Generations of Mentorship: Conversations With L.G.B.T.Q. Elders

“It’s weird being dead,” wrote a 51-year-old man from Jackson, Miss. He had contacted me on Jack’d, a dating and social app that’s particularly popular among gay and trans men of color. He wasn’t being literal, of course, but the message was clear: “The gay community publishes your obituary at 40 if you live that long,” he said.

Aging is a challenge for any population, but the L.G.B.T.Q. community faces a special set of obstacles. Gay and lesbian elders are less likely to have children who can care for them in older age, according to Ilan H. Meyer, a scholar at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has spent decades studying the impacts of aging on the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Additionally, many social support networks (friends, romantic partners) were lost during the H.I.V./AIDS crisis, and nursing homes and retirement communities are often less-than-welcoming spaces for L.G.B.T.Q. elders, often causing people to retreat back into the closet.

Looking back on the 50 years since the uprising at Stonewall accelerated the modern gay rights movement, I wanted to know if the process of aging had changed. As a young gay man, I wondered: After 50 years of fighting for rights and visibility, have queer elders succeeded in recapturing their dignity? And could they pass that along, in person-to-person relationships, to younger generations?

And so I traveled to five states, meeting queer “elders” — gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans persons over 50 — and their mentees, young people for whom Stonewall is a distant memory, as well as scholars, field researchers and older people who just wanted to share their stories.

Research has shown that “young L.G.B.T. people have a harder time projecting themselves,” as queer people, into old age, Dr. Ilan said. As queerness starts to carry less and less stigma, will it be easier for young L.G.B.T.Q. people to imagine a life where they actually grow old?

Growing up, Miss Lawrence Washington, 36, had a good relationship with his parents, but, he said, “they didn’t know what was going on with me outside the house.” Gay people “have to learn the streets a totally different way than straight people do.”

Enter Raquell Lord, 48. Ms. Lord is a founding member of The House of Balenciaga, a ballroom family founded in Atlanta. Mentorship is inherently built into the world of vogue and ballroom culture that Balenciaga belongs to, in which groups, or houses, face off in performative competitions. For young queer people, especially those have grown up in the South, the people with whom you share a house often provide support networks, mentorship and a place to sleep.

”I always wanted to show other people who were younger than myself during that time that if you’re talented, your talent can speak for yourself, and it can reward you and possibly sustain you,” Ms. Lord added.

“People do what they have to do to survive, until they find these families,” Mr. Washington said.

Queer people are some of the “strongest people to ever walk the Earth,” he said, leaning forward in his chair. “We had to learn how to survive. Whether you got put out of your home or not, you had to learn how to survive mentally, you had to learn how to cope with being by yourself mentally, to go out and project yourself into the world and not care what anybody thinks.”

What about identification? “Back in the day, I was just gay, girl.” Mr. Washington said. “Now, I identify as gender non-conforming. They have all these titles now, but I say if that is what it takes for people to start understanding who we are, then I’ll accept it.”

I asked Ms. Lord how she identified. With a small wave of her arm, she responded, “Well, what do you see?”

Lee Daniels, 60, has learned as much from his mentee, Jordan E. Cooper, 24, as Mr. Cooper has learned from him.

“I didn’t realize I had a problem until I watched his work,” Mr. Daniels said of the younger Mr. Cooper, whose first play, “Ain’t No Mo’,” recently ended its run at the Public Theater. (Mr. Daniels was one of the play’s producers.)

Even after creating a megahit like the TV series “Empire,” and scoring a best director nomination for the 2009 film “Precious,” Mr. Daniels still struggled to see the value in his own work. “I had been brainwashed by the system to believe that my work was of no value, not important.”

The conversation turned to Nigel Shelby, a gay 15-year-old from Huntsville, Ala., who committed suicide in April after years of relentless bullying.

“I had been suicidal at one point,” Mr. Cooper said. “I realized how I write for that 13-year-old self who wanted to kill himself. I write to tell that kid that he’s worthy.”

“That’s the beauty of youth today,” Mr. Daniels added. “For people in my generation, it’s simply unheard-of to talk like that, to talk about suicide. I didn’t realize that I had been suicidal until [Cooper] told me I was suicidal.”

I wondered how much my life would have changed if, at 24, I’d had an elder gay man to help life make sense to me. For Mr. Daniels, this type of mentorship was normal.

When he was younger, “older gay men took care of younger gay men, because that was their job. They realized no one else was going to take that on. But something happened. Now there’s a disconnect.”

Mr. Cooper nodded along. “He’s teaching me how to help others get to where they want to be,” he said. “He’s teaching me that I have to leave the doors wide open.”

After over 30 years of work of nonprofit work in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, Candice Nichols, 65, director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, would like to see more intergenerational groups of queer people simply share a meal. Palm Springs is a resort town about two hours east of Los Angeles, known for its beautiful weather and aging gay male population.

So, an open box of doughnuts between us, I asked her to tell me about her years of activism. She shared stories of “finding her wings” doing work with Las Vegas’ largest AIDS service center in the early ’90s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic; of families uniting over the discoveries that their children were both gay and dying, of the of parties that happened on AIDS wards, of the communities of lesbians who spent time making quilts for strangers, of less fortunate gay young men who died terrified, alone and forgotten.

Hearing stories like these, Ms. Nichols said, “can change someone that hasn’t gone through it.” And these are the connections she hopes to make for young queer people.

Older queer people in Palm Springs, especially women, often “tribe up and take care of each other,” she said. For many in the L.G.B.T.Q. community, no matter how old, their “chosen family” may be their only base of support.

Two members of one of those chosen community, Kim Chasen and Mariam Moiseyev, 65 and 67, have been friends for 28 years and active members of Palm Springs’ lesbian community.

We talked about the struggles of coming out in the ’70s, of watching entire communities be decimated by H.I.V./AIDS, and the resentment born of having the validity of your marriage become a subject of debate.

“I feel there’s a certain freedom in being older and gay — it’s like, what are you going to do to me now that hasn’t already been done?” Ms. Chasen said, then grinned. “Getting older really isn’t that bad.”

Ms. Moiseyev shook her head and laughed in friendly disagreement.

Ms. Chasen corrected herself: “Well, at least we’re lucky enough to have each other to get through it with.”

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Author: RiekenTheodorus