Being gay and gray in Howard

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Robert Friedman

Susan Garner and Genna Browne got married in Ellicott City last year, when Maryland legalized same-sex marriages. Like many area LGBT couples, they say they have found Howard County to be welcoming, though there persists a perception that prejudice may still be a problem in some quarters.
Photo courtesy of Susan Garner

“As Bette Davis said, ‘Old age ain’t no place for sissies,’ so imagine what it means to be old and gay,” said Imani Woody, a human services specialist who works with older lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals in what is today known as the LGBT community.

What it could mean for many LGBT older adults, especially if they go into assisted living or nursing homes or need special services, is a return to the closet as they face prejudice from other elderly residents or caregivers, said Woody, who recently brought her message to Howard County.

Woody, founding director of Mary’s House, a new affordable housing option for LGBT older adults in Washington, D.C., recently presented the documentary Gen Silent in Columbia on behalf of the newly formed LGBT Older Adult Task Force for Howard County. Woody led a discussion about the film, which showed how older LGBT people fear discrimination by caregivers or bullying by other seniors.

The fears are no doubt based on experience. In a recent Pew Research Center survey of LGBT individuals of all ages, 30 percent of respondents reported being threatened or physically attacked, and 21 percent said they had been treated unfairly by an employer. Nearly 4 in 10 reported being rejected by family or friends because of their sexual orientation.

That said, it is difficult to find first-hand reports of discrimination against older LGBT adults here in Howard County.

New county task force

The task force began meeting a few months ago. It is now composed of 10 members, including social workers, lawyers, county Office on Aging officials, and other advocates. Its goal is to help the local older LGBT community with any problems it faces,  and to educate county residents about the LGBT community.

According to Dayna Brown, who recently left the county Office on Aging after being its Administrator for the past three years, the impetus behind the new task force was not a rise in documented cases or complaints of discrimination lodged with the county.

In fact, Nicole Baptiste Patterson, the Howard County Office on Aging ombudsman for people living in long-term care homes, said in her seven months on the job she has had no complaints of LGBT issues from residents of the homes in the county.

Similarly, Vernon Gray, administrator of the Howard County Office of Human Rights, said he has received no recent complaints regarding the treatment of older LGBT adults.

Still, there appears to be a strong perception among advocates that either problems exist and are not being reported, or that older LGBT adults are so afraid of a backlash that they avoid discrimination by keeping their sexual identity under wraps.

“There’s no real data in Howard County” about such prejudice, Woody said. “But there is data about prejudice nationally, and I don’t think Howard County would be that much different.”

Task force member Jessica Rowe, a social worker and geriatric care manager, said, “We are all aware that as LGBT adults get older, they have to use such formal services as hospitals, healthcare agencies and nursing homes, and they may feel that they will be forced back into the closet or are afraid of discrimination.”

Rowe noted that while there are anti-LGBT discrimination laws for Maryland hospitals, she has heard of instances where staff members were reluctant to treat gay patients. 

Furthermore, there’s the fact 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.

“From everything we’ve learned, LGBT older people are undercounted,” said Rowe. “Some of them are ‘out’ everywhere, some are not ‘out’ anywhere. Some have never told their children.”

No clear figures

No one knows just how many LGBT seniors live in Howard County — or in Maryland. 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.

The first large-scale federal government survey of Americans’ sexual orientation, released this summer, found 2.3 percent of respondents reported being lesbian, gay or bisexual. That National Health Interview Survey, part of the government’s chief method of measuring Americans’ health status and behavior, was based on in-person in-home surveys, which some LGBT advocates believe tainted the results.

Other scholarly surveys have typically found 3.5 to 4 percent of respondents identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Whichever is more accurate, there are common misconceptions about the numbers. A Gallup poll in 2011 found that Americans on average estimated that 25 percent of the population was gay or lesbian. Only 8 percent of those surveyed said the number was less than 5 percent.

Apparently no surveys have been conducted in Howard County itself, either of the actual number of LGBT individuals or of their experience with discrimination. Perhaps the new Task Force will undertake such a study.

“As some point, some kind of needs assessment is going to be a next step.” Brown said. She noted that some attendees at this year’s Howard County 50Plus Expo interest expressed in joining PFLAG, an organization for family and friends of LGBT individuals.

Fears within and without

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

That may be partly because of the less tolerant attitudes of their peers, but it may also be due to attitudes of age discrimination among younger LGBT individuals.

“No one is quite sure where it is safe to be out, and older LGBT people often are not accepted by the younger LGBT community as well as [by] the mainstream older community,” Rowe added.

At the same time, Americans’ attitudes in general are rapidly growing more tolerant of LGBT lifestyles, as reflected in the growing number of states legalizing same-sex marriage, including Maryland.

Susan Garner, 67, and Ginna Browne, 78, are openly gay residents of Columbia who were married in Ellicott City last year. Both were previously married to men, and each has one son (and a total of five grandchildren, all boys). They have been living together for the past 35 years.

Garner, a retired Howard County public school psychologist and current head of the Howard County-Columbia PFLAG chapter, said that she and her current spouse have been “lucky,” in the sense that they have run into little or no prejudice for their lifestyle.

“We haven’t been in the closet, and we haven’t met with any overt objection” from neighbors or residents of Columbia, which Garner said could be among the most liberal places in the country for people with nonconventional life styles.

Nevertheless, she said, she feels “much freer” in her relationship since she retired after 38 years in Howard County public schools.

“It hasn’t always been a smooth road,” she said. “I didn’t always feel comfortable with my colleagues.” And, of course, she didn’t let the students or their parents know about her personal life.

Baltimore-born Rob Lance, 67, and Tim Edwards, 60, also got married last year, after 35 years of being together. Lance, a retired data processor at Johns Hopkins University, also said that, like Garner and Browne, he and Edwards have met with no prejudice or uncomfortable experiences as a couple in Columbia, where they have lived for 29 years.

Despite their good experience here, the general perception of active discrimination elsewhere, and of potential problems yet to occur, continues to stoke fears.

“If we lived in Missoula, Mont., it might be a different ballgame,” Lance said. “If we suddenly had to go into a retirement community, there may be problems there. I read about how there has been much less acceptance of LGBT people by the older generation.”

The Howard County Older Adult LGBT Task Force meets the first Thursday of every month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia. Potential new task force members are welcome. Contact sueginna@gmail.com for more information.