NO CLOSET IN MY HOME?
THE CONTEXT OF HOUSING DECISIONS
FOR LESBIANS AND BISEXUAL WOMEN 55 AND OLDER
Lisa M. Brando
B.A. City University of New York Queens College, 2000
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Lisa M. Brando
has been approved
Kitty K. Corbett
This work is dedicated to those who have encouraged my endeavors. To the
countless women who have inspired me and will continue to do so, namely my
mother and grandmothers, who nourished me with a good sense of self, and my
sister, who elevates me from my own way of knowing by sharing her insightful
perspective. To my father, who has always been a wellspring of support both
emotionally and materially. And my partner, Jennifer Edwards, who has
continually been a reservoir of encouragement, understanding, and support.
Many people assisted in the production of this thesis. Dr. Kitty Corbett deserves
many thanks for her consistent and sound advice as well as her patience, not
only during this project, but also throughout my program. Dr. Jean Scandlyn
and Dr. Marjorie Levine-Clark have shared their expertise and lent unique
perspectives to this work. The entire faculty and staff of the anthropology
department of the University of Colorado at Denver have always made
themselves available to me for orientation when it was needed. My partner,
Jennifer Edwards, has been an inexhaustible sounding board for ideas and a
keen editor. And to the foundation of this project the participants, especially
the interviewees, who shared their stories, their lives, and their hearts. I am
infinitely grateful for all of the kind assistance granted to me. And, finally, to
all the lesbians of past and present who fought nobly for gay rights, and for
those who silently endured injustices -1 honor you.
Any inaccuracies in this thesis are entirely my error and do not reflect on the
individuals who offered their assistance so generously.
Brando, Lisa (M.A., Anthropology)
No Closet in My Home? The Context of Housing Decisions for Lesbians and
Bisexual Women 55 and Older
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Kitty K. Corbett
Lesbians and bisexual women have similar aging concerns to the American
population on a whole. However, as a minority group they may encounter greater
adversity because of stigma, legal, financial, and health-related discrimination, and
nontraditional social support. Triple minority status relating to gender, age, and
sexuality may increase aging concerns. This research addresses how multiple,
intervening factors influence housing decisions for older lesbians. Surveys and
focused life history interviews were conducted with 24 lesbians and bisexual women
age 55 and older.
Three key themes explain lesbians assessment of their housing options: community
and identity; aging, health, and sexuality; and support strategies. Consistent with the
general senior population, the women in this study want to age in place, with
health-related pressures motivating most to change their current living arrangements.
Several informants would be amenable to informal housing arrangements with
lesbian or female friends or individuals, but shared values take precedence over a
shared lesbian identity in collective housing arrangements. Same-sex or -gender
retirement communities are criticized for their expense and exclusivity. Long-term
care, more so than retirement housing, brings critical concerns into relief since it
invokes many aging-related anxieties about dependency, social support, and
financial security. Many informants perceive that their sexuality intensifies aging
and health challenges, but more of them emphasized gender-based issues. Women
anticipated using various material and social support strategies while getting the
assistance they need and remaining independent.
Possible housing solutions for lesbians and bisexual women have been addressed in
previous research, through social services, and in the marketplace. This research
suggests that proposed alternatives should consider the diversity of situations
affecting housing options for this group. Progress has been made through training
and education, shared housing programs, publicly subsidized housing, policy reform,
and social services. Effort should be placed on increasing information about and
accessibility of these programs and services for older lesbians.
This abstract accurately represents the context of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
1. INTRODUCTION....................................................... 1
Theyre Just Like Us, But Different........................... 2
GLB Adversity in Aging................................... 5
Stigma as an Adaptation.................................. 8
Initial Assumptions and Research Orientation................. 11
2. METHODS........................................................... 14
Data Collection.............................................. 14
Demographics: Informant Age............................. 16
Demographics: Informant Residence....................... 16
Demographics: Socioeconomic Status...................... 17
Recruitment of Sample........................................ 19
Emic and Etic Perspectives and Their Influence on Field Relations.. 24
Ernie Assumptions and Reflections....................... 25
Etic Realities and Intersubjectivities.................. 26
Ethical Considerations..................................... 28
3. HOUSING: SETTING THE FRAMEWORK.................................... 32
Project Definition of Housing................................ 33
Project Findings............................................. 38
Retirement Housing...................................... 40
Important Factors in Retirement Housing........... 44
Long-term Care.......................................... 46
Discrimination and the Impact on Housing................ 49
4. COMMUNITY AND IDENTITY............................................ 51
Medicalization and its Discontents: The Birth of the Homosexual,... 54
On the Fringe: Gay Space and Community Development... 55
The Bar Culture and Homophile Movements................. 58
Gay Liberation...................................... 60
Project Findings......................................... 63
Community, Identity, and Housing.................... 73
5. AGING, HEALTH, AND SEXUALITY.................................. 75
Lesbian Aging: The Fountain of Youth Versus The Well of
Project Findings: Perspectives on Aging and Sexuality.... 80
Health Issues............................................ 84
Project Findings on Health: Status and Concerns..... 86
Sexuality and Health................................ 89
Aging, Health, Sexuality, and Housing............... 93
6. SUPPORT STRATEGIES: FAMILY, FRIENDS, AND FINANCES.......... 95
Friends and Social Networks............................. 101
Socializing and Aging................................... 103
Support Services........................................ 113
Support Strategies and Housing.......................... 115
7. CONCLUSION................................................. 117
On Difference and Similarity............................ 117
The Context of Housing Decisions........................ 118
Implications for Aging and Housing Services............. 123
A. HUMAN SUBJECTS RESEARCH PROPOSAL APPROVAL................... 125
B. PROJECT ADVERTISEMENT....................................... 126
C. PARTICIPANT CONSENT FORM.................................... 127
D. PRELIMINARY SURVEY.......................................... 130
E. INTERVIEW GUIDE............................................. 132
Table 2.1: Informant Age............................................... 16
Table 2.2: Informant Residence......................................... 17
Table 2.3: Informant Retirement Status and Occupations................. 18
Table 2.4: Informant Highest Level of Education........................ 18
Table 3.1: Same-Sex Housing Communities................................ 35
Table 3.2: Informant Current Type of Housing........................... 39
Table 4.1: Informant Identity Cohort, Coming Out Decade, and Age of
Coming Out................................................... 63
One concern that is often overlooked but faces all of us as we age is where
we will reside, and who will be in our community. In acknowledgement of this
uncertainty for older gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT)1,2 elders,
particularly with regards to long-term care, the title of this thesis includes a question.
I have followed the lead of the 2004 Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE)
conference, whose title was No Need to Fear, No Need to Hide? They punctuated
the issue of discrimination for GLBT with indeterminacy and summoned attendees
to help answer this question for our future. I pose a couple of questions as well. As
lesbians and bisexual women grow older and need to change their living situations,
what are their fears and concerns? And, how does sexuality play into these
considerations of housing and community as they age?
This thesis addresses the multiple dimensions of aging issues for older
lesbians, with a focus on how these issues impinge on housing decisions. Housing is
one area of concern for lesbians meriting research since it has not thoroughly been
explored (Hamburger 1997). Previous work on aging and lesbian sexuality has
approached the study of housing preferences in the United States through 1 2
11 use the term GLBT here and in other places where specific studies use it. When making general
comments about sexual minorities and aging, however, I will use the term GLB. Researchers who
specialize in transgender studies criticize the perfunctory addition of the T when the research lacks
true inclusion and rigorous treatment of transgender issues. Each constituent group within the
GLBT has unique aging concerns, but transgender individuals differ significantly because of the
obstacles related to passing (Cook-Daniels 2002). When speaking about this projects findings, I will
only be referring to lesbians and bisexual women.
2 Initially, I intended to interview lesbians; however the sexual orientation question in the survey was
open-ended and self-identifying. During the preliminary survey, three women identified as
quantitative survey research (Hamburger 1997; Lucco 1987). Other research has
addressed housing for older lesbians peripherally along with aging issues such as
health care (Connolly 1996), social support (Kehoe 1989; Quam and Whitford
1992), and relationships (Raphael and Robinson 1980,1989). Qualitative studies
have highlighted life course development and the impact of stigmatized identities
(Adelman 1986; Rosenfeld 1999, 2003). Quantitative survey research is better at
illuminating trends; however, qualitative research is more amenable to understanding
the reasons for variance. Through a multi-method approach this project aims to
forefront housing issues, while considering the contribution of other influential
concerns such as health care, finances, and social services, that intervene to shape
housing options. Life course issues related to identity, psychosocial development,
family, social networks, partnership status, community involvement, discrimination,
and stigma inevitably come to bear on housing choice as well.
Theyre Just Like Us. But Different
With 35 million Americans over the age of 65 in 2000, how to care for the
growing population of older individuals is a great national concern (Administration
on Aging 2002). These figures are expected to continue increasing over the next few
decades (Brecht 2002). The number of gay and lesbian seniors is growing
proportionately to the rest of the population. Quantifying the size of the older GLBT
population in the United States is bound to be inexact because there is no standard
way employed to enumerate GLBT individuals.3 GLBT are estimated at 5-10% of
the overall American population, suggesting a figure of approximately 1.75 to 3.5
million older GLBT (Administration on Aging 2002; Woolf 1998). The National
Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) report Outing Age gives a conservative
3 The 2000 Census was the first time the U.S. government attempted to count the number of gay and
lesbian individuals. It does not achieve counting gays and lesbians, but rather, unmarried partner
same-sex households. Under this category, 594,391 people were counted (U.S. Census Bureau
figure of one to three million of GLBT over the age of 65 in the United States
(Cahill, South, and Spade 2000) with that number anticipated to increase to between
four and six million individuals by 2030 (Cahill and South 2002).
GLBT are just as diverse as the population at large. They are concomitantly a
subcultural group, in some ways analogous to ethnic groups that have different
aging experiences and different concerns (Connolly 1996), yet, they also have much
in common with older Americans in general (Friend 1987; Quam 2004). Many issues
of aging, such as loneliness, fear of dependency, or declining health are artifacts of
growing old, not necessarily of being gay. Although, being gay may intensify an
already existent aging concern. As for the entire older population, other forms of
diversity intermingle to produce a host of situations that contribute to various aging
experiences (Herdt, Beeler, and Rawls 1997). The diversity of older populations can
be expressed along many lines. Race, ethnicity (Connolly 1996; Sokolovsky 1990),
class, gender, financial security, health status, disability, spirituality or religion, life
course development (Reid 1995), and support networks are intervening factors that
also make the aging process variable.
Old age is not a monolithic category; there is a wide range of ages captured
within the group labeled as old. Therefore, it is problematic to assume members of
different generations would be the same (Connolly 1996). Defining the word old is
a somewhat arbitrary endeavor. Old, in terms of research, can sometimes be as
young as 40 years of age (Kehoe 1986; Woolf 2002). Some of the prior research on
older lesbians was based on convenience samples that included lesbians closer to the
peer groups of the researchers (Kehoe 1986; Quam 2004). Senior is another term
used to connote passage into another age grade. But what is a senior someone
eligible for membership in the AARP at age 50, or receiving Social Security benefits
at 62, or receiving Medicare at age 65 (Quam 2004)? Labels such as elder,
crone, or middle aged are also broadly applied, and have even less of a
quantifiable age associated with them; therefore, like the term old, they require
definition in the context used. Researchers have imposed categories based on
chronological age and lifestyle factors, such as retirement and health status
(Neugarten 1975). Three categories of old more precisely relate to trends in the
life course. The young old span the ages of 55 to 75, and the old old, capture
those 75 and above (Moody 1988; Neugarten 1975)4. With people living longer there
are increasingly more of the oldest old, those 85 and over (Connolly 1996; Woolf
Along with the spectrum of different ages, the interplay between race,
ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status variably impacts aging concerns for
minorities. In the U.S. people of color, women, and immigrants have higher
incidences of poverty. About 36% of African and Hispanic-Americans are in
poverty, compared with 18.4% of whites. Social Security is more frequently the only
source of income for them compared to the savings, pensions, and investments of
their white contemporaries. Decreased access to education, higher paying jobs,
retirement potential, and the increased rate of disabling health conditions contribute
to the economic disparity (Connolly 1996; The New Strategist Editors 2004).
Language barriers impede economic advancement for immigrants. That along with
increased health risks from potentially dangerous jobs (Stanford and Usita 2002),
and the stress resulting from social and psychological elements associated with being
in a new environment (Dressier 1996) are financial setbacks. On the upside, like
gays and lesbians, stronger social support may be available. However, it is incorrect
to assume that ethnic compensation,5 will offset this adversity. Not surprisingly,
4 Reid (1995) delineates age groups slightly more broadly with middle age spanning 35-55, with
later life subdivided into three stages: the young old 65 to 75 or 80, old old 75 or 80 to about 90,
and oldest old as above 90. Quam (2004) defines old old as over 80 to 85.
5 Family and community care versus self-reliance are culturally variable. Sokolovsky (1990) raises an
excellent point that greater family involvement of certain ethnic groups may conceal the hardships of
the elderly. The elderly are usually more isolated because of cultural and language barriers, poverty,
and discrimination. The same argument could be applied to lesbians; having well-developed social
networks should not conceal discrimination and its impact.
homeownership among Americans over 65 is lowest for people of color (The New
Strategist Editors 2004).
Another diversifying element is tied to the location where one lives; whether
it is urban or rural (Barker 2004; Boxer 1997), in a private home, an apartment, or in
an institution. Rural areas may have limited social and health services, which can
accommodate minority groups (Butler and Hope 1999). The frail elderly may have
more difficulty accessing these services because of complications in their mobility.
Membership in two groups that are discriminated against, the aged and
GLBT, may lead to a double stigma (Friend 1987; Sokolovsky 1990; Woolf2002).
Quam and Whitford (1992) have referred to the discrimination experienced by elder
lesbians as a triple minority status; these women have to contend with the impact
of age, gender, and sexual orientation at the same time.6 For those who are also
disabled, the effects of stigma may be even worse (Barker 2004).
GLB Adversity in Aging
GLB aging concerns are distinctive in some ways. The impact of stigma,
legal inequities, discrimination in housing and health, and nontraditional social
support mechanisms intervene variably, depending on the situation of the GLB
Stigma results in isolation and discrimination. Individuals either consciously
or unconsciously distance themselves from those with undesirable identity statuses.
The elderly are, in Gofifmans (1963) terms, a discredited group since the stigma is
visibly apparent in their aging bodies. Even the GLBT ignores its elders since it is
youth-focused (Brotman, Ryan, and Cormier 2003).7 On the other hand, being gay or
lesbian is not outwardly apparent to many people. Disclosure of sexual orientation is
6 Matile Poor refers to this as triple jeopardy.
7 Yet, the baby-boomer generation, as it has previously fought for civil rights, is once again raising
consciousness about aging issues for gay men and lesbians (Herdt 2004).
a matter of choice (Adelman 1991) for those who could pass or be covert about
their sexuality (Newton 1972; Rosenfeld 1999). Remaining undisclosed about sexual
orientation can be stressful (Peterson and Bricker-Jenkins 1998).
Structural discrimination manifests in the numerous civil rights, liberties, and
services not afforded to GLB individuals. Three states have recently passed laws
granting civil unions (Connecticut8 and Vermont9)10 or marriage (Massachusetts11) to
same-sex couples (Yardley 2005). However, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act
(DOMA) disallows federal recognition of same-sex marriages or unions, and thus
stems extension of federal benefits to those couples. The House of Representatives
failed to pass a Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) in 2004. Recently, the
Marriage Protection Amendment has been resuscitated and proposed to the Senate.
Some states and cities provide anti-discrimination laws to protect GLB and variable
rights to same-sex registered partners. Amidst widespread attention to same-sex
marriage, there have been acts of resistance including cities that have performed
symbolic marriages between same-sex couples and counterresistance demonstrated
by 13 states banning same-sex marriage (Salzman 2005).
The resulting impact on gay and lesbian couples has both economic and
social implications. The inequity of same-sex unions affects older GLBT persons in
areas of social services, such as Medicaid and Medicare; finance, such as retirement
accounts, pensions, and survivor benefits; health care, such as partner visitation and
a partners right as legal decision-maker; and housing, such as a partners right to
visit in short and long-term care facilities (Cahill, South, and Spade 2000).
The issues of housing and health care converge on the topic of short- and
long-term care. Discrimination can manifest itself in abuse or neglect inside
8 The law, which passed on April 20,2005, takes effect October 1,2005.
9 The law was passed in 2000.
10 After sanctioning civil unions both states immediately passed laws defining marriage as between a
man and a woman.
11 The law was passed in 2004.
hospitals, rehabilitation centers, congregate care facilities, assisted living, or nursing
homes. Long-term care poses some critical issues related to increased vulnerability
and the propensity of older gay men and lesbians to return to the closet from fear of
discrimination in a strange, new place without friends, families, or allies to come to
their aid (Connolly 1996). Also, affordable housing is less attainable for GLBT. The
Fair Housing Act of 1968 intended to protect minorities from discrimination in
housing, but it does not include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or
gender identity, which distances GLBT from the three million subsidized housing
units available in the U.S. (Cahill and South 2002). Statistically, costs for married
homeowners are much lower for older Americms over 65 (The New Strategist
Many elder GLBT sometimes do not have the same traditional social support
as aging heterosexuals. A 1996 SAGE study showed that 66-75% of gays and
lesbians aged 65 or more lived alone versus fewer than 35% of heterosexual
individuals (Davidson 2000; Hollibaugh 2004). Gay men and lesbians more
frequently do not have children and grandchildren (Szymanski 2003), only 25% of
gay and lesbian seniors having children (Davidson 2000) compared to over 90% of
heterosexuals over the age of 55 who are married and have children and
grandchildren (The New Strategist Editors 2004). Furthermore, relations with
families of origin can be strained because they are gay. Rather, chosen families in
Kath Westons (1991) sense, based on trust and acceptance, are forged. Members of
this kinship arrangement who are not blood relatives are not legally acknowledged as
family. Legal documentation can, to some extent, circumvent this, but it is not a
surefire guarantee that it will withstand judicial or familial challenge. GLBT with
ties to their families of origin cannot always trust that family members will abide by
their wishes or respect the status of a partner in the event that they are not able to
communicate their wishes (Ettelbrick 1996). Additionally, often ones peer group
consists of those close in age (Raphael and Robinson 1980), and they may be unable
to offer assistance because they too are aging (Hollibaugh 2004).
While some of the obstacles older GLBT encounter are purely related to
material inequities and the second-class citizenship, it is believed that to some degree
the adversity GLBT face in aging is mediated by other factors related to
psychosocial development. Development would include age of recognition of sexual
orientation (Herdt 1992,1999; Raphael and Robinson 1988; Rosenfeld 1999,2003)
and degree of acceptance of a lesbian identity (Adelman 1991). Contested beliefs
about the degree of GLBT adversity versus the positive collateral benefits of GLBT
aging have been addressed (Woolf2002). The aging process for GLBT can be
viewed as more challenging than for heterosexuals for a myriad of reasons. These
include increased risk of discrimination and neglect, differences in family and social
support structure, material inequities, and health concerns. On the other hand, some
have viewed GLBT adversity over the lifespan as strengthening their ability to adapt,
or rather cope with the stigma of aging.
Stigma as an Adaptation
Beginning in the 1970s, some research has countered the negative stereotypes
regarding outcomes for aging GLBT (Cruikshank 1991; Woolf2002). Rather, aging
for lesbians can be viewed as similar to aging for other older women (Adelman
1986,1991), or in some cases the former are considered to be better off.
In spite of double discrimination, it can be argued that gays and lesbians age
better psychologically (Friend 1987; Waite 1995; Woolf 1992) or that they may be
equipped with better coping mechanisms (Brotman 2003; Castleman 1981; Quam
and Whitford 1992; Raphael and Robinson 1980). Having dealt with discrimination
for their entire lives, they may have some degree of desensitization toward it in
aging. In this respect, coping is more of an accommodation, since it still is harmful,
rather than adaptive.
In lieu of traditional support networks, some gay men and lesbians have
crafted networks of close friends upon whom they can rely. Weston describes
families we choose as constructed notions of kinship between individuals who
have bonds based on affinity to one another. This network can be relied upon for
material and social support. In addition, Gaylene Becker (1980), in her ethnography
of the aging deaf, found that there were some aspects of being part of a
disadvantaged minority group that made aging less difficult. Community
membership based on common identity afforded an already well-established support
In the past, generally, women were discouraged from economic and social
independence; therefore, less rigid gender roles of gay men and lesbians equip them
to be more independent (Cook-Daniels 2002; Friend 1987). Women who never
married men or had children advanced further in their careers and accumulated better
savings. Additionally, lesbian elders may be more self-sufficient, experiencing less
loss from a husband predeceasing them. Traditionally, husbands were the head of
household and likely had taken care of all the finances and other chores often
relegated to the male sphere. This is certainly not the case for every household, but
more typical in the decades of the 1930s through middle 1960s when the women
interviewed here were adolescents and young adults. The liberation movements for
women and lesbians loosened the sexual division of labor. Furthermore, not having
children could be viewed as beneficial in that one does not undergo the separation
anxiety from their children leaving the home (Berger 1982b).
Lesbians may also embrace aging (Laner 1979), placing a positive value on
becoming a crone (Gentry and Seifert 1991). Unlike gay men and heterosexual
women, lesbians have less anxiety about certain physical changes associated with
aging; they are less plagued by an obsession to maintain a youthful appearance that
many heterosexual women feel is a necessity to remain attractive (Barker 2004;
Castleman 1981; Friend 1987; Gentry and Seifert 1991). A couple of studies have
indicated that lesbians prefer forging relationships with women their own age rather
than seeking younger partners (Berger 1984; Raphael and Robinson 1980). And,
lesbian identity is less based on sexual attraction or sexual activity (Minnegrode and
Adelman 1978) but a strong emotional connection (Raphael and Robinson 1980).
Studies that counter the negative stereotypes of the old, pathetic gay man or
lesbian with infinitely positive perspectives have been criticized for sampling a
homogenous group of the researchers friends who would support a model of healthy
and well-adjusted homosexuals (Kehoe 1986; Quam 2004). This research should be
contextualized as representing a segment of the population, demonstrating that the
aging process differs for everyone. However, the majority of previous work on gay
and lesbian aging studies has been criticized for excluding minority groups such as
people of color, those of lower socioeconomic status, and the oldest old (Barker
2004; Kehoe 1986; Quam 2004; Woolf 2002).
Ostensibly, many factors can potentially influence the aging process;
therefore, it is not possible to speak of the older population, older GLBT, or even
older lesbians as one group. Examining GLBT aging on an individual level may
provide some insights on how to make available and deliver services for peoples
unique concerns and situations.
In terms of housing, some solutions have been presented in the marketplace,
by researchers, and by activists aiming at changing policy. Same-sex or -gender
retirement communities, training and education for elder care facilities and health
care providers, as well as research on the housing situation and needs of the GLBT
aging are a few of the existent approaches addressing homophobia and
discrimination toward GLBT in housing.
Initial Assumptions and Research Orientation
My discovery of same-sex retirement communities ignited my interest in
research in lesbian housing. Initially, I found the enterprise to be fascinating and
worthwhile and expected informants to be equally enthusiastic. As I became more
familiar with criticisms with the exclusivity of these communities, I came to desire a
more upstream approach to GLBT aging concerns one that is directed at broad
policy and ideological shifts. Still acknowledging that wide scale policy changes are
still needed, but also realizing the need for more immediate solutions, I have come to
rest in a more central position, accepting the benefits of gay retirement communities
while remaining critical of their shortfalls.
The point of departure of this thesis is to examine the previously indicated
aging issues for older lesbians. Then I will explore the factors of aging, health care,
finances, social life, identity, psychosocial development, family, social networks,
partnership status, community involvement, discrimination, and stigma as they apply
to housing options.
In Chapter 2, the methods used in this study are described, including a
presentation of the aggregate demographic data, ethical considerations, and project
limitations. Chapter 3 includes a project definition of housing, a description of
interviewees current housing, and an overview of the housing preferences
expressed. Informants discussed their thoughts about planned same-sex retirement
communities and the elements they consider important in retirement housing. Then I
address the issue of long-term care facilities. Long-term care raises concerns of
insecurity; first, because of the possibility of losing independence and, second, due
to the increased risk of abuse and neglect in those institutions. These concerns, in
some ways, mirror those of the mainstream American population, but for some go
beyond that and clearly relate to discrimination based on their sexuality. The final
sections present the different ways discrimination can manifest itself with special
attention to long-term care settings. Informants vary in how they perceive
discrimination and its problems and how they are confronting or will confront those
problems. This sets the tone for the following chapters, which address the three
salient themes found in this project to explain the context of housing decisions.
These include: community and identity; aging, health, and sexuality; and support
Chapter 4 surveys the historical establishment of a homosexual/gay identity
and formation of a community around a sexual identity. Moral, legal, and medical
discourses shape the way homosexuality has been conceptualized, from the
emergence of the homosexual-as-deviant in the middle nineteenth century to the
transformation into a proud gay identity in the late 1960s. American popular
perceptions and their influence on gay identity formation are reviewed by
highlighting events like World Wars I and II, the bar culture, the homophile
movements, and the AIDS crisis. Gay space and the influence of multiple minority
identities are explored. The iterative nature of identity development and community
formation is evidenced by research on gay and lesbian cohorts (Rosenfeld 1992;
Herdt 1999). Life history data in this project is used to determine how informants
conceptualized and participated in community in the past and present. The
importance of community is assessed in light of other types of identity such as
socioeconomic status and race, family interaction, the impact of employment, and a
sense of shared values.
Chapter 5 explores sexualitys impact on aging and health concerns. Two
oppositional myths of the lesbian as demoralized spinster or forever young are
presented as a lens. Both myths are historically imbedded, with the latter coinciding
with a post-liberation ideology. Informants identified aging concerns and discussed
the extent they think sexuality differentiates the aging experience for them. The
section on aging is followed by a related topic, health, a sharper determinant of
necessary care and housing options. Women appraised their own health status,
discussed health concerns, and evaluated the impact their sexual orientation has on
their health. Aging, health, and sexuality raises the issue of how triple minority
status factors into perceptions and outcomes. Some aging and health issues can be
applied to all older Americans, while others are more related to gender and/or
The final piece to the context of housing decisions relates to support
strategies. Chapter 6 addresses the inconsistent forms of assistance women have at
their disposal, which include different forms of social and material support. While
few women can rely upon having all types of support, most carefully assess their
options and make preparations through a variety of strategies. Again, issues related
to support are viewed as both general aging concerns that the entire aging population
experiences, concerns that are associated with gender, and matters exclusively linked
to sexuality. The conflict between womens desire to be independent versus the
possible need for dependence is addressed. Finally, Chapter 7 presents conclusions
about the articulation of the factors presented by this research and the implications
variable contexts have for housing plans and solutions.
A mixed-method research design incorporated both qualitative and
quantitative approaches. The design, data collection, analyses, and interpretations
were informed by ethnographic sensitivity to context and polyvocality This
chapter describes the data collection and analysis process, the sample, analysis,
ethical considerations, and limitations of this project.
Data were collected primarily through interviews, surveys, and participant
observation. Upon obtaining approval from the University of Colorado at Denver
Human Subject Research Committee in Protocol #2004-054 (APPENDIX A),
fieldwork was conducted from September 2003 to July 2004. Preliminary fieldwork
in the form of participant observation and data collection began in September and
continued throughout the duration of data collection. Interviews and surveys were
conducted from early January through June 2004. Focus group observation occurred
once on June 30,2004. Participant observation included conversations with
informants in addition to input from other researchers conducting similar research
and individuals12 13 who did not have the time for a formal interview. Focus group
12 Polyvocality here refers to the attempt to be inclusive and representative of the participants during
the collection and writing of this piece, through allowing patterns to emerge, yet also ensuring
representation of minority opinions.
13 Some were under age 55 but offered perspectives on the topics of sexuality and aging and/or
attendees included three men, four women, and one transgendered person, all age 60
Twenty-four women were formally surveyed and interviewed. This sample
consisted of women 55 and over living in the United States. Fifty-five was used as
the lower boundary since it the age at which many individuals are retiring from their
careers or are beginning to plan for retirement. There were no upper limits for
recruiting since there is a paucity of research on older, old lesbians (Gabby and
Wahler 2002). I intended to and was able to recruit several women over the age of
70. The neglect of older lesbians in research as mentioned earlier is, in part,
attributable to the increased invisibility of having a triple minority status being
old, female, and a lesbian (Quam and Whitford 1992). In addition to GLBT elders
being virtually ignored by their community, much research has focused on older gay
men (Gwenwald 1984; Kehoe 1986).
In this project women were recruited through a combination of convenience,
purposive, and snowball sampling, each of which are types of nonprobability
sampling methods. Purposive sampling, also referred to as judgment sampling,
involves seeking individuals that the intended research frames rather than the general
population (Bernard 2002). Since this research specifically deals with older lesbians
and bisexual women, gender, sexuality, and age were one set of sample parameters.
Convenience and snowball samples are criticized especially in gay and lesbian aging
studies for their tendency to select less diverse samples of educated, middle-class,
white individuals who reaffirm the authors assertions of positive aging (Quam
2004). As addressed in the limitations, this project is homogeneous along the lines of
race/ethnicity and, to some degree, class within the sample. Yet, since there is a wide
14 The focus group title implied bisexual older adults were included. It was not clear which, if any, of
the four women identified as bisexual. All of the female participants had female partners.
representation of ages and locations, holding some factors constant can allow others
to come into relief. Furthermore, the essence of qualitative research is descriptive,
not explanatory; therefore, nonrandom sampling methods are acceptable. Efforts
were made to reach women of different ages and locations within the United States
and the sample was diverse in that each woman had a different life history.
Demographics: Informant Age
The women interviewed for this project range in age from 55 to 80, with an
average age of 63.5 years old.15 Table 2.1 provides an inventory of interviewees
Table 2.1: Informant Age
55, 55, 56, 56, 57, 58, 58, 59 8
SO, 62, 63,64, 65, 66, 66,66, 66,66,67, 68, 69 13
Mean = 63.5, Median = 64.5, Mode = 66 24
Demographics: Informant Residence
As shown in Table 2.2, respondents came from fifteen different locations
representing a variety of residential areas. Categories were delineated by population
and typed as either urban, suburban, or rural, based on population density. Areas
were classified as small if they have fewer than 50,000 residents, medium if
they have fewer than 150,000, and large if they exceed 150,000. Ten women live
in Colorado, ten in California, three in Vermont, and one in Arizona. Four live in
rural towns, two in a small suburban area, two in a large suburban area, six in small
urban areas, six in medium urban areas, and four in large urban areas.
15 Ages given represent age at the time of interview.
TABLE 2.2: Informant Residence
State n Regional Classification n
AZ i Small urban area i
Small urban area 4
CA 10 Medium urban area 2
Large urban area 4
Rural town 1
Small suburban area 2
CO 10 Large suburban area 2
Small urban area 1
Medium urban area 4
VT 3 Rural town 3
N 24 _________________________24
Demographics: Socioeconomic Status
As Table 2.3 shows, eight women are fully retired. Six are retired from one
occupation but work part-time in another field. One woman had retired but returned
to working full time again. Three have continued to work part-time at the same
occupation. Five have not yet retired. Many of these women received graduate or
professional degrees (See Table 2.4). In this group, less education did not necessarily
translate into fewer material assets.
Table 2.3: Informant Retirement Status and Occupations
Retirement Status n Occupation
Fully retired 8 Government employee
College instructor and departmental administrator
Sales and ministry
Retired from career but works part-time elsewhere 6 Previously: Secondary education teacher; Currently: Drug and alcohol therapist
Previously: Director of not-for-profit organization; Currently: Consultant
Previously: Government employee; Currently: Works in merchandise chain
Previously: Hospital clerk, refinery operations personnel, and general contractor, Currently: Tour guide
Previously: Military, bartender; Currently: Small business
Previously: Secondary education teacher; Currently: Tai chi teacher and massage therapist
Retired but works full time again 1 Paralegal for federally-funded program
Still works part-time at same occupation 3 Accountant
Accountant, Army Reserve (retired military)
Not retired 5 Occupational therapist
Massage therapist and artist
Professional musician and insurance agent
Home health nurse
Table 2.4: Informant Highest Level of Education
MS graduate 2
Some college/technical diploma 4
College graduate 5
Some graduate work 2
Professional or masters degree 8
Some doctoral work 1
One womans doctorate was honorary, but she completed a Masters.
Recruitment of Sample
Initially, participants were recruited through GLBT community agencies and
events, lesbian organizations, the Gay and Gray in the West Conference, several
websites for lesbians and/or women over 50, and participant referrals.16 Three
women were recruited personally, one was known to me prior to this project, and
five women were referred by younger lesbian acquaintances. One person responded
to an advertisement posted on a womens recreational vehicle Internet message
board. Another woman was recruited during the SAGE conference and interviewed
subsequently by telephone. Interviewees were requested to ask their friends and
acquaintances that were lesbian and age 55 or older if they would be willing to
Project advertisements were forwarded to interviewees by paper flyer or
email. Prospective interviewees were asked to initially contact me by email or
telephone, so recruiting methods would remain completely voluntary and less
An effort to recruit individuals who lived in retirement communities was
made, but only one formal interviewee lived in a lesbian retirement community.
With that same community, I spoke briefly with another female resident and
interviewed several women who had acquaintances or friends there. I visited another
same-sex retirement community and spoke with a few women and one man. One
informant, Rose, had friends in three retirement communities, but she was unable to
recruit any of them for this project.
16 See APPENDIX B for project advertisement posted on lesbian and/or womens organization
websites. Participants also distributed the advertisement to their friends and acquaintances via email
Participant observation, a mainstay of anthropological methodology, is
defined and used differently by different researchers (Dewalt et. al 1998). Generally,
as the name implies, it refers to the researchers participation in the daily activities or
specific events of the group under study. Being a participant and not only an
observer allows the researcher to gain insider understanding and to establish rapport
with informants (Bernard 1995). It can include a wide variety of research methods
such as natural observation, survey, and interviews (Bernard 1995), but in this
project it is considered a method separate from the interviews and surveys.
Participant observation in this project was ongoing. Its initial purpose was to aid in
designing this project, establishing rapport within the older lesbian community, and
recruiting interviewees. Later, my notes from participant observation were used to
corroborate findings from the formal interviews and surveys.
Participant observation included correspondence with both informants and
those who were not formally interviewed in the form of email, telephone calls, and
in-person meetings. Informal conversations and observation occurred at conferences
and lectures, social gatherings and events, and at a focus group of senior GLBT.
Researchers from the National Research Center conducted the focus group.
They were contracted by the Denver Regional Council of Government (DRCOG) as
part of a needs assessment of strengths and social services for specific populations
age 60 and over. This group consisted of eight GLBT individuals and was held on
June 30,2004. Usually focus groups are a separate method of qualitative research;
however, my role in this particular focus group was as a participant observer. I
exerted no control over the questions. I observed this group, sitting on the periphery,
and only participated to provide clarifying information in one instance. I did interact
minimally with participants both before and after the focus group. For this reason,
the data gathered here is considered part of participant observation.
Interviews always began with a preliminary survey eliciting demographic
data. I asked the questions and completed each survey by hand. Interviews and
surveys were conducted either in person or by telephone and, in some cases, follow-
up telephone conversations or email supplemented this data. Thirteen of the 24
interviews were conducted in person. Interviews were conducted face-to-face with
women in the Denver metro area and surrounding cities of about 50 miles. Several
interviews in Southern California were conducted face-to-face. Longer distance
interviews were conducted by telephone (n = 11). Altogether, four couples were
interviewed, three of whom were interviewed in person. One couple was interviewed
by telephone, but I spoke to each partner separately.
The length and pace of the interview was affected by the interview mode
(either telephone or in-person), the number of persons present, the informants
willingness to share, and the dynamic between the interviewer and interviewee.
Certainly, the presence of a partner influenced the dynamic of these interviews,
sometimes opening responses up to discussion and negotiation between partners.
Questions that were missed altogether during the course of the interview
were sometimes posed in an email or follow-up telephone call. This was done in
situations where responses could not be gleaned from other responses in the
interview. It was the style of some informants to be more fluid or comprehensive in
their responses, providing information for a question that was previously asked or
one that had not been addressed yet.
An effort was made to allow every participant to review the project materials
before the interview. A packet of the consent form (APPENDIX C), survey
(APPENDIX D), and interview guide (APPENDIX E) was sent prior to the
interview. Many had the interview guide in front of them during the interview. The
pace and order of questions were at times determined by the interviewee.
Participants responses varied in emphasis. For instance, while some may have
talked extensively about their families of origin, others spoke at length about long-
term care. Yet there were some questions that were somewhat universally
provocative, or contrarily, altogether uninspiring. Timing may also have influenced
the receptivity to questions. Responses to questions asked earlier in the interview or
at the end tended to be briefer, likely related to the interviewee initially getting
comfortable and tiring by the end.
The length of the interview was somewhat contingent on how much
information the interviewee shared. Interviews ranged from one to three hours per
person. Some interviews could not be completed in one session, so a follow-up call
or visit was arranged. Interviews followed a semi-structured format. Semi-structured
interviews are used when interviewers are unsure if they will have another chance to
meet with the interviewee and they have specific areas they wish to cover (Bernard
1995). Probes were intended to balance the planned questions by broadening the
interview beyond the topics inquired about and allowing individual voices and new
themes to emerge.
Preliminary surveys aimed to elicit demographic characteristics such as:
Highest level of education
City and state of residence
Current type of housing
Number in household
Current and/or former type of employment
Most of these questions were close-ended, though interviewees were asked to self-
identify race/ethnicity and sexual orientation. Interviewees could expand on
responses if they wished.
The interview guide contained queries in five general and overarching areas:
aging and health, financial planning and medical and long-term care insurance,
retirement housing, identity and life history, and family and social group or network.
Probes after each question were used if needed to elicit more detail or pursue
emergent themes. The guide was revised after the first four interviews had been
conducted; more questions on financial planning were added upon suggestion of an
The interview contained 35 specific questions related to issues of:
Aging and health concerns
Medical and long-term care insurance
Legal documentation: wills and powers of attorney
Identity and personal history
Past and present relationships with family of origin
Past and present social network involvement
Past and present involvement in political and social activities
Housing preferences and concerns
Perception of sexual orientations bearing on all issues above
Some questions needed to be modified to apply to the persons situation. For
example, questions pertaining to retirement planning varied. If the person was
retired, I asked how they made the decision to retire. For single interviewees the
questions about partners would sometimes be posed hypothetically or related to a
past partner. There were times when I skipped over a non-applicable question
altogether when it did not make sense to modify the question. While maintaining
some degree of standardization was important for comparative analysis, being overly
constrained would have negatively impacted the qualitative data collection and
impeded the emergence of new themes.
All data collected through surveys and interviews were transferred to
electronic data files. Telephone interviews were typed as they were conducted.
Recordings of in-person interviews were later transcribed. Field notes consisting of
field observations and preliminary analyses were retyped from notebooks. Survey
data and some interview data were quantified using Microsoft Excel.
Interviews were thematically coded for analysis. Content analysis is a way to
test hypotheses through cataloging data types (Bernard and Ryan 1998). Data were
synthesized into thematic groups and content analysis was performed on all data
components, including interview quotes, ad hoc notes, and quantified data.
Data from both surveys and interviews that was quantifiable were counted.
Descriptive statistics were applied. At times responses were summed in multiple
layers to ascertain logical patterns.
There is a tension in ethnographic research between presenting patterns
versus particularities, especially when the sample has fewer informants. My
penchant for detail probably biases me toward the particular, although I tried to
present patterns wherever I could see evidence for them.
Ernie and Etic17 Perspectives and
Their Influence on Field Relations
Ernie and etic are terms analogous to inside versus outside
perspectives or positions. The emic approach involves a closer, more native
understanding of culture. The etic assumes a more distanced, objective, or
scientific position, entailing an intellectual separation from the group which one
researches. Traditionally, anthropologists strove for a synergy between the two. In
the 1970s and 1980s, postmodernism in the discipline challenged modernist
17 Kenneth Pike created these terms come from the linguistic phonemic and phonetic (Barfield
assumptions of objectivity and representation. Postmodernism was in turn criticized
for its extreme reflexivity and nihilistic interpretation of culture. Contemporary
practice includes work representing both extreme positions but much rests on a
Ernie Assumptions and Reflections
Malinowski (1930) argued to the colonial administration in Africa that
anthropologists training makes them unique in gaining entry to cultural knowledge,
understanding cultural perspectives from within, and applying scientific methods.
Ethnographic authority rested ultimately with the anthropologist; the credibility of
their work was made legitimate through the discipline of anthropology. Malinowski
promoted anthropology on the grounds that only trained professionals had the ability
to rationalize native culture through a unique blend of scientific and humanistic
methods. Anthropologists unable to balance the two perspectives, especially
transgressing the boundaries of scientific objectivity, were accused of going
Working with individuals of a similar identity blurs the researchers role
between insider and outsider. Anthropologists like Lila Abu-Lughod (1986), writing
on Egyptian Bedouins, and Dorinne Kondos (1990), in her ethnography of Japanese
women, address the ethical complications related to their partial membership in each
group and positionality given their ambiguous identity. My lesbian identity reveals,
in part, my personal interest in this topic and it positions me closely to the subject of
inquiry. Undoubtedly, certain experiences can be considered shared because of my
community membership and I tried periodically to capitalize on this insider
understanding, while simultaneously trying to remain open-minded and unbiased
toward events, issues, or terminology.
At times it was challenging to provide sufficient distance and allow
interviewees to share their stories without too much personal participation or
interference. This was especially trying considering my conversational interviewing
style, which works beautifully in establishing rapport, but may be too divulging of
my thoughts, prejudicing informant responses and also monopolizing dialogue
during the interview. Yet adopting an insider identity may have accelerated
participants comfort with me, especially when this led to joking exchanges or
aphorisms about being gay or lesbian. Coming out18 was a surefire way to
establish that connection. Truthfully, disclosure was not intended as a research
strategy, but rather was a personal style, and perhaps was a way for me to satisfy a
personal need for community connection.
Etic Realities and Intersubiectivities
Sexual orientation was a notable similarity between informants and me, but
we differed in age and life experiences. Informants were one to two generations
older. Additionally, many of the women interviewed had similar or higher
educational backgrounds than me. Because of these disparate life experiences,
several informants took on roles as gatekeepers and/or teachers.
Gatekeepers are those who control access to information, other individuals,
and settings (Schensul et. al 1999:77). These individuals expected proof of the
projects merit before they would allow me to interview them or gain access to other
contacts. Several women interviewed were activists for the specific issues being
researched and were concerned with how information was to be handled. I was able
to allay these concerns by demonstrating knowledge about the topic of lesbian aging
and housing concerns, supported by my traditional educational background and
18 Coming out commonly refers either to the moment of realization that sexual or gender identity
differs from the unmarked, normal category or to the transformational process of acceptance
training.19 Eventually most women were pleased with the rationale for this project
and enthusiastically participated in what they felt was a necessary and important area
of research. This was especially true for those involved in GLBT, lesbian, and/or
Another role taken by informants was that of teacher. Generally, informants
had much more experiential and traditional knowledge about lesbian aging issues
than me. While all were interviewed on the basis of their personal expertise as older
lesbians, many, as I mentioned above, are activists and some work in health care or
with elder populations. Thus, many women could speak from professional
experience or sometimes from personal observations of others.
The expertise of interviewees placed me clearly in the position of student.
The student role is advantageous in ethnographic fieldwork (Bernard 1995). It
allowed me to distance myself, to probe for further insight in a less threatening
manner, and to sometimes ask questions in different ways to elicit responses from
interviewees different perspectives. For example, when I asked one informant about
nursing homes, she began discussing discrimination. I was not only able to probe
about her personal feeling but also explore what motivated those feelings. She said
she had witnessed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation at the medical
facility where she worked. As a novice, unknowledgeable about the inner workings
of nursing homes, I was able to probe further about whether this was a normal
occurrence or an aberration. In another interview, a woman told me that she had
heard of a case where a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home refused to bathe
a woman because she was a lesbian (Price 2000; Quam and Whitford 1992). This is
an often-cited example in the literature that she probably assumed was unfamiliar to
19 Typically, activists would respect unconventional knowledge; however, as I mentioned earlier,
most women were formally educated and held higher degrees. Therefore, traditional education had
To maintain confidentiality I followed standard practices approved by the
universitys human subjects review board (APPENDIX A). As an anthropologist, I
was acutely aware of other ethics-related considerations. These included respect for
the privacy of all participants and the pursuit of fair representation of the group.
Privacy in anthropological fieldwork is typically a complicated matter
fraught with pitfalls. While assurance of confidentiality in data collection and
presentation can be carried out meticulously, it is not guaranteed. The nature of
fieldwork in a community of people who know one another as friends or
acquaintances works against complete realization of privacy. Little effort is required
to undermine the best attempts at confidentiality.
Informants in this project come from different parts of the United States, yet
several of them know one another. In order to protect privacy, all documentation
except for tape cassettes was name-encrypted. Pseudonyms are used for names,
specific locations, and other identifying information in this thesis, and will be for
any presentation or publication. Most data collected from participant observation is
reported in aggregate or without reference to a particular person.
In terms of representation, it was important that participants, who wanted to
be involved beyond just answering my questions, were given the opportunity to
speak about what they deemed important. As explained earlier, my role within this
research project did not create explicit power disparities, yet I have the ultimate
authority in the presentation of this research. Postmodern ethnographers document
the impacts of anthropologists work and writing by focusing on the asymmetrical
power of the anthropologist over the research population. They highlight the
multiple subjectivities of ethnography, the editorial privilege of the ethnographer,
and the authority of both the ethnographer and the text that is produced (Clifford
1983; Marcus and Fischer 1986). However, ethnography is more than just the
product; both fieldwork and writing are also important (Wolf 1992). Guidelines for
ethical behavior within the discipline are present; but clear ethical rules are sparse
but even more necessary for applied research. Dorothy Hodgson (1999) outlines the
dilemmas related to accountability in the presence of multiple disadvantaged groups.
She draws up a set of ethical guidelines assessing the consequences of her work and
writing which begin to address the problems of ethnographic representation and its
impact of the lives of the people in it. Ongoing assessment of research implications
and community impact is one way to address the dilemma (Hodgson 1999).
Throughout the period of data collection and during analysis, I ruminated
about good ethical behavior, particularly balancing the personal and professional
relations both inside my mind and in my interactions with friends/participants. While
establishing a connection with the people one is working with is essential, it is hard
to ignore the disproportionate relations between them and me, the authority of my
voice, and the durability of this publication. Simultaneously, there is an inherent
conflict between doing good, rigorous, analytical work and sometimes either
portraying things subjectively or disagreeing entirely with what an informant says.
The participants, some of whom have come to be friendly acquaintances or even
friends, have entrusted me with valuable and personal information and yet there is a
certain insolence in imposing analysis onto narrative. I was also continually
concerned about my potential duplicity in my roles. Would informants agree to have
components of a friendly email or telephone conversation seep into my field notes?
Did they realize that even when the tape recorder was not running, my mind still
was? While I did not consider any data collection to be covert, I was troubled by the
friendly interaction/research boundary. In some situations I just asked if I could
include the information shared. However, it was impossible to track every thought in
my field notes that was inspired by a particular conversation and then get consent.
But remaining in contact with informants has allowed for occasional feedback; I
have gotten information clarified and I have also requested comments on ideas.
Rich and McDonald (1991) wrote about ageism and the invisibility of older
women. They also criticized the exploitation of older women by younger researchers
for professional advancement. While altruistic intentions are part of the motivation
for research, older lesbians are often unequal in the endeavor research subjects, not
collaborators or partners. I do not claim to do a better job with collaboration here,
because of the concerns related to ethnographic authority outlined above. However,
from the early stages of recruiting informants, I explained that the ultimate purpose
of this research was the production of this masters thesis. Each informant
recognized and supported that endeavor. They also realized that this is a labor of
love, and that the research is meaningful because of its potential for community
As mentioned earlier, the sample was somewhat homogenous. Racial and
ethnic variability was limited. All of the women identified as Caucasian or white,
except for African American woman and one woman who identified as multi-racial
(being white and one-quarter Cherokee). Since women of color are poorly
represented in the literature, I had hoped to have this project be more inclusive.
Socioeconomically, all of the women who were interviewed were high
school graduates, many were college graduates, and several had received
professional degrees or had done some post-graduate work (n = 13). Aside from one
woman who was considering applying for a housing grant, none of the women were
currently receiving financial assistance other than Social Security. Yet, from the life
histories told, it was clear that a variety of life course trajectories diversified this
group. Several women had been married previously and many had children from
these relationships. There was a span of several decades among the times when each
of them had come out. Three women identified as bisexual, although none were
currently dating, partnered with, or living with a man. Some had worked a number of
different jobs; others had gone to school and became professionals.
Since many women were members of GLBT groups or organizations, they
were quite knowledgeable about GLBT issues, particularly aging. While this was
extremely educational and infinitely beneficial, it does pose a methodological
concern related to responses toward discrimination. Many had been activists for
years and it was difficult to determine if their responses were personal or based on
their activist experience. It does not make a difference on an individual level since
their perceptions are likely influenced by the sum of their experiences, personal or
professional. There was also probably selection bias toward individuals who are
more socially active, considering that these individuals are more likely to consent to
One of the points I hoped to address was how disability may impact ones
decision to consider alternative housing options, but the sample of women I
interviewed was quite healthy and relatively young. Except for one woman, long-
term care is fairly distant from their reality; therefore, it is difficult to ascertain the
groups true feelings toward long-term care. In order to establish the attitude toward
long-term care, the question was posed hypothetically; for instance, If you needed
to...? Informants would tell me under what circumstances they thought they would
need long-term care.
HOUSING: SETTING THE FRAMEWORK
Senior or retirement housing covers a host of different forms of habitation.
This chapter introduces a brief history of senior housing in the United States. The
project parameters are defined by categorizing this housing into the categories of
retirement, long-term care, and short-term care. Previous literature about same-sex
housing is reviewed. This is followed by a brief presentation of informants housing
perceptions and preferences, setting the framework for the chapters ahead.
Senior housing as a collective enterprise has evolved from the ecclesiastical
realm, with community developments arising to house the elderly clergy, and
subsequently parishioners. Early retirement communities in the United States
appeared around the end of the nineteenth century, and initially were not-for-profit
facilities, although they provided housing and various support services. Since the
middle part of the twentieth century, facilities that provide services have burgeoned,
particularly housing that does not provide health services, but rather assistance in
daily living (ADLs20) (Brecht 2002).
The proliferation of senior housing has been affected by several interrelated
economic, demographic, and health phenomena. In the United States care for the
frail elderly and infirm shifted from the responsibility of family in their homes to
managed healthcare. A population explosion of seniors caused by the increased
longevity of older Americans living with chronic conditions means that many
require assistance in old age. Economic conditions have improved with policies such
20 ADLs include eating, bathing, dressing, laundry, housekeeping, and assistance with medications.
as the Social Security Act (1935) and Medicare (1967) granting better financial
status to seniors (Brecht 2002; Roberts 2000). Also, the increase in dual-income
households has made many children unable to care for parents at home since work
constraints minimize the time for caregiving (Brecht 2002).
Project Definition of Housing
In this project housing generally refers to retirement housing and long-term
care facilities. Retirement housing encompasses
remaining in the same home,
moving into another home,
choosing a second home, and
living within an organized planned community, and
creating personally creating a shared or proximal housing arrangement.
Long-term care captures
congregate care facilities,
assisted living facilities, and
Independent living refers to communities that usually, but not always, have
an age requirement of 55 and older. There may be organized or sponsored social
activities, along with increased security. Congregate care straddles independent
living and health-related services. These facilities provide social activities, security,
and non-health-related services such as meals, housekeeping services, and
transportation. Assisted living provides services for individuals needing ADLs and
it can include medical care, but not constant care. Nursing homes provide continuous
high levels of care. Some facilities have a continuum of care, which has some or all
of these four components at one site. This allows individuals to gradually access
more services as they are needed.
In-home care, senior centers, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals also came
up in interviews. These are not technically part of long-term care or retirement
housing but they will be addressed where applicable. In-home care can be
temporary, as an alternative to a rehabilitative facility or long-term care boarding
facility. Inclusion of such services is relevant because concerns such as
discrimination from providers, discomfort, or fear of homophobia are just as much
of a reality here as they are for long-term care. The same applies to rehabilitation
centers and hospitals, although these facilities provide short-term care only. Senior
centers are included since they entered into discussions about socializing and are
applicable insofar as they are where many elder adults congregate on a frequent
basis. Additionally, many senior centers provide meals, and some seniors may find
themselves eating one or more meals there daily.
Niche retirement communities have been developed on the basis of religious
and ethnic affiliations. Same-sex retirement communities have evolved from this
trend (Adler 2001; Los Angeles Times 1998) beginning in the 1970s. The effort was
stymied by a shift in priorities toward the AIDS crisis (Koury 2002a, 2002b).
Around the 1990s, GLBT retirement communities began to spring up in the United
States (Quam 2004). As discussed earlier, the option of same-sex retirement
communities has arisen to meet the need for gay men and lesbians to avoid
sexuality-based discrimination as they age. To date, there are approximately four
operating same-sex retirement communities, three others are currently being built,
and 18 are in various stages of planning and development (Marech 2005). Already
established communities include two mixed-gender, two gender-segregated, and one
non-age-segregated GLBT community. These communities are located in typical
retiree destinations such as Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and southern
California, but also in gay friendly cities such as Boston, Santa Fe, and San
Francisco. Two places currently offer long-term care type services. There is a
nursing program in Chicago called the Continental Care Center. It is the first nursing
home to implement The Family Program, designed to assist older GLBT and their
families. There is also a small assisted living facility for gay men in Daly City,
California. Table 3.1 inventories the communities. Although these communities are
intended for same-sex individuals, no community can discriminate against
heterosexuals in allowing them to live there if they choose.
Table: 3.1 Same-Sex Housing Communities
The Palms of Manasota, Palmetto, FL
The Racquet Club Retirement Community. Palm Springs, CA
Continental Care Center. Chicago, IL
The Resort on Carefree Boulevard, Ft Myers, FL
Parkside Male Residential Hotel, Akron, OH
The Pueblo RV Resort, Apache Junction, AZ
OurPlace, Daly City, CA (residential care for
gay men, assisted living)
gay men, assisted living)
k njmmmrnmmimr......n. ^
Calamus Communities Active Gay and Lesbian Retirement Resort, Phoenix
Arbours, Cathedral City
Hollywood, California (serving low and medium-income seniors, not exclusively GLBT)
Openhouse (Rainbow Adult Community Housing), San Francisco
Our Town, San Francisco
Shaman Development Group, Palm Springs
Stonewall Communities, Boston
Birds of a Feather, Santa Fe
Rainbow Vision Properties, Inc., Santa Fe (plans to offer independent and assisted living)
Carefree Cove, Boone
World's Edge Retirement and Longevity Resort
A Place For Us Development Inc. (plans to offer independent and assisted living)
: f ^lW^WiEGATED GLBT' '
Wilton Station, FL
Previous research on same-sex retirement communities demonstrated
respondents enthusiasm for them (Hamburger 1997; Lucco 1987). These studies
indicated that respondents primary interest concerned a continuum of aging services
specifically related to health.
Lucco (1987) surveyed 57 lesbians and 399 gay men21 at a time before the
first same-sex retirement community appeared. He found 87.7% of his respondents
21 The average age of his sample was 63.3 years.
were interested in continuing care retirement communities (CCRC). As the name
implies, these offer a range of care services from independent, congregate care to
skilled nursing facilities. Hamburger (1997) sampled gays and lesbians between the
ages of approximately 45 to 75 in the San Francisco Bay area (n = 18) and found
that non-heterosexually-based housing (retirement communities and nursing homes)
with related services was in demand. Many surveyed said they would move to
improve their living situation in some way. Several said they would move for health-
related reasons, meaning when they would no longer be able to live as they were
currently. Only a few stated that they would not move. Hamburger also found at
least a moderate income and the novelty of non-heterosexual retirement
communities to increase interest in same-sex communities.
Waites (1995) focus group study of Australian lesbians age 44-73
demonstrated a need for a retirement community for lesbians that would also provide
health services, affectionately referred to as an Old Dykes Home. Being around
lesbians exclusively was of highest importance, whereas being near children, if they
had any, was not. Creating community spontaneously, as Adelman describes (HRC
2003), was also considerably appealing (Waite 1995).
Other studies in which housing was not the central focus but included
questions related to housing preferences found respondents favored same-sex
housing options, with lesbians expressing a stronger interest in living in an all-
lesbian community (Kehoe 1989; Quam and Whitford 1992). Raphael and Robinson
(1980), in their study of lesbian relationships and friendship patterns, touched on
housing preferences and reported that many women would like to live collectively
and did not have interest in senior citizens programs, retirement communities, or
institutions. In 1977, when they had collected their data, lesbian-feminism was at its
peak and women were forming alternatives to conventional, patriarchal ways of
living (Faderman 1991). Raphael and Robinson (1988) following up nearly a decade
later reported that those who tried collective living claimed it had not worked. They
became disillusioned with communal living after realizing that differing opinions
and decisions about how to live as well, as financial disparities among cohabitants,
were not easily resolved.
Popular magazines and newspapers have cast same-sex retirement
communities in a relatively positive light (Adler 2001), speaking of the revved-up
demand for them (Cole 2003). Some reports have been tempered with criticisms
from researchers and policy advisors that market-based same-sex retirement
communities are unaffordable for some and not diversified in residents ages,
socioeconomic status, and personal and political philosophies (Edwards 2001;
Hockstader 2004; HRC 2003; Koury 2002b). A Washington Post article describes
the budding of the communities as fit[ting] a pattern of what social observers say is
the creeping atomization of America people of similar interests, backgrounds, and
social and political leanings clustering together, opting out of more diverse living
arrangements because they are comfortable mainly with their own (Hockstader
2004). Herve Varenne (1977) argues a similar point about notions of community in
the U.S. being specifically formed within small groups of similar-minded
individuals. Individualism and conformity are negotiated as different groups live
together, yet independent of one another.
In addressing some of the challenges of market-based communities, a few
solutions have been presented. Response to economic barriers has manifested in
plans for subsidized housing, the emergence of spontaneous communities, and
Home Sharing programs. Marcy Adelman, a researcher beginning work on gay and
lesbian aging in the mid-1970s, has co-founded the non-profit Rainbow Adult
Community Housing, OpenHouse (Marech 2005). OpenHouse plans to offer
affordable retirement housing in 225 units to GLBT elders in San Francisco through
acquiring public subsidies (Koury 2002a). Yet this is the only one of its kind since
acquiring subsidies is difficult. In the U.S. three million apartments are subsidized
for lower income individuals, yet GLBT are not guaranteed protection from
discrimination in housing (Cahill and South 2002).
Adelman and Nystrom (in HRC 2003) have also discussed the popularity of
informal communities that form around friendships. Adelman has referred to this as
spontaneous combustion. Informally organized gay and lesbian retirement
communities have emerged in Fort Lauderdale (Mann 1997), Texas, North Carolina,
Mississippi, Alabama (Los Angeles Times 1998), Seattle, and Fort Myers.
Shared Housing is another option available in 28 states (NSHRC n.d.).22
Residents are placed either in a group home or matched in private homes in order to
share expenses and chores. This program is available to individuals of any age for
any reason, although it does serve those with economic and/or physical needs.
Many women interviewed owned their own homes. This is consistent with
the current high levels of homeownership of Americans over 65 years of age (62%-
81%) reported in the 2000 census (The New Strategist Editors 2004). Fifteen of
those interviewed own homes or townhomes independently or together with a
partner. One woman owns a condominium and two others own mobile homes. Two
live in a partners house or condominium, three rent an apartment or condominium,
and one currently lives with her mother (See Table 3.2). One quarter of the
informants (n= 6) live alone.23 Only one is currently living in a planned lesbian
22 Home Sharing is also available in Canada, England, and Australia.
23 Housing situations reflect current status. A few women were thinking of changing their place of
residence or household composition.
Table 3.2: Informant Current Type of Housing
Current Type of Housing n
Owns private house 14
Owns townhouse/condominium 2
Owns mobile home 2
Rents house 2
Rents apartment/condominium 1
Partner owns private house 1
Partner owns condo 1
Temporarily living with another person 1
Remaining in ones own home reflects a general trend in the American
population for those 55 or above. Some Americans move after they retire around the
ages of 55-59, but moving is health-related thereafter (The New Strategist Editors
2004). And similar to Americans at large, most informants desire to age in place.24
Findings indicated that most women are content with their current situations. This
does not undermine previous research by others that surveyed larger numbers of
lesbians about housing preferences and found that same-sex communities are
desirable (Hamburger 1997; Lucco 1987). Rather than retirement housing, long-term
care was a more critical concern with issues about older age, ill health, and
dependency being raised. As an alternative to long-term care, personally constructed
shared or separate housing arrangements would then be acceptable.
In the interviews I tried to capture a sense of the rationale behind housing
decisions to go beyond a dichotomous acceptance or rejection of retirement
communities or long-term care, to explore how different situations raise different
concerns that in effect impact housing options. Discrimination, the primary rationale
for same-sex housing, is explored at the end of this chapter, as a contributory factor
in decision-making for interviewees.
24 Aging in place can refer to both remaining in ones home or living in continuing-care retirement
communities. Here I use it to mean to the former.
Women shared their attitudes and some factors that would be important to
them in retirement housing. Overall, planned same-sex or all-lesbian retirement
communities were not embraced, although everyone interviewed did not reject them
outright. These communities were viewed unfavorably for two of the reasons cited in
popular articles, that is, the expense and the lack of diversity in a planned retirement
community (Edwards 2001; Hockstader 2004; Koury 2002b). Some informants also
added that they would not like the lack of freedom to make choices on how to live.
Elements that informants consider important in retirement housing could be
classified generally as location, amenities, and social life. Informants emphasized
factors related to retirement housing preferences and decisions variably.
A few women have thought about planned same-sex or all-lesbian retirement
communities. Although only one interviewee lived in one, a few other women had
friends who did or had at least a passing familiarity with the development. The
interviewee currently living in a lesbian retirement community is in the process of
selling her home to move out because she did not feel that the community meshed
with her beliefs and way of life. A few women express interest in same-sex or all-
lesbian communities, but no one is actively taking measures to move into one. Two
interviewees who seemed most agreeable to the idea had obstacles preventing them.
One said that she is not ready to make such a move and the other cannot afford it.
This introduces the first drawback to the planned retirement community -
expense. The expense of living in any market-rate retirement community would
automatically preclude some from even entertaining the possibility. Yet, some who
could afford to live in retirement communities did not necessarily want to live there
because of the second reason -- homogeneity. Planned communities are perceived by
some to be exclusionary, with less diversity, specifically intergenerational contact.
One of the women interviewed, Sheryl, a 65-year-old retiree, said,
I really like living in a neighborhood where I see and hear children
playing and laughing. And I experience the wide range of ages. For
me this is what keeps me young in spirit. When I visit retirement
communities there is such a great number of people who are less
mobile, who oftentimes withdraw from the community. And I think I
miss out on being around younger people.
Bobbie reiterates what Sheryl says about wanting to live in an integrated and diverse
I have resisted the idea of being in an all-senior environment because
Im already isolated enough from kids and families and I dont
particularly wanna make myself more isolated...avoiding isolation is
my primary goal. And I dont want to be in a situation of all old
women even if theyre all wonderful lesbian angels. I would like
more variety in my... with the people I interact with.
Both women expressed concern that living in a homogeneous place would close
them off from many aspects of society. Gay men and lesbians have lived integrated
lives, at times separating the gay life from the straight mainstream, but they have
heterosexual family, friends, and coworkers with whom they frequently associate
(Edwards 2001). Living in an exclusive place would again be ghettoizing older
lesbians, diminishing rather than enhancing the vibrancy of informants rich lives.
Many informants have established comfortable living situations already.
They have spent years in the communities that they live in, have bought houses, paid
off mortgages, and are surrounded by a stable friendship network. Many, but not all,
prefer remaining in their current situations. Sheryls description of where she lives
and her life embody a lifestyle that has been finely honed and one that she is fully
appreciating in retirement,
I live alone but I have a wonderful community of friends. I have my
church group, writing group, I have my art friends, I have wonderful
neighbors, and I have a network of long-time friends who are like
family to you. And [I live in] an area, a very comfortable lifestyle...I
love my home. I feel privileged to have such a large, comfortable
home in a safe neighborhood, with my swimming pool and tree-lined
streets, and my fruit trees and my rose garden and being not more
than ten minutes from wonderful culture of the colleges where I
attend free lectures, free concerts, and free choir groups. Living close
to the mountains where I can take wonderful walks in nature, living
not far from the beach, where I can walk, or sunbathe, or bring my
paints and paint the outdoors at whim. So where I live and how I live
at this time of my life is wonderful.25
A couple of women were unwilling to live in an age-segregated community
surrounded by other old people who did not share their interests. Terry put it rather
My personal preference is a variety of ages, a variety of people,
otherwise Im bored silly. So the thought of living with other 80-year-
olds, who are just as senile as I am.... Oh my God Id die.
However, a couple of women preferred socializing mainly with others their own age.
Diana and Judy explained that their social circles have older women because they
have a similar sense of humor that differs from younger people.
The third criticism of planned communities presented was the lack of
freedom to make decisions independently and group conformity. Rose observed this
when she visited friends at an all-lesbian community and decided that she would not
be able to tolerate the social regulations and the dominance hierarchy. She said she
required more physical space and the freedom to act as she pleased. Same-sex or all-
lesbian retirement communities may have initial appeal but strains of living with
others solely on the basis of sexual orientation can arise. Helen, an 80-year old
retired professional, discussed how friends of hers were beginning to tire of the
novelty of a particular all-lesbian community. She shared,
These friends of mine.. .they think theyre getting too old for [this all-
lesbian retirement community] because of some of the things that
they thought were fun then when they first joined are old hat now.
You know, like New Years Eve people dress up in tuxedos and ball
25 Recent conversations with Sheryl have revealed that she is considering moving from her home to a
smaller condominium This is motivated by not having a partner to share the expense and chores in
maintaining a home. She also feels isolated from a lesbian network with whom she can connect.
dresses.... And they dont like sitting out on their porch and having to
say hello to everybody that goes by because they know everybody.
And to hear the same jokes when they do the aerobics...
Phyllis, a 60-year old living with her partner in a private home in a rural area, does
not want to lose the freedom to live as she does currently. She sums this up by
Upon retirement I have no desire to change where I live. I dont want
to go into some retirement housing.... If there were some reason that
we needed to move I would want to be in a place where I could be
just as free and open as I am living here in this house in this town. If
down the road I needed to go into some kind of assistance, either I or
both of us, some sort of congregate living...it would also have to be as
freely and openly as I do now.
Phyllis said that living in a planned community could not offer her and her partner
any added benefit. She described having other lesbian couple friends in the area as
well as a couple of gay men living close by. It was comforting to her to live in a
place that accepted the way she lives. Phyllis realizes she and her partner may no
longer be able to live as they are now, indefinitely. She and other women in the same
position feel that they may need to scale down in the future, or as Barbara also
suggested, enter into a shared-living situation.
Some women were open to creating their own communities, all-lesbian or
otherwise, with a specific group of friends and acquaintances who they know would
share other values besides a lesbian identity. Diana and her partner, Judy, had moved
into their current residence so that an older friend in her eighties could live with
them in a split duplex townhome. Unfortunately, their friend passed away prior to
this occurring, but they have now rent part of their home to lesbian friends around
their ages (53 and 57). Diana said,
We are definitely creating a spontaneous community26. We've
talked about it for years. In fact, a questionnaire developed by a
group of us...began the process that produced the Gay and Gray
symposiums. We are hoping that the women who are now renting the
townhouse will be purchasing half of the duplex next door in the
fall. We'd love to fill the whole cul-de-sac with lesbians.
A few said that they would like to have accommodations for special health needs.
Im hoping that people or friends would develop a small lesbian
retirement place. I know that there are communities in other states....
A small community home with just lesbians, with higher nursing
staff, wheelchair accessible. We can all just pool together and do
that.... Its not out of reach, thats for sure. There are lesbians in
Vermont that are discussing that. They are my age or a little bit older.
I see this happening more locally than moving someplace else and
going to a facility.
Rather than move into a planned community, women instead want to create
their own living situations. That can mean a variety of alternatives: living
independently, with a partner, among friends of their choosing, or creating a
community based on other priorities and values. The impact of shared values is
taken up in the following chapter on community and identity.
Important Factors in Retirement Housing. Women emphasized different
aspects of retirement housing. Living nearby family and/or friends may be a
large factor in the decisions for some women; others see this as less critical.
Climate and access to outdoor recreation may be more important in those
cases, but on-site recreational amenities were not always wanted. However,
having good, easily accessible medical facilities was always considered
desirable. As mentioned previously, in community housing situations, like-
mindedness is significant. Living near family was another preference cited by
261 had explained this term to Diana. Adelman uses the term spontaneous combustion to describe
the ad hoc formation of a small community by friends (HRC 2003).
a few women. Rose currently does not own a home; she is living with her
mother in a mobile home park temporarily27. Ideally, she would like to live
around her family. She would love to live near one of her two brothers but
she cannot afford the area he lives in.
Proximity to where one currently lives was also mentioned. Lois could not
afford to live in market-based housing, but would consider living in a planned
lesbian retirement community if it were subsidized. She would prefer that one be
close to where she lives now. When I pointed out that there is one expected to open
in San Francisco, she clarified that she would want a retirement home for lesbians in
the area where she currently lives.
Mona and Vicky have lived in Southern California for over forty years. Both
moved far from their families. They have been together for the past fifteen years and
have lived together for eight. They do not plan to move and if they were to consider
buying a second home, being near to family or friends would not be a factor. Mona,
who is younger than her 71-year-old partner Vicky, mentioned temperate climate as
important. Vicky added that good medical facilities were also important. Close
proximity to good medical care was also a major concern for 63-year-old Elaine,
especially after she recently suffered a stroke.
What was clear is that women calculated a number of matters when
considering housing, including geography, amenities, social relationships and
medical facilities. The desire to live around other lesbians was laced through many
conversations, yet it was important that these arrangements were personally
constructed with compatible people rather than contrived through a planned
27Poor (1982) points to the temporary character of lesbians housing situations.
Retirement housing is important in terms of comfort and quality of life
concerns. Yet, participation in retirement communities still confers choice, not
necessity. Long-term care housing raises more critical concerns since the probability
of requiring institutionalization is increased when one lacks traditional support such
as a spouse, partner, or children. Living alone or being 75 or older also increases the
chances of requiring long-term care (Lucco 1987). Lacking traditional support and
living alone are more likely for older GLBT (Hollibaugh 2004).
Similar to how most Americans feel toward long-term care, the women
interviewed unequivocally want to avoid being in a nursing home. A National
Nursing Home Survey taken in 1997 figured 4.3% of the population over 65 in the
U.S. to be in a nursing home with three-quarters of the residents being women.
The average length of stay is 2.5 years, with 67% staying three months or less
Womens reasons for avoiding nursing homes, in many ways, resonate with
issues that mainstream older Americans have. The mention of a nursing home was
said by a few to trigger unpleasant thoughts often reflecting memories of parents or
other family members who had lived in them. The negative reaction toward nursing
homes transcends their fear of discrimination for being a lesbian or bisexual,
although that aspect may be part of it. The root of their anxiety came from dreading
dependence on others and moving toward physical and social senescence. Equally
unpleasant was the thought that they would not receive adequate treatment while in a
vulnerable state. The latter was related to sexuality for some and not for others.
Many women perceived long-term care as a last resort and finally allowed that if
they needed the 24-hour care they would use this as an option.
Other nursing home concerns were clearly related to their sexuality. One
concern expressed was the perceived lack of awareness about gay and lesbian issues
in mainstream settings. A couple of women were indignant over the staffs ignorance
of GLBTs existence in their institutions. However, this caused less anxiety than
frank discrimination manifesting in stigmatization and abuse.
The case of a lesbian who was refused a bath by a homophobic nurses
assistant (Price 2000; Quam and Whitford 1992) is often cited as an example of how
discrimination can manifest itself in poorer-quality health care (Bradford and Ryan
1991). Although avoidance or neglect issues may seem less disturbing than outright
physical abuse, it can be incredibly psychologically damaging to older lesbians who
have been stigmatized their entire lives.
Discrimination was a topic that was discussed throughout the interviews.
Discrimination was intentionally addressed at the latter part of the interview rather
than explicitly earlier on. The question was framed in a way that attempted not to
bias responses; informants were asked if sexual orientation had made aging, health,
financial planning, and housing different for them. While some informants would
explicitly say that they had never experienced discrimination, in another part of the
interview they would tell me a story that clearly was a case of discrimination based
solely on their sexual identity. Almost everyone discussed discrimination in one
form or another.28 Discrimination related to sexuality was framed in terms of
heterosexism and homophobia, either having personally experienced it or fearing it
in the future. For those who would identify having experienced heterosexism or
homophobia, their sensitivities to discrimination were heightened. These individuals
also felt greater anxiety about maltreatment in an institutional setting or by family.
Discrimination or fear of being discriminated against caused some women to
internalize their homophobia and remain undisclosed about their sexual orientation.
28 It should be noted that other forms of discrimination were brought up by informants such as
discrimination along the lines of gender, socio-economic class, and obesity.
Barbaras delayed coming out at age 61 and Elaines reluctance to tell heterosexuals
she is a lesbian exemplify internalized homophobia.
A few women expressed outright fear of mistreatment. Mindy, who works in
a health care setting, outwardly admitted, One of my fears is that, being lesbian and
having that known and being mistreated because of that. I then asked if she feared
physical mistreatment or being neglected. She replied,
Everything from physical [to] verbal.... Just being a nurse and
knowing what I know, there are always people who are abusive in
any institutionalized place. It attracts those types of people because of
the low pay and the turnover and the high stress. They know they can
get away with it because of the low numbers. And there isnt the
watchful eye. They work in a prison, in a nursing home, or sometimes
in a large hospital setting.
When asked if she personally witnessed any discriminatory behavior toward
GLBT, she replied affirmatively. She gave one example of a small hospital where
someone she knew was admitted. One of the staff said, We better go in that room in
twos because shes a lesbian. Mindy, like a couple other informants, has insider
knowledge of health care settings. Each of these individuals had some reticence
because of their sexuality and the treatment they would receive in these settings.
Not all informants directly spoke about discrimination related to their
sexuality, but all informants are fully aware of the rights and privileges they are not
granted as lesbians, specifically regarding partnerships. Financial discrimination was
discussed. Bobbie explained the sizeable income taxes she had to pay as a non-
spouse beneficiary. In addition to the legal discrimination, Bobbie was aggravated
by the bureaucrats she had to deal with who,
.. .went out of their way to make sure I knew that I was not a spouse
and I didnt have those options or those rights. It was probably a good
thing that I was talking to them on the telephone because I wanted to
strangle them. But they were really obnoxious at a time when I was
very vulnerable. So that I thought was discrimination and it was. Not
just their attitudes and what I reacted to but the law.... But, well gee,
anybody who lived in Colorado in 92 felt discriminated against
because of Amendment 2.29
The discrimination Bobbie is describing comes full cycle from the legal to
the personal back to the legal. The legal discrimination was exacerbated by
the extreme insensitivity of the personal interaction she had with the
individuals who disbursed her benefits. Her sensitivity was heightened by the
recent passage of Amendment 2 in Colorado.
Respondents with partners were disturbed by the lack of rights guaranteeing
partner visitation in a nursing home, rehabilitation center, or hospital. And this
reality is documented by a nursing home social worker who told a reporter from the
Ithaca Journal that same-sex partners are not admitted into that nursing home (Price
Discrimination and the Impact on Housing
Many newspaper and magazine articles tout the virtues of living in a same-
sex retirement community, often painting the lovely picture of a gay or lesbian
couple freely strolling around their neighborhood hand-in-hand, free from worry
about homophobia. This wonderful portrait does give many informants pause to
think about how their lives may be enhanced by this freedom. Yet, many women do
not feel that they are uncomfortable in way they choose to live. Those who are less
disclosed feel that they share their private lives with those who matter to them. In
this respect, it is considered information not necessary for anyone to know. Overall,
there were varying degrees of disclosure about sexual orientation; however, few
would not reveal that they are lesbian if they were in a housing facility.
29 Amendment 2 prohibited the state from forcing local governments to include sexual orientation in
their anti-discrimination laws. The bill was passed by 54% of the popular vote. The state ballot issue
escalated to the federal level after being challenged. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state
intervention in local municipalities was unconstitutional (Williams and Retter 2003).
Women who came out post-liberation are more open about their sexuality.
Having to hide their lesbian identity in their own homes is unfair and intolerable.
They do not live that way now and do not intend to change. Diana discussed three
incidences of blatant homophobia, yet, she considers herself to be completely open
about her sexuality and plans to remain that way. She, and several others, are more
inclined to take a politically activist approach toward changing attitudes in the
mainstream, ensuring partner benefits for same-sex couples, endorsing cultural
competency training for housing facility staff, and creating their own housing
situations. Others more cautious in disclosing their sexuality may only take personal
steps to circumvent discrimination, such as having legal documentation that makes
their partners executors over health and financial decisions in the case of illness or
death. Even those who claimed that they do not feel discriminated against would
take such measures.
All in all, experiences of discrimination did not translate into
informants wanting to live in an exclusively GLBT retirement community, but
these experiences did evoke thoughts about what options would be available to
them considering the current policies in place today. Discrimination has less
impact on the immediacy of retirement housing; however, it became a
considerably more critical topic in terms of long-term care. In that respect,
considerations of aging and health and support mechanisms have a large impact
on ones outlook and plans for future. The next chapter explores informants
sense of community by investigating several significant life course elements. 30
30 Gay liberation is discussed in-depth in the following chapter. It is among the civil rights
movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, and resulted in greater visibility, tolerance, and identity
acceptance of gay men and lesbians.
COMMUNITY AND IDENTITY
...there are no constraints with regard to lesbianism, neither in the meaning of love
between women nor in the social and political life that is created through it
-Lillian Faderman (1991:305)
In this project, I relate informants life course histories with their present
concept of community. Initially, I naively envisioned the concept of community as
exclusively relating to sexuality, but soon realized that community, in its
relationship to housing decisions, is a complex notion. It is influenced by various
experiences related to lesbian identity formation and acceptance; other forms of
identity such as gender, race/ethnicity, class; relationships with families of origin;
careers; and values.
Community transcends physical geographies. Victor Turner (1969) describes
the concept of communitas as a feeling of community among members of an initiate
group. He relates the ideas of Arnold van Genneps rites de passage to the concept
of community. Van Gennep (1960) discusses the overlapping subgroups within a
larger society forming the basis for an individuals identity. Within any group,
individuals progress from one stage to another. Ceremonies, marked by ritual, assist
in the transition of social identity transformation (van Gennep 1960). Communitas is
the camaraderie experienced by a cohort of individuals in the liminal phase between
identities (Turner 1969). Herdt (1992), applying the idea of a rite of passage to
coming out, conceptualizes the acceptance of homosexual/gay 31 as marking the
transition from one form of identity to another. Identity transformation is further
complicated by the element of transitioning from a normal to stigmatized
individual. Homosexual identity formation is integrally tied to sociocultural context,
in that the prevailing discourse around homosexuality shaped the way
homosexual/gay individuals perceived themselves (Herdt 1992, 1999; Rosenfeld
1999,2003; Weston 1991).
Herdt (1992) uses a cohort model to explain the negotiated homosexual or
gay identity historically. Coming out refers to either or both the single event or
transformational process in which an individual changes their sexual orientation,
gender identity, and behavior (Herdt 1992:29-30). In this respect, coming out can
be seen as the liminal period in which the acquisition of the new homosexual or gay
identity is formed (Herdt 1992). Rosenfeld (1999) examines the interaction between
identity, generations, and social change by interviewing older gay men and
lesbians over the age of 65. Using the notion of stigma outlined by Goffinan, she
investigates how different discourses during pre- and post-liberation shaped identity
(Rosenfeld 1999). Herdts delineation is finer, examining four cohorts, two existing
prior to gay liberation and the other two after (1992,1999). The first cohort
encompasses those coming out in the 1930s, where gays and lesbians were generally
invisible and there was a shroud of silence around homosexuality. The second cohort
frames the post-war era to the Stonewall riot of 1969. This is when the bar culture
and homophile organizations were bom. Although the seeds of gay liberation lay
here, many from this cohort remained closeted. The third cohort lived through the
gay liberation movement in the 1970s when the stigma that was associated with
being gay began to lift. The fourth cohort, beginning around 1982, faced the AIDS
311 use homosexual/gay because prior to gay liberation the term homosexual was used. The term
became somewhat antiquated after liberation. Queer identity emerges later, influenced by
postmodernist critique of immutable categories and labels. In this sense, gender and sexuality are
socio-historically constructed (Weston 1993).
epidemic and the hatred, blame, and stigmatization that surrounded that period
(Herdt 1999). According to this paradigm, cohorts built and interacted with the
Community is a reified term having many meanings and implications. It can
be conceptualized as defining physical and/or ideological boundaries, but defining
where those boundaries are drawn can be difficult (Varenne 1977). Lockard (1985)
defines the lesbian community apart from a locality but drawing upon connections
between individuals and their social networks. Through the lesbian community
feminist-based values are transmitted (Lockard 1985:84). Symbols such as the
rainbow flag, the pink or black triangle, and the Human Rights Campaigns equality
sign conjure a shared sense of community. Although the symbols themselves are
culturally and historically imbedded, they trigger a fundamental feeling of
connectedness based on shared gay identity (DAugnelli and Garnets 1995).
Benedict Andersons work about the formation of national identity is helpful
in understanding compatriotism among geographically distanced people who feel
linked by abstract notions of relatedness (1983). He discusses the minimal
interpersonal interaction among constituents of a group that collectively is joined by
a national identity. The gay community can be considered a community largely
existing through a sense of shared identity (DAugnelli and Garnets 1995). Anderson
writes, In the minds of each [member] lives the image of their communion
(1983 :15). Subcultural similarities expressed symbolically in codes of behavior,
styles of dress, customs, and language exist apart from actual interaction. They are
transmitted through various types of media (Anderson 1983).
Geography, though, is a large part of what has defined gay identity in the
United States. The sites of resistance were acted and experienced in specific places
and times. In this chapter I provide a historical framework for the modem era to
preface the time in which my informants had come out from the 1950s through the
1990s. Notions of homosexual/gay identity formation, gay space, and the tensions
between identity and community provide a framework for project findings about
community, identity, and their impact on housing.
Medicalization and its Discontents: The Birth of the Homosexual
Historically, religious, legal, and medical discourses shaped homosexual
identities. The modem term homosexual originates through the middle to late
nineteenth century medical discourse. Previously discourse about the nature of
sexuality had a moral character; all nonprocreative sex was considered to be
unnatural (Katz 1983). Thus, same-sex passionate and intense relationships between
women could occur without consideration of a sexual component (Faderman 1981).
Later the sexless Victorian values were shrugged off for the modem embracing of
sex for pleasure, not just procreation. Candor about sexuality ended the naivete
about same-sex relations, and thus exposed homosexuality to investigation
(Faderman 1981; Katz 1983).
As medicine gained legitimacy as a profession, doctors co-opted the topic of
sex from the moral and judicial spheres and focus on the nature of sex shifted to
discussions about its normality (Terry 1999). Medical experts, through
normalizing discourse, could then monitor, diagnose, and treat the abnormal
(Foucault 1984; Terry 1999). Different experts debated whether the causality of
same-sex attraction was inborn or developed. The sexologist physician Richard
Krafft-Ebbing and the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud demonstrate the nature versus
nurture positions. Sexologists took the biologically essentialist stance that
homosexuality was inborn and used the term invert to describe the twisted
nature of the individual. The implication of the essentialist position was that
homosexuality was a congenital and untreatable condition. Freud and his
contemporaries believed that same-sex desire is a developmental problem resulting
from childhood trauma. In this case psychotherapy could treat the maladjustment
(Faderman 1981; Katz 1983). Medical discourse about homosexuality did not reach
the mainstream until several decades after the late nineteenth and early part of the
twentieth centuries. However, the educated, especially those seeking knowledge
about their own same-sex desires, sought medical opinion to explain their difference
Sexology research ebbed and flowed through the twentieth century. Some
progressive strides were made in the 1940s and 1950s, which viewed homosexual
behavior or identity as normal. Dr. Evelyn Hookers psychological study with a few
hundred gay men was the first to dismiss the idea of gay men being desperately
downtrodden (DAugnelli and Garnets 1995). Alfred Kinseys sex research found a
large percentage of women and men had same-sex desires and encounters (Morrow
2001). These findings were quite provocative, rupturing the popular image of female
chastity and heteronormativity held at that time32. Some homosexuals held tight to
these studies in order to normalize their feelings. Still, psychiatry as a discipline did
not absolve homosexuals of their sickness until 1974, and even then, the American
Psychiatric Association referred to homosexuality in its Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual as a personality disorder (Faderman 1991).
On the Fringe: Gav Space and Community Development
Since the late nineteenth century, United States gay men and lesbians have
aggregated in certain places. These spaces were usually located in the undesirable
parts of cities. Insiders, social deviants, and police officers knew about these places.
While gay space had its niches, gay and straight worlds coexisted together on the
fringe. This shared arrangement was seen in popular entertainment. Gays found a
way to weave into the American tapestry without tripping too many alarms through
drag performance. Sometimes within the common space, gay men carved a small
32 Heteronormativity refers to those punitive rules (social, familial, and legal) that force us to
conform to hegemonic, heterosexual standards for identity. It is an abbreviation for normative
heterosexuality (Felluga 2002).
niche of their own in bars, taverns, beer gardens, dance halls, bathhouses (Tattle
1997), and beaches (Nestle 1997; Stein 2002). Urban areas had blossoming gay
sections, particularly San Franciscos Tenderloin District, Chicagos North Side, and
New Yorks Greenwich Village.
There were also specific loci that attracted individuals who were looking for
same-sex encounters, such as the YMCA for gay men (Wrathall 2002) and sex-
segregated boarding schools or colleges where women developed intense crushes on
other students or teachers (Faderman 1981). In the first decade of the twentieth
century, gay clubs met under the guise of literary club, drama society, athletic
society, or chess club in cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago,
New Orleans, and St. Louis (Rupp 1999).
In the early part of the twentieth century, homosexuality could escape notice;
however, occasionally the public caught glimpses. In 1919, a thriving gay
underground around a naval station in Newport, Rhode Island, was publicly exposed
and Samuel Kent, a minister, was brought to trial. Although the defendant was
acquitted, this educated the public about the immorality and illegality of acts of
Lesbians were less visible than gay men until around the 1920s. Great
Britains inaction toward penalizing lesbians demonstrates their willingness to
ignore wrongful behavior rather than rouse public knowledge. This lesson was
learned in the wake of Oscar Wildes trial since censure of male homosexuality
heightened public awareness about it. The same course taken with lesbians may have
caused a greater risk in educating the naive, especially women, who were easily
influenced, about lesbianism. Women were generally thought to be sexless.
At the same time, an active lesbian subculture signaled insiders through
dress, behaviors, and codes (Doan 2001; Vicinus 2004). College-educated women
became informed through their access to medical texts and through the experience of
living in predominantly female spaces. Simultaneously, World War I created space
for women in service roles. In these domains lesbians were able to identify then-
homosexuality (Faderman 1981).
In the 1920s and 1930s, boarding houses and dance halls provided locations
for same-sex gathering. Though Prohibition stifled the bar scene, bathhouses
persisted (Bullough 2002). Gays and lesbians found niches in neighborhoods
(Newton 1993; Simon 2002); bars and house parties were places where they could
be a bit bolder among others like themselves (Valentine 1992). House parties were a
place for African Americans gays and lesbians to mingle in areas like Harlem,
Detroit, and Atlantic City (Rupp 1999; Simon 2002; Thorpe 1996), although private
parties did not guarantee safety from the threat from raids.
Resort areas where white, middle-class couples and families vacationed were
other places where gay men and lesbians could escape and be free from the scrutiny
of their own friends and family. As a result, a prosperous underground gay
subculture flourished in areas like Cherry Grove, Fire Island in New York (Newton
1993) and Atlantic City, New Jersey (Simon 2002). But when homosexual space
expanded too far, law enforcement pushed back with surveillance, arrests, and
humiliation tactics (Newton 1993; Simon 2002).
World War II summoned every able person to service. As with the First
World War, World War II opened nontraditional roles for women. Many gay men
and lesbians were brought together in sex-segregated spaces. For those in the
military this same-sex sphere awakened homosexual desires and, for many, an
identity. The countrys desperation for military personnel led the government to
overlook their policy of not allowing homosexuals in the military and generally they
turned a blind eye toward much of the homosexual behavior that occurred.
After the war, however, a backlash against homosexuals resulted in many
dishonorable dismissals. McCarthyism ushered in an era of hypersensitivity toward
homosexuality (Berube 1989). The Red Scare affected the entire countrys
perception of homosexuals as dangerous. Homosexuality was equated with
communism, just as insidious to the moral fiber of the countrys values.
Nontraditional gender roles threatened the American moral ideal of the sex-
segregated nuclear family. The disintegration of the family also jeopardized the
economy. Men were expected to return to work and women to take up their
reproductive and maternal obligations. Transgressors were viewed publicly as
abnormal (Faderman 1991).
References to homosexuality were censored in the U.S. (Bullough 2002;
Faderman 1981; Morrow 2001). Popular literature cautioned the public about the
danger of homosexuality. The lesbian was either a pathetic freak or perverted sexual
predator, and either scenario depicted the lesbian as a pitiable or despicable person.
Both unappealing representations negatively impacted lesbians perceptions of
themselves (Faderman 1981). Some lesbians and gay men resisted these unfortunate
identities. By the 1940s and 1950s, informal networks were established and provided
a vehicle for alternative information about gay life (Faderman 1981).
Dining the first half of the twentieth century, homosexuals occupied spaces
from small, discrete locations to larger, fixed areas. Law enforcement against
homosexuals was inconsistent, sometimes looking away and other times cracking
down. Homosexual expansion into mainstream public space caused conflict with
heterosexuals and triggered police intervention (Newton 1993). But these spaces
persisted as homosexuals endured and formed a community around their deviant
identities. Race and class divisions mirrored in the mainstream (Newton 1972) also
mediated what spaces were acceptable to whom. These tensions between community
and identity continue in the second half of the century and become more explicit in
discussion about community.
The Bar Culture and the Homophile Movement
Gay and lesbian bars were an important site of socialization in the 1950s and
1960s. Outside of mainstream white, middle-class life, lesbian or mixed gay and
lesbian bars were a place for working class butch and femme women to come out.33
Lapovsky Kennedy and Davis (1993) describe fissures alone lines of race and class
in Buffalo, New York. House parties served as an after-hours hangout for white
lesbians and a refuge for lesbians of color who were not welcome or had not felt
comfortable in the bars (Thorpe 1996).
The bar as a social space was limited in its freedom; one could assert same-
sex desire, but at the same time had to yield to heavily policed boundaries. Police
raids occurred with some frequency breaking the rhythm of same-sex fraternization
at these establishments. Bar owners were sometimes given advanced notice if they
bribed police officers and would signal patrons to pair into mixed-sex couplings,
sometimes in enough time to avoid arrest. Men and women could be arrested if they
were not wearing at least three items of clothing of their given gender. Nestle (1997)
remembers one bar in particular that was monitored by a lesbian outside the
bathroom, doling out rations of toilet paper and ensuring that only one woman
entered at a time. Lesbians tolerated this second-class treatment and were grateful to
have these meager accommodations. Pre-liberation spaces symbolize the shame
around a homosexual identity, yet, at the same time, they were glorious sanctuaries
for some women.
The bar culture is credited as the precursor to the homophile organizations of
the 1950s and 1960s, since gay men and lesbians political consciousness was raised
33 Working class lesbians really embraced the butch/femme roles in the 1950s (Nestle 1997). The
stylized butch/femme subculture embodied a blend of resistance and accommodation,
nonconformity of sexuality, and at the same time conformity of gender roles (Davis and Lapovsky
Kennedy 1989). Many authors lend insightful analysis of the evolution of this customary
phenomenon as well its rationale. Esther Newtons The Mythic Mannish Lesbian (2000) treats the
topic of the emergence of the masculine woman. Laura Doans Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of
a Modem English Lesbian Culture (2001) offers a different perspective. Lillian Fadermans Odd Girls
and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America and Elizabeth
Lapovsjky Kennedy and Madeline Davis ethnography, Boots of Leather Slippers of Gold: The
History of the Lesbian Community (1992) both discuss the butch/femme bar culture of the 1950s in
depth. Later, feminism later put a crimp in this subcultural phenomenon because the roles were
perceived to mimic the patriarchal gender system rather than serve as a form of resistance.
through their aggregation at the bars (Bullough 2002; Herdt 1999). In Los Angeles
in 1951, Harry Hay launched the Mattachine Society, an organization for gay men
and lesbians. Sexism within the movement caused lesbians to branch off in 1955 and
form an exclusively lesbian group in San Francisco, called Daughters of Bilitis
(DOB) (DAugnelli and Garnets 1995). As with Mattachine, DOB had chapters that
sprung up in other large cities. Both of these organizations had publications that had
a substantial circulation. The public persona attempted to present the normality of
homosexuals by mimicking mainstream culture, which was not too difficult
considering that its members were mainly white and middle-class (Faderman 1981).
Gender and class issues and dissenting opinion about the movements public image
led to instability and the eventual dissolution of the groups (Stein 2002). Yet, the
homophile organizations publicity led to increased, but limited, tolerance toward
homosexuals. American tolerance of homosexuals was also largely derived from the
various liberation movements and broadened sexual beliefs of the late 1960s
The Stonewall riot is often conceptualized as the historical moment at which
gay liberation was bom, although it is important to recognize the entirety of the
struggle with the earlier bar culture and homophile movements. It is the symbolic
event that turned the tide.34 Gay liberation transported demoralized homosexuals
from the shadows of shady bars to the well-lit streets where they proclaimed a proud
Toward the middle to the later part of the 1960s gay-positive messages fed a
gay-positive identity. Gay ghettos began to flourish in cities across the United
34 Simon (2002) importantly points to the 1967 case in Atlantic City, One Eleven Wines & Liquors,
Inc. v. Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control that reversed a decision to close establishments that
sold alcohol where homosexuals gathered. He calls this event a significant precursor to the
Stonewall riots that ensued two years later.
States (Faderman 1991). These neighborhoods had a strong gay and/or lesbian
residential and business presence. These niches can be viewed either positively or
negatively. While proliferation of gay space became more widespread to
accommodate the increasing number of gay- and lesbian-identified people, the gay
ghetto can be understood to be a closet with larger walls, essentially quarantining
gays and lesbians. The ghetto opened up clearly defined gay space, but many gays
and lesbians were only out in gay-friendly safe spaces and continued to remain
undisclosed outside of this world.
While the community united through a sense of gay pride, differences within
the gay and lesbian community were still substantial. The 1970s politics of inclusion
and exclusion brought tensions to the movements. Rebellion against mainstream
norms gained momentum with other liberation movements criticizing the oppressive
nature of normative values. Gender, race, and class differences drove wedges
within the community (Faderman 1991).
Lesbian essentialists believed that their sexual orientation was inborn,
while the agency-driven lesbian-feminists heralded cultural rebellion against
anything and everything that bore the scent of patriarchy. Activist-oriented women
filled the ranks of the lesbian-feminist movement and related their personal lives to
the politics of larger society. A large part of the feminist agenda was reducing
dependency upon males. Women-centered culture manifested in organizations,
clubs, literature, film, music, scholarship, businesses, and even the language used.
Some women took an extreme position and became separatists, forming their own
cooperatives where they strove to be totally independent of the established male-
created world (Faderman 1991).
Women of color, working-class women, and middle-class women also
criticized lesbian-feminists for being too radical and powerful; led by middle-class,
college-educated, white women; and deciding that everyone needed to be dragged
out of the closets. The community splintered through a politics of exclusion. But, at
the same time, lesbians had many social and political conduits available, which
effectively increased connectedness among lesbians (Faderman 1991; Raphael and
Robinson 1980). By the 1970s, public receptiveness toward gays and lesbians
increased and civil rights improved, reflected in the many cities that had adopted
non-discrimination laws that were inclusive of sexual orientation.
The early 1980s restored a sense of common community, brought on by the
conservative atmosphere and the AIDS crisis. The gravity of the disease and the
apparent rapid spread of it threw the nation into a panic. The AIDS epidemic
transformed the shape of the gay and lesbian community. Since gay men were
largely blamed for the spread of the virus, organizations advocating for gay mens
rights surfaced. They demanded attention to the plague decimating their community
and expressed outrage over the ignorance and blame cast upon them by the
American public (Faderman 1991; Williams and Retter 2003). The AIDS Coalition
to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was started in 1987 as a social space for gay men to
talk about the threatening epidemic, to organize to protect their rights, to educate the
public, and to disseminate information to the community (LeVay and Nonas 1995).
Many lesbians united with gay men, both personally to care for those who were sick
and politically to defend against what was considered an attack on their community.
Gay men and lesbians to a greater degree rallied around the notion of kinship, a
family, referring to one another as sister and brother (Weston 1991). A sense
of community by now included awareness of race, class, and gender differences;
therefore, those differences were less divisive (Faderman 1991).
Gays and lesbians remained politically vigilant through the 1990s, branching
from AIDS-related issues to broader issues related to discrimination on the basis of
sexual and gender orientation. Politically there were a few setbacks, such as the
maintenance of the militarys dont ask, dont tell policy and the passage of
DOMA. In the same year, the Supreme Court ruled against the constitutionality of
Colorados Amendment 2, which prohibited states from directing local governments
to extend their anti-discrimination ordinances to include sexual orientation.
Compensating for these policy setbacks, private industry took the lead in promoting
gay and lesbian visibility, providing partner benefits, and protection against
discrimination in the workplace. Media amplified positive portrayal of gays and
lesbians (Williams and Retter 2003), which softened mainstream attitudes toward
gays and lesbians. Also, renowned figures that publicly disclosed then-
homosexuality further helped gays and lesbians to proudly identify.
Over the last century, larger sociocultural forces have shaped community
consciousness among gays and lesbians. Shifting medical, legal, and moral
discourses influenced public awareness, perceptions, and tolerance toward gay men
and lesbians. The particular climate impacted the way gay men and lesbians
perceived themselves, their sense of identity, and formation of community. Diversity
within the gay and lesbian community has always existed, but the space available for
the expression of same-sex desire and identity has been limited at times, muting
diversity or pushing minorities into separate niches. Ones need for and access to
community has been ever-changing.
In the group of women I spoke with, there was a relatively even distribution
of women who came out in the 1950s and every decade after that until the 1990s
(See Table 4.1). The earliest age at which any of the women came out was in her
Table 4.1: Informant Identity Cohort, Coming Out Decade, and Age of Coming Out
Cohort Coming Out Decade Age of Coming Out * n
Pre- Stonewall 2nd 1950s 17,19,20,22, 35 5
2nd 3rd 1960s 18,19,20,25, 30 5
Post- Stonewall 3rd 1970s 27,32, 35, 37, 44 5
3rd, 4th 1980s 33, 34, 45,47 4
4th 1990s 47,49, 54, 57, 61 5
Mean = 35, Median = 33.5 24
* Informants sometimes estimated coming out age and figures were rounded.
late teens. The average age for coining out was about 35 years old, with the range
being 17 to 61 years of age.
Women interviewed shared stories that indicated coming-out experiences are
related to housing insofar as they influenced ones membership in the GLBT
community in the past and contributed to ones sense of community in the present.
But, sexuality was not the only contributory factor related to feelings about
community or even the primary form of identity for informants. A couple of women
tried to downplay the importance of a lesbian or homosexual identity, yet several
were quite proud to be lesbians. The degree of identification and disclosure about
being a lesbian did influence their concerns related to housing. But it should be
noted that womens past participation in the lesbian community did not translate
currently into strong participation or that the meaning or purpose of community have
remained the same.
One couple demonstrates this point precisely. Mona and Vicky both came
out in the late 1950s. They discussed their participation in the butch/femme bar
scene in Los Angeles throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, and shared with me how
important it was to attend every weekend, how different bars were popular on
different nights, and that there were codes of behavior and dress. Bars were central
to the community, and it was essential for the individual to be part of what was said
to be larger than oneself.35 Ironically, Mona and Vicky, who valued such a strict
regimen in their past, would now prefer not to surround themselves with other
lesbians or live in an all-gay and lesbian retirement community. Although they were
regretful of the bar scene being less important these days to younger lesbians, they
did not see how gay and lesbian retirement communities were necessary for them.
The couple enjoys socializing with their gay friends as well as their straight friends.
They do not specifically seek out the gay community, although they maintain
35 Davis and Lapovsky Kennedy (1989) writing about the bar culture in Buffalo, New York, describe
bars as essential meeting places with distinctive cultures and mores.
friendships from their bar-going days of the past. They explained that they do not
make an issue out of sexuality and thus people do not make an issue of it with them.
Helen, who identifies as bisexual, also came out in the 1950s. She has always
separated her gay friends from her straight friends. She had not disclosed that she is
bisexual to her family or heterosexual friends. She keeps relatively tight control on
the information she shares, evidenced by her nondisclosure about the identity of a
woman she dated within her lesbian social group and her nondisclosure about her
sexual orientation to her lesbian niece. When we spoke, she was recovering from
recent hospitalization and had in-home care. Her two closest friends, who happen to
be straight, have encouraged her to consider moving into one of the independent
living communities in the town and Helen seemed to be considering this seriously. It
was clear, though, that GLBT rights in a facility were not a concern for her because
she does not feel that sexual orientation is an issue of importance. When discussing
homosexuality and aging she said,
I think that too many bisexual or homosexual people dwell on their
differences expecting people to treat them differently. People
wouldnt know who you are or what your orientation is unless you
tell them. Do heterosexuals go around explaining every position they
take? There are intimate acts that you dont have to reveal to people
unless youre expecting them to treat you differently.
Although Helen came out in the 1950s when community began forming around bars
and homophile movements, she was already in her mid-thirties. Helen grew up in an
earlier time when homosexual networks and discourse were somewhat unnoticeable
to outsiders. Her peer group was middle-class and situated in academia. Helen
shared an amusing story, revealing the unconscious aggregation of several lesbians
in her professional group. The group had only openly acknowledged their mutual
sexual identity after many years, through the topic of a same-sex retirement
community. When her friend mentioned the name of the community she lives in,
Helen casually said, I understand theyre almost all lesbians in that place. At that
point they both realized the other was gay after knowing one another for twenty
years. Likely, she and her group of friends sensed these differences earlier, but did
not openly discuss them.
The women I spoke with who came out before gay liberation in the 1970s
still keep their sexual orientation hidden for the most part from everyone except
other gays and lesbians and possibly close family and friends. Although most are
glad to be living in more tolerant times, they do not broadcast their sexual identity
because they feel it is an irrelevant piece of information. Several negative or
disapproving comments were made about people who were conspicuous about their
sexuality, which indicates that these women are accustomed to keeping their
sexuality private. Esther Newton (1972) has written about covert and overt
homosexuals and how those who could pass would distance themselves in public
space from overt gays and lesbians. They separated themselves so that they would
not be labeled as homosexual by association. A couple of women spoke
disapprovingly of butch-looking women. Butch was considered unattractive to
these particular women, but it may also have to do with their careful nondisclosure
about their sexuality.
Informants disclosure about sexual orientation is variable and situational.
Even women who came out around the time of gay liberation also reveal their sexual
orientation to different extents. The type of employment one held was important in
determining disclosure and also how vigilantly the secret had to be monitored. Those
who had felt they could be fired for being a lesbian remained quiet about their
sexuality. One woman, Sheryl, described this as hiding ones true self. She shared
her story of living in the closet.
I lived in the closet for many years and only certain friends and
family members knew. I guess I really [came] to the point of who
cares anymore...several years ago. Thats when I came out to my 36
36 Lesbian-feminists also disapproved of the butch/femme roles, but for a different reason. As stated
earlier, they understood it to mimic heterosexual gender roles.
sister. I held back for many years for fear of losing a relationship with
her.... But the time arrived when I was able to conclude that that was
her problem and I needed to be free and anyone who wasnt able to
deal with it was just going to have to either leave my life or learn to
live with it. I could no longer live in a closet. [The closet] meant
being dishonest about my relationships and my lifestyle and being
secretive changing names, changing situations. Whenever I get
together with my ex-coworkers, my lifestyle hasnt been anything Im
comfortable bringing up, probably because of a lifestyle of hiding. It
entailed living what I would consider a double life and not really
being able to be fully myself, hiding parts of myself. And as I look
back over that life I had no choice in my work environment, but I
would have chosen differently in my more personal environment.
Sheryl socialized with other lesbians at bars or events but was careful not to
allow any knowledge of being gay into her professional life. Her hiding transferred
into her personal life, in keeping her sexual orientation from her family and some
friends as well. While remaining closeted for professional reasons is something that
she has accepted, she regrets the habit of hiding from anyone outside of her gay and
lesbian circle of friends. Conversely, Karens work for a number of years has been
related to advocacy for gays and lesbians; therefore, not only did the nature of her
work make it difficult to remain secretive about her sexual orientation, but also she
worked with others who approved of her identity.
Other women who discussed being active in the gay liberation and feminist
movements were more comfortable with public knowledge about their lesbianism.
Diana, a woman who was and still is politically active, came out at the latter end of
the post-Stonewall cohort. When I asked if there is anyone she is not out to, she
replied, I cannot imagine anybody who knows me doesnt know Im a lesbian. Its
really important to me to try to live my life in a way that I dont have any secrets
from anybody. Coincidentally, on the day that I interviewed her she was wearing a
shirt that said I cant even think straight, written in rainbow-colored font.
Women who had came out later in life, in the 1980s and afterwards,
described their coming to terms with being a lesbian. Those who came out later felt
that it took them so long to arrive at that point and they were adamant that no one
was going to take their newfound freedom away. Typically these women came out
after being married and having children. Eleven of the 14 (79%) women who came
out post-Stonewall were married earlier, compared with only two of the ten (20%)
women who came out pre-Stonewall. Therefore the coming-out process was more
challenging in some ways and less challenging in other ways. On the one hand, it
was more difficult to break from the assumed heterosexual identity. Children
presented additional complications and sometimes prolonged the postponement of
coming out even longer. Seven of the women coming out post-Stonewall had
children. None of the women who came out prior to gay liberation had children.
Diana remembered that her struggle with coming out was related to breaking
up her family. But eventually, her fears about dividing her family were overridden
by her need to be out of the closet. Coming out was traumatic for Mindy as she
recounted her husband threatening to take her two sons away. Barbara came out
much later in life. She had known she was gay much earlier but fear of negative
repercussions kept her in the closet for so long. She chose to pursue the life she
thought was expected of her by getting married to a man she neither really loved nor
disliked and having children. At age 61, she left her husband. By this time, in the
late 1990s, her children were grown so she perceived having less at stake. She
mentioned how news about her being a lesbian may have caused rifts in friendships
and that her husband was initially shocked and distressed. But eventually everything
fell into place, and her family accepted her. Barbara told me,
When I found out I was attracted to women.. .1 was 11 years old. You
didnt hear about it [homosexuality]. I thought it was a passing thing.
I didnt realize I was going to be [a lesbian]. Sex in the 50s, it was
something you tried to ignore. I didnt think it was going to be a
factor. I thought it was something I would out-grow or it wouldnt be
a factor in my life. But you get into situations and relationships with
other people and you dont realize. And you try to be mainstream. A
lot of us growing up in that era were programmed to be wives and
mothers; [we] were expected to be. I felt that I had to hide that.... I
grew up conforming or trying to conform. I had to say, if my
marriage was really bad, I wouldnt have stayed in it. We were good
friends and we had fun together and we had three kids right away. I
couldnt get out of that.... I felt I didnt have a choice to leave; then I
realized I didnt have a choice not to leave. It was very difficult on
my children and my ex-husband. But once they understood.... He got
over it right away. About a year and a half after 1 told him I was a
lesbian, [he remarried]. He definitely got over it. And my kids are
fine.... I bet a lot of those marriages [from earlier times] were like
A couple of women who came out later in life had less eventful coming out
experiences. Chris, who came out at age 47 in the mid 1990s, has a sister who is a
lesbian and the sisters reaction was, I knew before you did, but I was going to let
you figure it out yourself. Six (25%) of the interviewees came out after age 40.
Coming out in middle age or later in life can allow individuals to cope better as
mature, fully developed adults (Adelman 1991). Women are more respected, and
they are less often perceived as sexual objects. People are more likely to listen to
their opinions. Families are usually happy to see their family member with someone
to care for them (Loulan 1991). Also, the post-Stonewall years brought many more
alternatives for lesbian social life. In fact, Barbara found comfort in being part of a
support group for lesbians who had been previously married.
Family interaction also influenced identity development. The influence of
natal family can be demonstrated by the contrasting the experiences of Mona and
Elaine. As discussed earlier, Mona came out in the late 1950s, but her acceptance of
her lesbian identity was eased by her parents acceptance of it. Although lesbians
were largely stigmatized in the 1950s, Mona did not feel ashamed for being one. She
was outed37 to her parents and her parents showed their support, acceptance, and
love for her. This situation can be contrasted with that of Elaine, whereby her birth
mother, shortly after meeting her in her young adulthood, showed disapproval of
Elaines disclosure. Elaine, too, came out earlier, in the early 1960s, when she was
still a young adult, but her negative experience in her formative years led her to
carefully manage her lesbian identity. She was comfortable coming out to other gay
men and lesbians. But Elaine has not had to take extreme measures in hiding her
sexual orientation since she has lived in a gay-friendly area and worked with a high
number of gay men and lesbians. Elaine explicitly said she would not disclose her
sexuality at a mainstream care facility, but for the past several years she has lived in
a gay retirees mecca.
Lesbians tried to be covert about their sexuality because they were
stigmatized, especially before gay liberation. Many pre-Stonewall women led two
separate lives: the gay life and the one they expressed outside of gay space. From my
interviews it appears that pre-liberation, self-identified lesbians have adapted well to
passing and apparently some still discourage flamboyant expression of
homosexuality. The emergence of a proud gay and lesbian identity resulted from a
strong sense of community that began much earlier. Those coming out under the
banners of gay liberation and afterward have a different concept of community than
their predecessors. Before then, community may have been perceived as a necessity
(Weston 1991), ameliorating the stigmatization of lesbians (Adelman 1991; Berger
1984). The post-liberation climate opened up many more options for socialization.
Thus, lesbians could opt to construct a network of friends around specific interests,
social, political, or otherwise, rather than socialize purely because of a shared sexual
37 To out someone means to disclose their homosexuality. It was considered to be a horrible offense
to break the code of silence and reveal someones homosexuality, especially pre-liberation when
severe consequences could result.
identity. Womens concept of community was broadened in the post-Stonewall
Womens coming out experiences varied by cohort. But, as seen when
comparing Mona and Vicky with Helen, Sheryl with Karen, or Mona with Elaine,
several factors influenced their participation in or access to community. These
included type of employment, family support, social environment, and shared
Shared values were a significant factor in the formation of social groups and
a substantial consideration for women choosing to live together. Harve Varenne
(1977), based on his ethnography of a small community in the Midwestern U.S.,
claims that Americans balance values of independence and conformity by having
close social groups that are homogeneous in terms of the values they share.
Similarly, in this project, many women paradoxically criticized homogeneity based
on age, race/ethnicity, or certain types of values, while clearly stating that they
would like to live near individuals who have similar beliefs and values. Diana
presents shared values in terms of compatibility. She sees balancing separateness
and togetherness in a shared living situation to be an initial value necessary to form
When I say communal I mean in community, not in the same
house.... Looking at the half dozen couples that were talking about
doing something with started this whole gay and gray thing. Its like,
ooh, would I want to live next door to her? Would she just drive me
bananas? So I think the compatibility...is very important. And finding
the people in our situation where it could be a good balance of
togetherness and separateness.
Cora, a woman currently living in a same-sex community with her partner, is
desperately trying to sell her home and move. Her reasons mainly involved a lack of
shared values between her and the women she lived among, which she realized
shortly after moving there. She identified as an activist, both presently and in the
past. She values civil rights, diversity, and a sense of community that is based on
some degree of collective resources. She said with exasperation,
They dont have a community; they dont go to lesbian marches and
bars.... The lesbians here are not nice people. They are gossipy. They
are not diverse at all. They dont know diversity.... They dont want
to talk about lesbianism or getting old. There are a bunch of
Republicans. In [this other state] we do things for each other. Here
everything is money. People in the [retirement community] charge
each other [for assistance or services].... So I see being an active
lesbian as being a frontrunner. It has to do with what youre willing to
stand for and speak to and address. So were talking about different
kinds of lesbians here.
Coras politics and interests were different from the other lesbians in this
community. She also discussed feeling geographically and culturally isolated. She
described the landscape where she lived in this community as monochromatic,
reflecting what she perceived as a lack of diversity of residents interests. Coras
disappointment was intensified because her expectations of an all-female, all-lesbian
environment were not met and she became disillusioned. She came to understand
that she might not have much in common with some lesbians and she expressed the
desire to start her own spiritually based community of all women.
After I leave here, the next chapter of my life is to start a group home
for women. Im not going to be fussy with lesbians only. I found out
being a lesbian all my life and living around them that that word
needs to be changed because the term is much too broad. Some
lesbians are homophobic and dont identify. Im looking for people
who are sociable and kind to one another. I just want people -1 want
women, but it can be [anyone]. When you try to get a community so
tight, you lose so much; you lose the color, [and] you lose the
Cora also discussed the importance of spirituality during our exchange.
Spirituality was a highly important value for a couple of other women as well. Pat is
trying to create a community based on the values of spirituality, environmentalism,
and cooperation. Her sense of a diverse community is truly the most broad in its
definition. She does not believe in discriminating along the lines of sex, gender, or
sexuality, and that includes not discriminating against heterosexuals. The community
is intended to be multi-generational, multi-racial/ethnic, and open to all on the basis
of sexual orientation. Likeness of mind is paramount; everyone participating should
share earth-friendly values and be willing to contribute something to the community.
Since she feels everyone wants to stay in their own home as long as possible, they
are looking into having the community accessible to those who would require
In most cases, women considered shared values to be above living with other
women or other lesbians. Diversity is in itself a value, which was often stated. But
diversity of opinions, political beliefs, and values is unacceptable for living in a
community. Interviewees saw the greater likelihood of other women or lesbians
sharing their values, thus, diversity would again be limited to other lesbians or
women who share their values.
Community. Identity, and Housing
Current housing decisions do not appear to be solely dictated by ones cohort
and past participation in the gay community. Several women may have been
previously motivated to move to gay-friendly areas for a need to be nearer to the gay
community or to escape small-town life. For instance, Mona, Vicky, Elaine, Lois,
and Sheryl moved to the Los Angeles area around the time that they had come out, a
time when Los Angeles was a haven for gay men and lesbians. They found a
thriving gay and lesbian community that embraced them. Later, Elaine moved from
Los Angeles to be with a former partner, but found herself in a place that is
incredibly friendly for gay retirees. Feminists like Susan, Ellen, Karen, Bobbie,
Diana, and Cora also had found their niche among a community of others who
shared their political views and sense of activism. Their sense of community was
less geographically but more ideologically driven. Some women had smaller social
circles of a few friends, like Helen, who kept her relationships with women private.
Presently, many informants sense of community is based on sexuality in
addition to other values they have come to embrace. A shared sense of community
based on a lesbian identity still summons a sense of belonging in many interviewees;
however, it is not sufficient as a reason to live in a same-sex community. Most
women appreciate the way they currently live and have a blend of social and familial
contacts that are both gay and straight. A change in their current arrangements would
generally be precipitated by health care needs.
AGING, HEALTH, AND SEXUALITY
[There is] no such thing as a typical old lesbian.
-Raphael and Robinson 1988:68
To a large extent, age groups are subjective categories, marked by certain life
course or cultural milestones that are used to define age identity. Labels have both
individual and group significance. Some labels, such as the word old itself, have
been reclaimed in an effort to combat ageism.38 In the West, the word old has
come to be viewed as connoting an undesirable or shameful state of being, yet it has
been used to empower individuals, similar to the way other epithets used against
minority groups have been reclaimed. The term old used unabashedly serves to
defuse its negative association. Euphemizing old is ageist; by avoiding the word, it
affirms the negative connotation of the term, and thus a negative state of being
(Macdonald and Rich 1991; Quam 2004; Raphael and Meyer 1988). Combining
being old and a lesbian has produced stereotypes that have both positive and
negative connotations, yet can be equally harmful.
38 Ageism encompasses the negative attitudes and unjust treatment [along with] the dehumanization
of older adults (Cruikshank 2003).
Lesbian Aging: The Fountain of Youth
Versus The Well of Loneliness39
There are two oppositional stereotypes attached to lesbians as they age. The
first stereotype was the popular depiction of an old lesbian as a spinster. The other
reflects a lesbian-feminist perspective and it counterbalances the former with the
image of the lesbian imbued with everlasting youth. In the first picture, the spinster
is seen as aging in isolation, without family or friends (Woolf2002). Cruikshank
points out that most middle-aged and old lesbians were probably told that they
would be lonely and pitiable in their old age in order to pressure them to conform
to heterosexual married lives (1991:86). The negative stereotype was ubiquitous in
popular culture, especially when homosexuality was condemnable before gay
liberation. This message contributed to lesbians negative view of themselves
This bleak view was what initial research in the 1970s on lesbian aging
sought to examine, and it eventually dispelled the myth of the lonely old lesbian. It
was found that, in many ways, lesbians face the same issues that heterosexual
women do. Loneliness, health, financial, and age-related issues are not exclusively
problems for elder lesbians; they are concerns expressed by all women (Adelman
1986; Gabby and Wahler 2002; Kehoe 1986, 1989) or the elderly in general
39 The Well of Loneliness was written by Radclyffe Hall in 1928. The protagonist, Stephen, was
tortured by her same-sex desires and inverted gender tendencies, keeping her perpetually distanced
from a normal existence. Her realization of this in early adulthood granted her brief satisfaction to
pursue the life she wanted, but eventually her love had to leave her for a man and life of normality,
thus leaving Stephen alone and miserable once again.
40 Popular images were fueled by an anti-feminist backlash and the pathologization of homophilic
relationships between women. Typically, lesbian fiction characters were pitiable figures and met with
their demise at the close of storios either by death or incredible misfortune. Faderman claims that
this perspective was absent from earlier IS* and 19th century literature but shifts in the 1920s (1986).
Motion pictures and vaudeville in the early and on through the middle part of the twentieth century
followed in the same vein, stereotyping homosexuals and subjecting them to mocking or shame
(Epstein and Friedman 1995). The view of love between women as pathological was espoused by
noted medical professionals such as Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis, and may have been driven by
contemporary fear of womens economic and emotional independence (Faderman 1986).
(Minnegrode and Adelman 1978). Lesbians, especially those who came out pre-
liberation, faced adversity from societal homophobia, which often caused
depression, while those coming out post-liberation experienced less internalized
homophobia and thus have better outlooks (Adelman 1986, 1991; Berger 1984). In
this sense, depression as one ages is not an inherent feature of being homosexual; it
may be a vestige of the stigmatization of homosexuals, among other reasons
unrelated to a homosexual identity (Adelman 1986).
As far as the lesbian being alone and isolated in old age, this also is
inaccurate and must be examined more closely rather than haphazardly applied to all
lesbians (Berger 1982b; Raphael and Robinson 1988; Reid 1995). Before researchers
challenged these notions, popular assumptions about lesbians being more estranged
from their families of origin, not having children, and being more frequently without
partners than heterosexual women were uncritically accepted. These assumptions led
to the belief that lesbians experienced greater loneliness in old age. This situation is
certainly not universally true. Rather, many lesbians have good social networks of
friends; some are ex-lovers of a similar age (Raphael and Robinson 1980; Weinstock
2004; Weston 1991). Thus, they have the support of others who understand and
experience similar life-stage issues.
Additionally, many women also have close ties to their families of origin,
either by strengthening relationships with members who accept their sexuality
(Weston 1991) or by not disclosing their sexuality to family. Being lesbian or gay
certainly does not preclude having children and grandchildren. Some lesbians came
out after marriage and having children, and, beginning in the 1970s, lesbians began
raising children together. In fact, lesbians who have children are likely to be closer
to their families of origin. Single motherhood, whether in heterosexual or
homosexual women, strengthens emotional and material links to parents (Lewin
1993,1996). The stark picture of a lesbian lonely and isolated in her old age is no
more applicable to her than to anyone else.
The second myth evolves later from the positive evidence gathered from
earlier studies on gay and lesbian aging. The scenario presented counters the former
myth, it the image of lesbians being forever youthful and free-spirited. An
everlasting vitality is thought to derive from a lack of husbands and children.
Lesbians remained unfettered, and could thus pursue their own interests throughout
their lives. Macdonald and Rich remind us that even a positive stereotype can be
damaging, and in this case, they are referring to older women. Stereotypes
manufacture images of what older women should be and reduce diversity and
individuality to aggregate group behavior (Cruikshank 2003; Macdonald and Rich
1991). Having a positive model counters negative stereotypes, but places
expectations upon older people to live a certain way. Thus the notion of healthy
aging sets unrealistic standards and can be psychologically harmful (Cruikshank
2003), generating feelings of inadequacy. Also, unchecked stereotypes, even if
positive, conceal the adversity that some older lesbians do encounter. Acceptance of
them may take for granted that all lesbian elders needs are met, leading to neglect.
Neglect can manifest in the denial of research, services, and resources to this group
Emphasis on being young or appearing young causes added pressures that
lesbians are said to be less age-phobic than heterosexual women or gay men
(Minnegrode and Adelman 1978). Generally, lesbians place less emphasis on then-
physical beauty and youthful appearance (Barker 2004; Castleman 1981; Gentry
and Seifert 1991), or rather embrace natural beauty freed from the male-inspired
values society has set for women (Taylor 1986:223). Feminists and lesbians have
taken the word old back, and are defining what that means for each of them on
their own terms in an attempt to combat ageism41 and imbue the aging process with
meaning. They may view coming to the stage of being a crone as one deserving of
41 The term ageism was first coined by Robert Butler in 1969. Simply defined, it denotes negative
attitudes and unjust treatment... of people because of their age (Cruikshank 2003:3).
respect and admiration for the multitude of experiences that one has collected over
many years (Gentry and Seifert 1991).
The fountain of youth myth reverses the previous image of the lonely old
lesbian; another perspective examines homophobia as an adaptation in aging. A
stigmatized identity allows one to create good coping mechanisms for dealing with
another stigmatized identity being old (Brotman 2003; Castleman 1981; Quam and
Whitford 1992; Raphael and Robinson 1980). These survivors of homophobia, as
a result, can adapt to aging better than heterosexual women (Kehoe 1986). For
example, older gay men and lesbians may be able to adjust better both
psychologically and economically to partners leaving or dying since they are not as
tied to sex roles and may also have had to live periods of their lives alone. They may
also manage family change better when their children grow and leave home (Berger
1982b, 1984; Woolf 2002). I feel that this should be considered more of an
accommodation, rather than an adaptation, because accommodation more aptly
describes the inefficiency and actual harm that comes along with the stigmas
All three positions the lonely spinster, the lesbian Peter Pan, and lesbianism
as an adaptation to aging are illustrative of the socio-historical contexts in which
they emerged: the pre-liberation stigmatized identity of the pathetic homosexual
versus the post-liberation proud lesbian. While certain aspects of those
characterizations may contribute to the adversity some lesbians face, it is important
to recognize the contextual nature of lesbians aging experiences because
generalizations can be harmful.
Project Findings: Perspectives on Aging and Sexuality
In this project, women were asked about aging and health concerns. They
were queried about their personal aging concerns, their health status, and also if they
thought their sexuality had made aging different for them or influenced their health.
Interviewees ranged in age from 55 to 80, with an average age of 63.5 years
old (See Table 2.1). Categorizing them by young old or old old42 or another
similar label would not be descriptive in this case, since the young old group
captures all but one informant.
One fourth of the women (n= 6) did not express any anxiety about aging.
These women accept that aging is an inevitable process and that reaching old age
will occur gradually; acceptance allows time to prepare for the type of care that may
be necessary in the future. Phyllis views are representative of this position; she just
turned 60, and she lives in Vermont with her partner. She said she is not worried
about aging, but she hopes that she will be prepared. Her experience working in in-
home care nursing allows her a unique perspective since she works on a daily basis
with elderly patients. According to Phyllis, preparation begins with being able to
think about getting older and accepting that things are going to change. She said,
Most of what I see are people who do not want to think about or
prepare for growing older because they dont want to think about it.
They do not want to think of it as a process.... I do like to think about
what Ill be like at 65, 70, 75, 80.
One woman expressed how her life has always been full and she is content.
The expectation is that this will continue as she ages. Another womans sentiments
concur, but she added even greater expectations in saying that, Getting older means
I just want my quality of life to be awesome. Mona, a recovering alcoholic and drug
addict, is also optimistic and grateful to be aging. She said,
42 Again, young old is classified as ages 55-75, and the old old, are those 75 and above (Moody
1988; Neugarten 1975).
I feel so much, I feel alive.... For the life Ive led, I am in such a
good place today. And so many of my friends I have lost; the life we
led just damaged our bodies. Im extremely lucky to be in such good
health at 66.
Three-quarters of the women, however, did express aging concerns. These
women mentioned issues including health, finances, family, fear of death, continuing
to live independently, socialization, and a lack of government attention to seniors
and elders. Issues were sometimes spoken about in conjunction with one another.
While some of these concerns apparently affect all women, some do affect or weigh
more heavily on lesbians particularly.
Many women viewed their sexuality as affecting aging. Seven women
interviewed perceived no difference in the way they age from the way that
heterosexual women age. Twelve women did suggest that aging was different for
them because they are lesbian. Of those, four viewed their sexuality as having a
positive impact on their aging process, while eight discussed how being a lesbian
can have a potential negatively effect.
No one adopted an entirely negative view of aging as a lesbian, but a few
mentioned specific areas that pose difficulty. The negative outcomes discussed
stemmed from both personal and societal elements. In terms of family, not having
children, lacking connections with family of origin, and living alone without a
partner weighed heavily on some. Socially, there was a feeling of not fitting into
mainstream heterosexual groups (e.g. senior centers). Discrimination directed at
them, which at times was unconscious, is evident in the numerous legal, financial,
and medical obstacles they face because of current law and public policy. Also, a
feeling of vulnerability and fear of mistreatment because they are older and lesbian 43
43 Three women were not asked this question directly because the question was added after their
interviews. One woman explained how her sexuality does not impact aging issues now, but it was
something that did affect her in the past due to nondisclosure at work resulting in feelings of being
was also a recurring topic.44 These issues are addressed in depth in the sections on
health, discrimination, and support strategies.
Another concern was the impact of public policy on aging. Chris spoke about
how currently there seems to be less governmental concern for elder rights than in
the past. She specifically mentioned that there is no longer anyone in Congress with
visibility to hold the government accountable for senior services. While this
particular statement was more generalized, referring to all older Americans, it was
clear that many women were concerned about aging, sexuality, policy implications,
and their rights. Cora worries about a regression in rights in the current political
climate, specifically concerning Social Security and an increase in the retirement
age. Several others discussed the legal and financial disparities for gay and lesbian
In a more optimistic vein, several women embraced their lesbianism,
especially as they age. Four women cast their lesbianism in a positive light, much
akin to the positive stereotype of perpetual youth, or took a lesbian-feminist
perspective. The latter association meant having comfort in an identity with or
reliance upon a community of women or lesbians. One woman, Cora, described
women as being more communal in general. She spoke about the camaraderie,
kinship, and kindness among women. She said, Being a lesbian is like being part of
a gentler society. She tempered this generalization of all lesbians by saying that,
There are those that try to emulate the masculine. But she believed, generally,
women are less selfish and more willing to help each other. As highlighted before,
the community where Cora lives now shatters her notions of how lesbians should
act. They are not unselfish, demonstrated by their political inaction and the fact that
they have a monetarily based exchange system.
44 The fear of mistreatment, abuse, and discrimination was sometimes expressed in terms of the
future. Many in their 50s and 60s were not currently fearful that this would occur in their lives now,
but feared that if they were dependent in the future, mistreatment was a real threat.
A few others who viewed being a lesbian as advantageous in aging focused
on freedom from familial obligations keeping women happier and feeling younger.
Much in the spirit of the second myth of the forever-young lesbian, Elaine said, I
think lesbians and gay people stay younger than straight [women]. She said that the
youthfulness was a psychological rather than physical feeling that she equated with
immaturity. She went on to say,
I guess I never grew up, matured, you know. I feel young, I feel
young at heart. And I look at myself in the mirror and I see one
wrinkle after the other. But emotionally I feel young and I dont think
it matters how old you are. I remember my aunt, she was in her 80s
and she said, I see myself and Im an old woman, but inside Im a
The reason why Elaine felt that lesbians stay younger is because you dont have the
responsibility and a husband thats all over you constantly. She was not the only
person to make such a declaration; similarly, Cora said that having a husband is
taxing. Lois emphasized the physical labor of childbirth and rearing children as well
as the financial investment of raising children. She said,
I think lesbians tend to be younger because we dont have the worry
of raising families and the going through childbirth. I dont think Id
want to go through childbirth.... It can be aging to raise families
unless, you know, you got a lotta money. The worry and all that.... A
lot of people dont believe Im 66. I mean thats just my opinion. I
dont know if thats why Im young.
As stated earlier, not everyone agrees that being a lesbian confers greater
advantages in aging. Concerns were raised about social support, heterosexism or
stigmatization in mixed-group social situations and in homing institutions, fear of
nursing home abuse, living alone, and their lack of rights impacting them financially.
Generally, more women stated that their sexual orientation would carry negative
consequences. Even the few who can see the silver lining in being a lesbian can also
see how they may suffer more intensely for it.
Overall, being lesbian can be perceived positively or negatively with regards
to aging and the actualization of healthy aging. Freedom from marriage and children
was said to help maintain a focus on oneself and ones needs throughout life, which
has given some women a prolonged sense of youth. But it has also been said that it
has left them feeling financially or emotionally insecure now. Having a husband may
have granted greater financial wealth, especially prior to womens liberation, but
also may have stifled personal freedom. Children, on the other hand, would have
been a greater expense in both emotional and financial investment earlier. Yet at this
point in their lives, children could be considered an asset both in being able to
provide financial support and emotional comfort, which could alleviate some anxiety
about dependency, as will be discussed later in Chapter 6.
Another area closely related to aging is health. Not always, but often, old age
brings infirmity and disability. Health, rather than age, can be a more relevant factor
impinging on how and where individuals choose to live. Health should be viewed
holistically. Rather than just solely examining the biological aspects of disease, the
social, behavioral, and political elements should be taken into consideration (Guthrie
2004). In this section the biological and behavioral aspects of health are addressed,
leaving the social and policy pieces to be treated more in depth in other sections.
A nationwide Lesbian Health Survey in 1984 gathered information about
physical, social, and mental health from almost 2,000 respondents aged 40-60. The
results were compared with overall data from women in the United States. Findings
showed that physical ailments for lesbians and women in general were the same,
with minor variations.
Research on lesbian health has identified certain areas that deny equitable
medical care, place them at greater risk of unhealthy behaviors, or a higher risk of
disease (Bradford and Ryan 1991; Kehoe 1986; Peterson and Bricker-Jenkins 1996;
Stevens 1992; Woolf 2002). Reasons for this deficiency included that lesbians
encounter homophobia and heterosexism from health care providers, thus leading to
their receipt of inferior care or their avoidance of medical care. Also, many could not
afford to seek professional care (Bradford and Ryan 1991; Peterson and Bricker-
Jenkins 1996). Stevens (1992) reviews studies on health care providers attitudes
toward lesbians and the negative impact of homophobia and heterosexism on
lesbians trust and willingness to seek medical care. The heterosexist imperative of
health care professionals has been responsible in part for lesbians seeking
professional medical care less frequently (Bradford and Ryan 1991; Peterson 1996;
Stevens 1992). Because of heterosexism, homophobia, economic constraints, as well
as a rejection of the traditional medical model, lesbians more often seek alternative
health care that is more holistic in nature (Peterson and Bricker-Jenkins 1996).
Lesbians do have a higher risk of reproductive cancers because they bear
children less often than heterosexual women. Much medical treatment for women
centers around reproductive health and lesbians generally distrust medical providers.
As a result, they less frequently seek traditional medical care and their risk of cancer
increases as it goes undetected (Peterson and Bricker-Jenkins 1998). Yet, with
increasing visibility and politization of GLBT rights, more lesbians are insistent on
health services that are not geared toward heterosexual women only (Guthrie 2004).
Demand for good quality care is likely the case for younger lesbians (Peterson and
Bricker-Jenkins 1998), but baby-boomers are coming out fighting once again (Herdt
and de Vries 2004). Another important risk factor for cancer is the added stressors
from having a stigmatized identity and managing that identity (Peterson and Bricker-
In terms of mental health, as mentioned above, studies have shown that gay
men and lesbians rate highly in terms of life satisfaction. In cases where a person
experiences internalized homophobia, life satisfaction is diminished (Adelman 1986,
1991; Berger 1984). Those struggling with their identities may temporarily score
lower on life satisfaction scales, but eventually reach self-acceptance; thus, studies
should be longitudinal, to account for this change. Aging research also needs to
encompass racial and socioeconomic differences, as well as sex-role and behavior
differences (Quam 2004). Hastily assuming that homosexuality causes aging
problems may conceal social and structural discrimination along class and
racial/ethnic lines (Adelman 1986; Berger 1982a).
Stigmatization of gay men and lesbians has deep historical roots; therefore,
gay men and lesbians have been more prone to substance abuse and alcoholism.
Both societal and internalized homophobia can be burdens that cause chemical
dependencies. Also, a culture socialized at bars was common among certain groups
of gay men and lesbians for several decades. While it is widely known that these
factors influenced the substance abuse problems prevalent in the gay and lesbian
community, whether it is in fact greater than the heterosexual population has been
debated (Anderson 1996).
Project Findings on Health: Status and Concerns
On average, most of the women interviewed felt that they were in good
health. Four women had more serious complications, such as a history of a heart
attack or stroke, but they still claimed that their health is fine. Three discussed
chronic problems but everyone else either said that their health was good to
There were some health issues that made several interviewees uneasy. These
include concern over the quality of medical care, having caretakers when necessary,
losing mobility, losing mental capabilities through dementia or Alzheimers disease,
and losing independence to care for oneself. In some cases the first two concerns
were particularly frightening because it caused the third fear, which was dependence.
Lack of government intervention or concern for the aging population was also
Becoming infirm was particularly upsetting to Sheryl. At age 65, after
retiring just two years ago, she currently has what she described as an active life.
Volunteering is among her many scheduled activities, along with painting, creative
writing, and Bible studies. She volunteers in hospice care and also visits residents at
a nursing home. Seeing the isolation of people in a nursing home makes her opposed
to being in one. She hopes to remain independent as long as possible.
Dependency and loneliness conjure feelings of insecurity for those living
alone; however, they also pose a dilemma for those living with partners. As
mentioned earlier, some said that they do not wish to be taken care of. The dialogue
between a couple, Deb and Terry, illustrates this point clearly. When asked about
worries of growing older, the couple immediately responded:
Deb: Not being able to take care of myself, having to be taken care
Terry: We just had Deb having surgery... [and] having to be taken
care of. And as we already said, were both independent, we both run
households. It was very hard for her to let me feed her, do all the
driving, and running to the store.
Deb: Yet at the same time I wanted to be taken care of...
Terry: Debs daddy had Alzheimers; that frightens her.
Disability would likely increase dependency and may result in the inability to
live independently. Yet, loss of ability to even temporarily function at their normal
capacity can heighten worries for some, possibly because it is perceived to be a
precursor to the decline in functioning associated with aging.
As Terry mentioned in the close of the exchange, Alzheimers frightens Deb.
There were several times in the interview that she joked about the fun she would
have if they were to both go insane. She also expressed fear about mental illness, so
she was likely using humor to diffuse this fear. Several other women had relatives
who were suffering or had suffered from dementia or Alzheimers. Having
witnessed the effects of this disease, everyone who encountered Alzheimers was
fearful of developing it. Dementia ranked highest on one womens list of fears in
aging. Mindy especially feared the combination of being in an institutional setting
with the illness. Even without any personal exposure to dementia or Alzheimers,
some still feared it. One couple mentioned euthanasia or suicide if they were to
discover that they had it and were able to act in the early stages of the illness. Mental
illness was a fear worse than death to these women.
Death was another concern verbalized. Vicky described how thoughts of
ones own mortality inevitably come to mind as one ages and sees the passing of
Oh, when I was younger I never thought of getting older, never
thought of death, until... I guess it was my early 60s it really started
hitting me. And now that Im 70, its really hit me... I dont think its
a matter of that at the present; I think its what Im expecting. I mean
when youre 20 and go towards 30, it doesnt bother you that much.
But when you hit your 70s..., I just buried a friend at 82. Wow, well
thats not too [much older than me]... And I had my best straight
girlfriend had died at 78. Whoa, thats only seven years from now.
So...its short [and] its getting shorter.
Barbara speaks about the move toward senescence:
Its just you have to realize that you cant do as much as you do in the
past, and that your life is not going to last that much longer. Youre
probably through with almost half your life.
She personally is optimistic about her longevity since she said she is currently
healthy and plans to stay that way.
Since most of the women interviewed consider themselves to be in good
health, thoughts about long-term care are not imminent considerations. In spite of
their aversion to nursing homes, various respondents (n= 7) did have long-term care
insurance,45 everyone had heard of it, and some others had explored coverage and
cost. A couple more women are considering buying it. Generally, those who had
purchased it felt that it provided security, although not a guarantee, for good care
when they were older. One woman who has long-term care insurance sells it and
strongly believes in having it. She admits that insurance does not guarantee good
quality care and is personally concerned about winding up in a place where the
facility cares about more than just your money. Expense prevented some from
having long-term care insurance. They explained that they were at too old an age
where the premium would be exorbitant. Some could not see paying so much for
something that they may or may not need. Sheryl expressed that by buying long-
term care insurance one is unconsciously planning to use it. She said,
Metaphysically speaking, I believe when one takes out long-term
insurance, its almost an unconscious plan to be needing it in the
future.... I believe that my insurance plans will cover my needs at this
time and in the future. I think a lot of people are buying long-term
care health insurance based on fear of not being taken care of
Sexuality and Health
When asked whether being lesbian influences health, womens replies varied.
Unlike the relationship between aging and sexuality, fewer respondents viewed their
sexuality as impacting health. Those who said that there is no difference between
them and their heterosexual peers were in the majority (n= 13). Several women did
view their being a lesbian as directly affecting health (n= 8). A few were surprised or
confused by this question, unable to initially understand why there could be any
difference. Some concerns could equally apply to heterosexual women and men but
even these similar issues can be exacerbated for lesbians.
45 Long-term care insurance usually covers costs that health insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid will
not. Although the policies vary, typically most cover skilled nursing care, in-home care, adult
daycare, assisted living, and dementia care (Brecht 2002).
Molly represents the majority of women interviewed, holding the position
that ones sexuality has little to no influence on health. She felt that health issues
should be the same for lesbians and heterosexual women if they have a good support
network. She is not the only person to mention the importance of social support in
terms of its necessity for good health. Social along with financial support is an
important factor related to housing and will be handled in greater depth in the
chapter that follows.
A few women expressed that their health or the health of lesbians in general
was affected by sexuality. This group can be further divided into those who viewed
their sexuality as having beneficial outcomes and those who viewed their health and
that of other lesbians as jeopardized because of their sexuality.
Diana explicitly said that being a lesbian affects her health positively. She
claimed that, Lesbians are the healthiest group. Studies have shown that. It should
be noted that Diana has a strongly positive lesbian-feminist identity and also
recognizes that discrimination could negatively impact health care. There were
several others who agree that being a lesbian sometimes places women at a lower
risk for contracting STDs, cancer, or mental health complications.
A couple of women mentioned the higher incidence of certain diseases like
cancer, alcoholism, and depression. Ellen, Bobbie, and Chriss comments embody
the negative perception of homosexuality impacting health. They discussed the
inadequacy of medical services for lesbian women. Ellen specifically refers to older
When you start needing more assistance from the infrastructure,
[when] you need services and you need your medical assistance,
those kind[s] of things can cause you to have more stress than a
Ellen discusses two reinforcing problems for lesbians and health. The first is
the lack of resources available to lesbians. This places additional stress on them,
which is unhealthy, affecting ones physical and mental well-being. Bobbie focused
on the increased difficulty of doctor-patient interaction. She had encountered
problems with her male doctor, particularly his heterosexist attitude.
Diana and Bobbie each shared a case of heterosexism within a health care
setting. Diana spoke of a situation when she took her lesbian friend Abby to a
rehabilitation facility. She was astonished at how ignorant the staff was about lesbian
issues in such a large facility. She explained,
Abby had to go into a rehab facility ... [and we] check[ed] out
several.... One of questions I had asked, you know, having gone
through this whole gay and gray process, was Gee, do they have any
lesbians here? Its a pretty good size facility. And they were going,
Bah bah bah .. .uh really we wouldnt know. That wouldnt be any of
our business. And I said, Well now, do you just assume that
everybody is heterosexual? And they basically said...Well, we go
through diversity training, but we dont know of any lesbians here.
Now chances are, you know...it was a large place. And I think thats
just, thats terrible. Even just the assumption of heterosexuality I
This dont ask, dont tell approach taken by staff and administration in
facilities may be perceived to be respectful of ones privacy. While this may be the
intent, it perpetuates a cloak of silence and forces individuals to hide their sexual
orientation. It places the awkward responsibility upon the individual to disclose their
sexuality in a place where they do not know how it will be received at a time when
they may be feeling a number of emotions due to their transition into a different
setting. Fear due to increased vulnerability may be among them. Furthermore, it
neglects to send a message to heterosexual residents in the facility that the facility
openly accepts diversity on the basis of sexual orientation.
Bobbie shared a story about her physicians incredible insensitivity toward
her and said the doctors attitude was something she was going to have to deal
with. When I inquired what she meant by this, she responded,