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Michael Stevens reflects on ageism in the Rainbow community and asks, ‘where is the support for older queers?’

Last month, the first retirement community specifically for LGBTQ+ seniors opened in London. There are a few in other big cities; Berlin has had one since 2008.

I doubt we’ll ever see one here in Aotearoa; the population is just too small to sustain one, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

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Ageing for our communities is different than it is for the straight world. Many older queer people lack close ties to their biological families, and often their chosen families have moved away somewhere cheaper, gone into care in a mainstream rest home, or died.

Old age can be bitterly lonely, and our communities, in general are extremely youth focussed. There is little work done in NZ’s Rainbow circles to celebrate or acknowledge the sacrifices or work done by elder community members who took risks in a more unforgiving and dangerous world. Many young people are unaware of our communal past. In part, that’s because, as a community, we are not good at sharing information over the generations.

If you’re a 22-year-old queer person, there are a number of agencies available to support you. If you’re an 80-year-old lesbian, not so much Statistics on the physical and mental wellbeing of our elders are also lacking. Anecdotally, I have heard a number of concerning stories about gay men attempting suicide as they get older in a culture focused on youth, but I am not aware of any research in the area.

I recently contributed a chapter to an international text on ageing and living with HIV. It is one of the first scholarly pieces of work in the world to examine the subject. There is a large group of HIV-positive gay men ageing now, with our own unique health issues, but I don’t see much awareness or support for us.

New Zealand does have the Silver Rainbow project. This was set up with the goal of helping all aged care facilities become queer-friendly, but their valuable work is underfunded and can’t do as much as it should.

In the straight world, it seems to me there is a focus on the wellbeing of children and teenagers, but after that, people are expected to get on with adult life – get a career, pair off and raise kids, before a focus is put back on their wellbeing as they become older and vulnerable. The queer world, meanwhile, is focussed on our youth but oblivious to the needs of our elderly.

Through raising children, straight people automatically pass their culture on to the next generation. Whereas we tend to reinvent our culture with each generation, and that
is where institutional knowledge is lost, and because of this, the queer community can be ageist.

A trans friend of mine in their sixties spoke at an event a few years ago, while a group of trans youth sat in the back giggling.

Afterwards, she asked them why and was told, “Your views are redundant.” One of them did at least have the good grace to contact her a few days later and apologise.

Of course, someone who transitioned 40 years ago or came out in the 1970s will have a different perspective on the world. That doesn’t mean their views should be treated with scorn. They have seen theories and political movements come and go and are probably more cynical when a young person pushes the latest version of queer theory on them.

It is hard to know how to change this. I think our Pride organisations should look for ways to acknowledge and celebrate our elders as much as they do for our youth, and our government needs to dedicate more funding to work that supports older queers.

Most of all, as a community, we need to learn how to respect and value our elders.

MICHAEL STEVENS is a long-time community activist and social commentator.

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