover who I was. My message to that person today would be ‘don’t be afraid, be yourself’, but it’s easy for me to say that now. Thinking back, I couldn’t have done it.
I don’t think the LGBT community are good with aging. There’s a tolerance for younger LGBT people, but as we get older I think there’s much less. I think the commmunity would prefer if we were invisible. Having said that, I’ve never experienced any negativity. It could be just because people tell me I don’t look my age, which helps.
I don’t know that issues affecting older LGBTs are any different to anyone else’s, because as you get older health issues come into play. Life becomes all about your health. I think that’s what it’s all about in the end.
So, what have I learned about myself? I just learned that I had to cope and deal with being transgender, that was the most inportant thing for me, and finding ways of releasing Claire.”
Edmund Lynch (70)
“As you get older have greater freedom to be yourself, but then again, I’ve always had freedom to be myself. I’ve always stood up for myself. That’s my approach.
Naturally enough, you feel different as a young person, but I was very lucky. I’m one of the 12 founders of the Irish gay movement. I remember writing to people and telling them to be themselves, and I thought ‘that’s wrong, I can’t do that unless I go and tell my own parents’. So, I told my parents that I was gay and they didn’t understand it. But I’m still living in the same house that I told them in – I didn’t have to leave.
There were tough times. I didn’t get beaten up or anything like that, but everyone wanted you to be the same, to blend in, and I just didn’t.
Some younger LGBTs think when an older guy comes to talk to them that he wants to get them into bed. Well, I’ve got news for them: as you get older your need for sex diminishes a wee bit. They should accept people. We all are searching for someone else. We’re all human beings.
It’s not just within the LGBT community; there’s ageism all around the place, but I never let it interfere with me. Sometimes I feel like a two year-old, sometimes I act like a one year-old.
I think for a lot of older people, particularly in the country, lonlieness is an issue. Lonliness is a hard thing. Some people turn to different things. Some turn to clubs, but I think if you’re not happy within yourself you can’t be happy with other people.”
Ailbhe Smyth (70)
“I think that throughout life you’re always changing and learning. There isn’t some sort of magic line, aged 65 or 70 where all the learning is finished and all of the doing is finished. It just seems to be a constant process. I still say to myself, ‘Oh yes, when I’m really grown up, I’ll do that,’ and I suppose I’m beginning to realise that if I’m not grown up at 70 it’s never going to happen!
As a young woman growing up in Ireland in the 1960s and ’70s it was really difficult to believe in yourself, to appear confident and to have the sense that there were things that you could do. So many avenues seemed to be closed and shut down. That was very true for me as a young woman, and quite soon afterwards it was true for me as a lesbian, and I think that is such a shame.
While I don’t think all the problems are solved now by a long shot, I do think that the womens’ movement and the LGBT movement have made a very big difference to how we can think of ourselves and our lives, and I would just love 25 year-old me to know all that. I think that would just make such a big difference.
I have this sense that we prefer not to think about aging at all as LGBTs. We don’t have the habit of it. As a set of communities we haven’t really begun to recognise or understand what the impact of being gay or trans or queer has on being older. That’s also because there’s such a massive emphasis on – in social ways, on the scene and so on – being young, of looking young.
We do have to think about the kinds of supports, acknowlegement and recognition of the health services for those of us in the LGBT community who are growing older, and are already older and in need of those services and supports.
I’m aware that life is a constant challenge. It’s a delight and a source of curiosity for me, so I think that’s one of the very good things about growning older – and one that doesn’t necessarily stop.”
This piece appears in GCN 329, which you can read online here
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