Being gay and gray in Baltimore

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Carol Sorgen

Mark and Russ Volker got married just days after same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland on Jan. 1, 2013, celebrating with 65 friends and relatives. Partners who marry can now access more than 1,000 federal benefits with their spouse, including Social Security.
Photo courtesy of Mark Volker

Wendy LaGrant and Megan Richardson met through mutual friends in 2000. They became jogging partners, then romantic partners, and in 2009, while on a visit to a friend in Provincetown, Mass., the couple spontaneously decided to marry.

“It took a lot of logistics [to pull off a spur of the moment wedding], but it was a lot of fun,” said LaGrant, 59. The couple now lives in Franklintown.

Getting married was not something the two had spent much time thinking about. “For so long, it was so out of reach that we didn’t really talk about it,” Richardson said. “We went about our lives and we made plans... just not marriage plans.”

But after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, there were “murmurings,” said LaGrant, that couples who married in a state where such unions were legal would be recognized as married in Maryland. (As of the election of November 2012, Maryland became one of the now 35 states that have legalized same-sex marriage, as has the District of Columbia.)

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 70,000 same-sex couples have married in the United States. And in states that offer some form of legal recognition, 43 percent of same-sex couples are currently in a legally recognized relationship, according to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute.

No one knows just how many LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) seniors live in Maryland, but according to the Institute for Multigenerational Health at the University of Washington, some 2 million Americans 50 or older identify as LGBT, with that number expected to double by 2030.

Benefits of marriage

While LaGrant and Richardson say their partnership has always been strong, they feel being married gives it a deeper dimension.

“There’s something about being recognized as a married couple — not just by our family and friends, but by the public and by the law — that is so powerful,” said Richardson who, like LaGrant, is a realtor.

“I am recognized as an individual who has chosen to be with this person, who just happens to be a woman,” she added.

Before they were married, the couple took steps to protect each other as best they could when it came to health directives, their assets, etc.

But they always felt that having their decisions respected and honored might have more to do with whom they “ran into” in a legal or medical situation than what steps they had put in place to take care of each other.

Following the legalization of marriage, “although there is still work to be done to make sure all legally married older same-sex couples will be entitled to the same benefits, many will, for the first time, be able to access the more than 1,100 federal benefits — from Social Security to the Family and Medical Leave Act — that can help improve their health and economic well-being,” said Aaron Tax, director of federal government relations for the national nonprofit group SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay Elders).

While LaGrant and Richardson had learned to live with the fear of not being able to provide for each other in all the ways they wanted to, “it’s a huge relief that we don’t have to worry about that anymore. It’s incredibly empowering.”

A second marriage for some

Like LaGrant and Richardson, Mark and Russ Volker — who exercise their right to use the same last name — didn’t originally think that marriage was an option for them, at least not in Maryland.

They first met through mutual friends nine years ago, while each was grieving the loss of a spouse (in Mark’s case a spouse in every sense of the word but legal, he said, while in Russ’s case, a wife to whom he had been married for 43 years).

The couple discussed getting married in a different state that already recognized same-sex marriage, but in the years it took their relationship to evolve from friendship to romance, the landscape was changing and they decided to wait and see if Maryland would legalize same-sex marriage.

Once it did, they applied for a marriage license, hoping to get married on January 1, 2013. But as is so often the case, the bureaucratic wheels can turn slowly, and they wound up delaying the service several days.

The two had a church wedding before approximately 65 friends and members of both families, including Russ’s three children and his grandchildren, who have been very accepting of Mark.

While their relationship has continued to evolve and deepen over the years, being married has brought the two even closer, they say. Now the couple, who say they live a “banal and normal” life in every way (and wouldn’t have it any other way), enjoy the time they have with each other.

Reluctance and fear remain

Not all older gay couples are heading to the altar.

LaGrant said that since marriage wasn’t an option for so many years, instead of rushing to the altar, many older couples are hesitant to “come out to that degree.”

“Marriage is another stand they have to take,” she said, “and another way of ‘coming out.’ For each couple it’s a personal and private decision.”

In their case, the couple recalled, Richardson’s sister was upset at the news of their wedding, not because she objected to their marriage, but because their families weren’t involved in the planning or in attendance.

“We loved eloping, but because getting married never seemed like something we could do, we just weren’t aware that our families wanted to be there,” Richardson said.

While the gay community in general is experiencing much more freedom in recent years, including the right to marry, “it’s easy to forget that it’s more difficult for older people to come out than younger people,” said Jessica Rowe.

Rowe is an eldercare consultant and a member of the newly formed Howard County Older Adult LGBT Task Force, whose goal is to educate Howard County residents about the older LGBT community and help the latter with any problems it faces. (Currently there is no similar task force in the Baltimore area.)

Rowe noted that older adults came of age in a time when anti-gay prejudice was far more common than today. Therefore, older LGBT adults may either have internalized those attitudes, remaining afraid to come out of the closet, or simply are aware that more of their peers are less tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, so they choose not to speak of it.

But another reason older adults may find it more difficult to be out in public may be due to attitudes of age discrimination among younger LGBT individuals. “Older LGBT people often are not accepted by the younger LGBT community, as well as (by) the mainstream older community,” Rowe asserted. “Some have never told their children.”

While these issues may lead some to become more outspoken and activist, others find themselves less interested in politics and more focused on family and each other.

Once active in the gay rights campaign, LaGrant and Richardson are now more focused on growing their real estate business and on their lives together.

“I’m not as good a gay as I used to be,” LaGrant chuckled. “Our focus is now on each other.”

The same holds true for Mark and Russ Volker. “We’re pretty apolitical,” said Mark. “We have our life together...our family, our friends, music, theater, church. We enjoy our domesticity. We treasure every second with each other.

“I found someone to open my heart to,” said Russ, recalling the words he spoke at their wedding. “Being married means everything.”

Freelance writer Robert Friedman also contributed to this story.