Researchers Turn Focus to LGBT Seniors
In terms of academic research, LGBT seniors largely remain in the closet. Only a few studies have attempted to shed light on the needs of aging LGBT adults.
Experts in the field of gerontology point to several factors behind the lack of scientific data on this age group. LGBT people were not considered part of the senior population, they said, so questions about sexual orientation or gender identity weren’t asked.
The onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s not only devastated a generation of gay and bisexual men, it also diverted the LGBT community’s attention and scarce research funding toward combating the deadly disease.
"The money for it simply dried up in the 1990s and didn’t come back until the end of that decade," said Marcy Adelman, Ph.D., who has focused on LGBT aging since the 1970s. "The community wasn’t in a position to focus on aging when struggling so hard to keep everybody alive. I don’t think Washington was particularly friendly to LGBT aging research."
Now, due to treatment advances, people with HIV are living well past their 50s. They are aging alongside other LGBT baby boomers, many of whom have been out of the closet for decades and are demanding services as they enter retirement age.
The result is an increased attention on studying LGBT seniors and addressing their concerns. Entities from the National Institutes of Health to AARP have funneled resources toward LGBT adults.
"We are finally starting to talk about these issues from a research position," said Brian de Vries, a gay man who is a professor of gerontology at San Francisco State University. "AIDS happened and researchers were just siphoned away and turned their attention to the experiences of people living with, and at that time dying from, HIV. I think it has only been in the last 10 years or so that we have found our way back to an appreciation of aging within the LGBT community."
He recalled attending a lecture in the mid 1980s about gay men and aging where an audience member asked if "those terms are mutually incompatible ’gay’ and ’aging.’ It really struck me that somebody would make a comment like that.
"So many of us were dying during that time, so the idea of aging seemed luxurious," he added. "Given what the circumstances were, people thought it was almost not possible. I think that is part of the issue for why we were late to the game."
Early last decade de Vries, 56, helped establish and co-chaired Rainbow Research, an LGBT interest group within the Gerontological Society of America. He also took part in 2006 and 2010 in a Met Life study focused on LGBT seniors.
Called "Still Out, Still Aging," "it was one of the only national representative studies of LGBT boomers," said de Vries.
It first looked at the needs of 1,000 LGBT baby boomers. A follow-up study then compared 1,200 LGBT boomers against 1,200 from the general population.