17 Jun 2014

Why older gay people fear being forced back into the closet

The prospect of going into care is a terrifying one for some gay men and women, because they know friends so badly treated by residents and staff that they have gone back into the closet.

“I’ve never thought about that” – a phrase I often heard when I told people Channel 4 News was doing a film about being gay and elderly. Why? I’m not sure, writes Cordelia Lynch.

Perhaps because outwardly, there’s been progress, the introduction of equal marriage. Or perhaps it’s because we just haven’t really started to think about what happens when the generation who fought or simply hoped to be open about their sexuality, reach old age.

Well, they have. And they’re worried. They’re worried about losing their independence. They’re worried they could soon be surrounded once again by people who don’t respect or understand their identity.


More than anything, they’re terrified about the prospect of going into care – they know friends who have been so badly treated by residents and staff, they’ve gone back into the closet. Part of the problem they claim, is a lack of training.

But they say it is also about the attitudes of their own peers who still struggle to accept what was once illegal.

Others are fighting a battle in their own homes. I met Jo, a defiant and brave woman who was raped in her youth in a violent homophobic attack in which her girlfriend was murdered.

Now she’s in a wheelchair and dependent on home help. She has had 11 carers, many of whom she says refused to dress her and were often critical of her sexuality.

‘Oldest gay in the village’

But Jo and Rowena are not victims. They are courageous, inspiring women, who are still continuing to campaign for better support and acceptance for the LGBT community. We also met George, the self-proclaimed oldest gay in the village. He is witty, gregarious and, at 91, is on the campaign path too.

We met him in Brighton, promoting a book about his life. The response from the public was amazing and at times moving as he drove his mobility scooter around a carnival, adorned with rainbow flags and a home-made “oldest gay in the village” banner.

People wanted to have their photo taken with him. They wanted to hear his story. He was convicted under Britain’s anti-gay laws in his forties. The day we fimed with him, he was embracing the police.

But Brighton is an exceptional place, a gay friendly town. George is also a charismatic extrovert that could probably warm the most resistant of hearts and minds. In reality, the conversation about being gay and elderly, is only really just beginning.

There is fantastic support out there, in the shape of Opening Doors, a London based charity and some other projects. Anchor, the largest retirement provider in the UK, has also set up an LGBT network for its residents. But the help is piecemeal in Britain and the people we spoke to want national standards introduced.

In their later years, they are now facing another battle and they want change.

Opening Doors manager Stacey Halls said: “Many younger LGBT people simply aren’t very aware of the immense difficulty that many older LGBT people have and continue to face as a result of decades of discrimination.

“We have members who have been imprisoned, subjected to aversion therapies to ‘cure’ them, lost friends and partners to violent acts, lost custody of their children and forced to remain secretive and hidden in most areas of their lives – all because of their sexuality or gender identity.”

For more information on this story visit: www.openingdoorslondon.org.uk and www.stonewall.org.uk.