A third of older gay people fear rejection

 

MORE THAN one-third of older gay people fear they will be rejected by friends and family if they disclose their sexual orientation, new research shows.

The findings – part of the first major study into the experiences of gay people over 55 in Ireland – highlight ongoing challenges faced by those who feel they cannot live openly in society.

However, they also show the resilience of many gay people who have overcome adversity and developed accepting relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

The “Visible Lives” study is based on survey data and interviews with up to 144 people and shows that the majority of older gay people are “out” to at least one person.

Most went through their adolescence and early adulthood without disclosing their sexuality.

While most respondents are comfortable with their identity, 28 per cent are not out to any neighbours and 10 per cent are not out to any of their close family members.

The study shows that while coming out gave individuals greater freedom, it also includes varying consequences ranging from acceptance, to denial to complete rejection.

Some 26 per cent of respondents had been married and faced major difficulties making the decision to come out to their spouse and children.

There is also significant isolation among older gay people. Some 46 per cent of older gay people live alone, compared to just 15 per cent among the general over-55 population.

A big concern among many is that older age services – such as nursing homes – will not recognise or respect their gay or transgender identity. Some would prefer to live in exclusively gay-friendly retirement communities.

The majority of those surveyed felt safe or very safe walking alone in their neighbourhood after dark (77 per cent). About one in five, however, felt unsafe holding hands or showing affection with a same-sex partner.

The report makes a series of recommendations to help ensure public services respond to the needs of older gay people.

Kieran Rose, chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen), said the participants’ stories were a powerful reminder of the importance of social progress over the past 20 years.

“This progress, especially the status arising from civil partnerships and the Government’s commitment to enact gender recognition legislation, are strong platforms from which the recommendations made in this report can be implemented,” he said.

Secretary general of the Department of Justice Brian Purcell said policymakers and public services will need to take on board the messages in the report.

Catherine Rose, chief executive of Age and Opportunity – which funded the study – said it was significant that issues facing gay and straight older people were often similar.

“We all need to work together to ensure the issues and needs identified in the report can be addressed and inform the broader agenda of the status and visibility of older people in Irish society,” she said.

CASE STUDY: 'I COULDN'T COME OUT, EVEN TO MYSELF'

EDDIE PARSONS is 66. As a young man he was a member of a religious order for a few years, before he left to marry a girl with whom he fell madly in love. He went on to father two children. Then, just a couple of years ago, he revealed he was gay.

“Sometimes you have to go to extremes before you change yourself,” says Parsons. “I had always felt I was hiding something. I was scared. I couldn’t come out, even to myself. I was trapped. I had to conform to the image I had created, but it was destroying me.”

He had been an English and art teacher for 20 years, but ended up losing his job as a result of depression. His relationship with his wife was fraying badly.

After feeling suicidal, he went into hospital. That’s when his life turned around.

“While I was there – even under heavy sedation – I got angry. I got angry with putting myself down all the time. I thought, ‘I’m gay; I can be gay and I’m going to come out.’ ”

When he left the hospital, the depression lifted immediately.

His marriage was annulled, which was extremely painful for both of them. But the reaction of friends was almost completely positive. His children were supportive and accepted his sexuality.

All in all, he feels he has blossomed over the past few years.

“I now feel I can be myself in a safe way in society. My children are so glad that I’m no longer depressed. That’s so important for them. I’m genuinely happy. Sometimes I wonder, ‘how long is this going to continue?’ ”

He had a partner for a while, though that didn’t work out. And he’s hoping to head off to South America for a few months for a holiday. All in all, he feels liberated.

Despite changes in society, he feels there are many people who still feel they can’t disclose their true sexuality.

“I spoke with a gay man in his 70s the other week. He said, ‘If I came out, I’d be burned out of it’. At least that’s what he thought,” says Parsons.

“Coming out takes courage, because there can be negative effects. But often they are only in our own heads. For me, all I can say is it’s been a very positive experience.”

CARL O’BRIEN