This month marks the 50th anniversary of PRIDE and as protests around police violence and racial injustice pulse across the country, the nation’s 220,000 LGBTQ+ and same gender loving (SGL) elders of color (65 and older) continue to face challenges, even as things have improved.
A 2017 study, for example, found that Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ adults, aged 50 and older, experienced higher rates of poverty, lower income and education, more LGBTQ+-related discrimination and victimization, as well as day-to-day discrimination over the course of their lives, compared to their White counterparts. The 2019 Evolution of Aging With Pride study, which examined the first federally-funded study to address older LGBTQ+ people, found that 15 percent of gay adults 80 years and older are people of color and more than 7 percent of them continue to work because they need to generate income to survive.
Health and wealth disparities, as they were 50 years ago, continue. “Traditional health literature has grouped lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people, ignoring the differing health needs of each group,” research associate and Ph.D. candidate Tiffany Rice wrote in a piece for the American Society of Aging. “Further review of research reveals that even less is known about the health concerns of elder Black lesbian and bisexual women.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the lack of health data for people of color across all age groups and within the LGBTQ+ community, but insightful information exists in oral histories of how culture has become more inclusive in ways unforeseen, from race to gender.
Back in the Day
“The ’60s and ’70s was devastating,” says 69-year-old New York City resident Diedra Nottingham, who came out in the mid-1960s when she was 16. “I would go to the Village with my friend, her brother and his friend, and you could tell they were gay. The cops would snatch them and beat them with sticks and they would tell me to run. Most of my life I always ran. They got beat so bad, and I always cried. I hated cops so much back then. I couldn’t deal with the prejudice.”
Nottingham, a self-described multiracial lesbian and a resident of Stonewall House—New York City’s first affordable, LGBTQ+-friendly senior housing development, located in Brooklyn—said that when she came out, her mother kicked her out of the house. Like 31 percent of Black LGBTQ+ youth in 2014, Nottingham moved around a lot and spent time unhoused and in shelters. She became a mother at age 32, but needing shelter with a toddler, Nottingham said she was forced “to sleep in the park because my mother wouldn’t let us in.”
When Nottingham got older and wanted to marry in 1993, she and her partner went to City Hall to become common law partners because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal. (New York passed the Marriage Equality Act in 2011 and the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal in all 50 states in 2015.)
Being a multiracial lesbian back in the day wasn’t easy says Nottingham. “I got arrested several times protesting in the ’60s, once [for] just standing outside waiting on a friend,” she recalls. “When I was 19, a Black and a White cop put me in the police car and said, ‘We should kill this B so we wouldn’t have to do paperwork.’ I started screaming, so the White cop said, ‘Let’s just take her down to the station’.”
The Youth Today
The fear and marginalization that Nottingham experienced when she was younger reverberates with LGBTQ+ youth of color today, from encounters with law enforcement to how they’re disciplined in school.
“Consistent with similar trends of reported hate crimes based on race/ethnicity and sexual identity, orientation or expression, outside of schools, Black LGBTQ/SGL students are disproportionately impacted by school-based victimization from peers and are least likely to feel supported by school staff or have access to support programs and resources,” Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s executive director, wrote in the intro of the group’s new study, “Erasure and Resilience: The Experiences of LGBTQ Students of Color.”
“One point the report makes alarmingly clear: more than their peers, Black students experience multiple forms of discrimination and violence,” David J. Johns, National Black Justice Coalition’s executive director, wrote in the study.
In addition, the GLSEN report found that:
- Black LGBTQ+ students, who also identified with one or more ethnic identities, were more likely to experience discipline in school (47 percent vs. 38 percent) and run-ins with law enforcement (3.1 percent vs. 1.5 percent ) than students who solely identified as Black, yet there were no differences between those two groups when they faced out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
- Black youth were more likely to be punished, even when they were the victims of harassment or assault. As a result, more than half of Black LGBTQ students have felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 30 percent because of their race.
What’s more, a 2019 UCLA and Williams Institute study highlights a 2014 New Orleans study that found LGBTQ youth of color were 75 percent more likely to be approached, harassed or asked for a sexual favor by police, and 42 percent of respondents said they called law enforcement for help, only to be arrested themselves. The same 2019 study found that White LGBTQ youth have never experienced calling the police, only to be arrested instead.
For trans youth of color, the study found that they were more than twice as likely as their White peers “to have been called a slur by the police, and five times as likely to be asked by the police for a sexual favor.”
“I have come to learn I am held to an extremely higher standard than my White peers,” said 17-year-old Chris Staley, a GLSEN national student council member. “For example, I go to a school with police and security guard presence. I am constantly stopped and questioned every time I am in the hallway, even during the changing of class periods. I have seen White kids be allowed to roam the hallways during class time, but if I need to use the bathroom I am always quickly sent back to class or relentlessly questioned.”
A Change Has Come
While much more needs to be done, older LGBTQ people of color can attest to positive, albeit slow, change. “We have our own clubs, parades; in Seattle, you can walk down the block holding hands, kissing,” Nottingham said. “You have to hire anyone who’s gay if they can do the work. When my girlfriend and I got married, we had to have the statue of the man and woman on the cake, but my daughter had two women on hers, and your partner can be on your insurance. There’s no role play; you can just be free.”
To Nottingham’s point about employment, the Supreme Court confirmed, in a 6-3 ruling on June 15, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ+ workers against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender expression. In addition, elders of color can find community in a variety of organizations, such as Boston’s LGBT Elders of Color, the Diverse Elders Coalition, SAGE and its affiliates (nationwide) in New York City and Mary’s House for Older Adults, expected to open later this year in Washington, D.C. Research found that depression in LGBTQ+ elders was greatly affected by social isolation, but that people of color reported being depressed 2.12 points lower than their White counterparts.
Mary’s House founder, 60-year-old Imani Woody came out in 1997, 30 years after Nottingham at age 37. She had support from friends, her then 15-year-old son and the Black lesbian community. “I’m Black first and then female,” Woody said of her identity. “And in my gay life, it was mostly Black folks so that was good. I’ve had positive experiences.” Woody and her partner had a domestic union in 2005 and married legally in Washington, D.C. in 2010.
A longtime advocate for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people, Woody has seen the need for community and affordable housing for elder LGBTQ+ folks. Over the past two decades, she has served on the board of directors of the Mautner Project for Lesbians, Women in the Life Association and the Whitman Walker Lesbian Services, and she is the former chair of the now-defunct SAGE Metro DC. Woody retired from AARP in 2010 after seven years as a training specialist and in 2018, was appointed to serve on the district’s Age-Friendly Task Force by D.C.’s mayor Muriel Bowser.
Woody, who is building Mary’s House in the home where she grew up, felt the space could fill a much needed void for the Black elder community. “My dad had a stroke in 2010 and he had to go into an establishment. We visited all the time,” Woody explained. “But we pulled him out because he became incontinent. That’s the culture of nursing facilities.” According to her personal observations, her father became gravely ill because the home facility didn’t or couldn’t provide the adequate care to help him improve or thrive, even though family members were constantly present.
If an elder identifies as LGBTQ+, Woody said they often feel unwelcome at these places and co-wrote about their experiences in a blog post for the American Society on Aging. “When I did my Ph.D thesis on the barriers to care for Black and lesbian elders and I contacted the president of the Nursing Home Association and asked if I could talk to people in the nursing homes in the area, everyone that I called said, ‘We don’t have any gay people.’”
Yet what she learned after visiting the facilities said a lot to her about culture. “I would go in and my gaydar would go off,” Woody said. “And people didn’t want to talk to me. I learned that White people didn’t want to be old and Black people didn’t want to be gay.” Woody felt that in the older generation, being gay and Black still carried a heavy stigma, in addition to a lifelong fear of being discriminated against.
Just as Woody has had community throughout her LGBTQ/SGL existence, she is passionate about building a “Golden Girls”-type space for others, which will also include a curriculum on how to live communally. “We want to create family,” Woody said. “COVID-19 and racism are pulling the curtain back. Old people are in a place where no one can check on them. You can’t put your people in a place like a nursing home and expect them to be cared for.”
For Nottingham, she’s happy she moved into Stonewall House in January of this year because of the building’s diversity and the opportunity to cross paths with LGBTQ+ peers who are also thriving, such as a gay male couple who had been together for 50 years. “I found that amazing,” Nottingham quipped. Even more amazing to Nottingham are all the changes she’s seen over these 50 years and where the country is today.
“We have the same rights. We’re not just weirdos or funny anymore,” Nottingham said proudly. “Some people still get angry, but there’s nothing they can do about it. After 50 years, there’s more gay people and we’re everywhere, so get used to it. We’re not going anywhere.”