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Gay and Gray

The Dialogue Project gives voice to the experiences of queer elders


Published November 30, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

Brian Davis didn't come out -- he was pushed. He was at college, in the early 1970s, when he received a call from his mother. She was really upset. "I said, "Mom, what's the matter? What's going on?" Davis recalled. She said, "Well, you could have told us another way. Now everybody knows." Turns out she was responding to an article in the local newspaper. The cover of the Sunday magazine section showed Davis with a couple of drinks in his hand at the Andrews Inn, a gay bar in Bellows Falls. The story was about homosexuality in Vermont -- a subject for which Davis had just become an unwitting poster child.

Davis' experience is one of 14 stories collected by the Dialogue Project, an innovative joint undertaking of Burling-ton's R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center and the Vermont Folklife Center. Part oral history, part art show, and part intergenerational Q&A, it aims to raise awareness of a demographic about which little is heard: gay elders. "LGBT elders are almost invisible -- they're very easily forgotten," says R.U.1.2? Executive Director Christopher Kaufman. "The idea was to get us some sort of immediate information, even if only anecdotal, on what it's like to be a gay elder in Vermont."

Young people involved with LGBT support groups at UVM and Outright Vermont created a list of questions for their older counterparts: What were the first images you saw of LGBT people portrayed in the media? Who was the first person you came out to and why? Was it harder to be out 10, 20, 30 years ago than it is today? What safe-sex practices did you use?

Heidi Wagner of R.U.1.2? put these questions to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people over 50 from around the state. The resulting interviews were gathered in an audio archive and used as the basis for original artworks -- paintings, sculpture, poetry, performance art and song -- that will tour gallery spaces around Vermont over the next year. In addition to raising the profile of gay elders, the project aims to create a rare connection between two generations of gay Vermonters.

There's definitely a "gap" there. Elder participants themselves speak of feeling cut off from young gays and lesbians. One said he didn't like their use of the word queer to describe themselves -- he considers it a negative word. And now that he's in his fifties, interviewee Robert Hooker says he doesn't have a lot of exposure to young gay people, and doesn't quite know what to make of them.

"It's a whole different environment that they're growing up in . . . we spent years hiding and these people are just out there. So, I look at them as a sort of different animal. . . I'm not sure how to relate to the young person that's out and got that part of their life under control."

"They're lovely," says another interviewee, Sarah Flynn, "even with the piercings and all the rest of it. I am delighted that there are young people growing up who are much more out and courageous, caring and questioning than I was ever able to be."

Flynn, a transgendered person who transitioned to life as a woman in 1978, has seen a remarkable shift in attitudes since she started secretly dressing in her mother's clothes as a 13-year-old boy. "I came of age in the 1950s. There were very rigid gender stereotypes defining men and women . . . at that time I really didn't have any knowledge that there was another human being in the world like myself with this condition. Initially, I felt intense guilt over it," she recalls. "I was living in the Texas Panhandle, which was not exactly sophisticated about such matters." From there, she went on to marriage and children, ministry, social isolation, and interactions with gay and women's rights groups that sometimes rejected and sometimes made room for a transgendered lesbian.

These experiences were put into verse by Kim Jordan, 32, of Burlington, whose poem renders Flynn's story in strong and simple language:

I was comforted by my faith.

If no one else knew but god

And lightning didn't strike,

You had to conclude that god at least is tolerant.

"I didn't want to meet Sarah," says Jordan, an actress, writer and educator. "I wanted to have my own vision of what her life was like, my own voice coming through. A lot of what she said in her interview gets to these universal questions -- like, how do we create our own selves out of the stuff we're given? I tried to take her words through my filter and turn them into a piece that she and I have both created."

The Dialogue Project opened with a small exhibition last month at Marlboro College. Excerpts from interviews were interspersed with historic posters advertising local gay and lesbian events. The artworks themselves ranged from Stacy Thalden's triptych-like sculpture to an artist named Aurora's text-based piece drawn from another woman's history. The quality of the work at Marlboro was mixed, and it was often unclear how the work represented an elder's experience; contextual guides would have been helpful. But Kaufman predicts the show will evolve and, with its full complement of ancillary works, gain momentum.

Flynn, for one, is sold. Now 67 and living in Burlington, she says she's "flattered and honored" that her story is now a poem. She hopes the exhibit will bring the little-heard stories of LGBT elders to a wider audience. "Given my age, I happened to live through quite a few changes. I thought it was important to share this with young people who might not have these memories . . . to help people to understand what has been accomplished."

Despite the progress that has been made, Flynn says her young counterparts still face an uphill battle. "If I were 13 now, finding support would be a whole lot easier, and there's more common knowledge of [transsexuals]. I wouldn't be in college before I discovered there were others like me. But the difficulty of confronting one's friends, parents and schoolmates -- that would still be there. The fact that people are more familiar with something doesn't necessarily mean that they are more accepting of it."

For gay elders, the difficulties that come with aging -- loss of independence, financial insecurity, health problems and social isolation -- are only compounded. Beyond legal questions about access to partnership benefits such as social security lurk a host of doubts and insecurities. How will health-care providers respond to a gay or transgendered patient? Will same-sex partners be allowed to share a room in senior housing? Will they feel comfortable enough to foxtrot at the senior center's Valentine's Day dinner dance? Given these difficulties, many gay elders choose to become more isolated, cutting themselves off from the services and the companionship they need to live healthy lives.

Jackie Weinstock is an associate professor at UVM's Human Development and Family Studies program who specializes in gerontology and LGBT issues. "I've spent some time in various senior centers around Vermont and for the most part they're very friendly, nice people but they're very hetero-centric," she says. "There are all these social service programs and efforts to address the needs of elders -- and we really need to be doing a better job for them in general -- but they all ignore the LGBT elders, and either just want them to not come, or quietly fit in with what's already there. They're unaware of a need to create an environment that would be welcoming." The issue of housing is especially thorny.

The state's senior and low-income housing facilities haven't exactly rolled out the red carpet for gay couples, Weinstock says. "When they get to the point where they can't live in their homes anymore, where are these people going to go?" she asks. "As far as I know, not one of the elder housing programs in Vermont has taken it upon itself to put it out there that 'We are queer friendly.' That means that the queer elders have to take a risk in going there, and may have to educate these service providers about LGBT issues at a time that is already very challenging for many people."

Indeed, Flynn says she worries about what will happen as she gets older. Having been almost kicked out of a doctor's office when she revealed her identity as a transgendered person, she's not looking forward to increased contact with the health-care system. And she worries about where she'll spend her final years. "I'm fortunate in having a partner to advocate for me, but God forbid, what if something happens to her? I'd be up a creek without a paddle."

And it isn't just the heterosexual community that needs schooling. "There's a lot of ageism in the queer community," Weinstock says.

Kaufman agrees. "A lot of our programs aren't really designed to mesh well with LGBT elders' needs. We need to make room for elders . . . The problem is, gay culture is so youth focused. Seniors are much more likely to be in the closet. There are gay elder programs in big cities, but that's about it."

To add to the difficulty, he says, many gay men are ill-prepared to be senior citizens. "There's a special challenge we have in gay culture around older people regarding HIV/AIDS. In many places, a whole generation was wiped out. People just didn't think they would grow old. They didn't plan for it, and now that they are old, they're not prepared."