BY Kathleen LaTosch
The older I get, the more I realize two things: I know very little and history is inextricably wound up in the present — even more than all of us will probably ever realize. Take for example the Mayan Calendar. It was in regular use more than 2500 years ago. And yet it was one of the top media buzzes at the end of 2012, with interpreters predicting the apocalypse on Dec. 21, 2012. Obviously, we know now that it was hyper-sensationalized drama and a lack of cultural awareness, but the real story here is that the Mayans are still with us, despite many people thinking that they are an ancient civilization. They never went away.
And there are other silent culture-bearers in our midst, right in each of our own communities. As we near the summit of achieving marriage equality, many talk about the tremendous strides we have made on LGBT equal rights. Fifty years ago, we were at the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement. In 1969, at New York’s Stonewall Inn, gay, lesbian and cross-dressing members of our community decided to fight back against the constant police raids at the bar. It sparked three days of rioting and 46 years (and counting) of human rights activism. Hundreds, if not thousands, of gay rights organizations sprang up around the country following the riots. Many of those people who fought back are still with us here today. They are our LGBT elders. They are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Some, like Ruth Ellis, may live past 100. They are all around us. Yet sadly now, in their older age, they are still having to battle. They battle for respectful treatment at nursing homes, in retirement communities, at healthcare centers. They are the ones who provided the firm ground upon which our modern-day gay rights movement is standing and which all of us who are younger benefit; and yet they cannot rest.
They are the reason my wife and I live in relative comfort as an out lesbian couple with two children. They are the reason my wife’s law firm offers domestic partner benefits that, as I write this, cover me. They are the reason I can sit here writing this article and sign my last name to it, feeling relative safety that I won’t be attacked or targeted for these opinions. And yet they are still having to fight — often with little help or resources and with dwindling physical strength. Some have had to go back into the closet after decades of prideful living. Some are mistreated by direct care workers, staff and residents, if they choose to come out. Some have had their partner denied access to their hospital or medical room (yes, this is still happening). Some are moved away from their beloved gay chosen families to other states by well-intending nephews and nieces. Some lose their home, possessions and even income when a partner dies — with no legal recourse. Some have been coerced into “deathbed conversions” where a clergy member encourages a dying person to renounce his/her homosexuality before death to avoid going to hell (yes, this is very much still happening).
Our LGBT elders need us now. It’s time to return the favor. In the past year, the LGBT Older Adult Coalition of Michigan has been working diligently to begin addressing the needs of our LGBT elders. You may have heard about our recent collaborative work with Metro Detroit’s Area Agencies on Aging — we’re presenting at the Annual Aging in Society Conference this March in Chicago on this groundbreaking model. Perhaps you’ve seen the three film clips recently released at our website featuring the stories of three of our local LGBT elders. Or maybe you’re waiting to see a SAGE affiliate established locally — it’s on the way! We’ve been working hard, but we’ve just scratched the surface and we need your help. Our LGBT Older Adult Coalition would like to expand on its work and we’re looking for financial support to continue the work. The ACLU of Michigan has generously hosted the coalition since its inception, acting as legal fiduciary and providing space, overhead and staff resources. The HOPE Fund has generously supported our work. For many other funders though, this work seems too narrow a focus and so we turn to our community.
Help support our continuing work on behalf of LGBT older adults with a financial contribution to the ACLU of Michigan and ear-marked for the LGBT Older Adult Coalition. We run a lean budget to reach high aspirations. Call Jay Kaplan at the ACLU of Michigan, 313-578-6800 x812 or email Kaplan@aclumich.org about how to make your ear-marked contribution for this very important work. You can also help by getting involved with any number of organizations this year: Affirmations’ LGBT older adult social and discussion groups, The Detroit Elder Project at KICK (serving the needs of African-American LGBT elders in Detroit), Gay Elders of Metro Detroit (a SAGE pre-cursor) and the LGBT Older Adult Coalition (a coalition of organizations working to impact policy and education on LGBT elder issues in Michigan). Truly, our elders are our past, our present and our future.