This piece originally was published June 28, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.
By David Heitz
When we enter this world, we’re defenseless. We need someone to care for us to survive.
And when we’re in the sunset of our lives 70, 80, 90, or even 100 years later, we’re often in the same boat. This is truer today than it ever has been. Modern medicine is allowing us to live longer, but not necessarily better.
And another truth: Remember when you were little, how scary it was to be alone? Remember what it felt like when you suddenly were separated from your mom at Kmart? Elderly people often are frightened to be alone, too.
Many end up moving in with their children, as I reported in this feature I wrote for the Quad-City Times of Davenport, Iowa in 2009.
Many gay people find themselves especially vulnerable in their golden years. Most elderly gay people today don’t have children to care for them. That’s a reality that’s changing for future generations of elderly gays, but for now, it is what it is.
And just like many elderly people, gay people often find themselves old and without a spouse or a partner. Let’s face it – gay marriage only became the law of the land in this country in June 2015. And many elderly gay men in particular not only have lost their spouse or partner, but they did so many years ago, tens of thousands of them to AIDS.
And one more harsh truth faced by some older gay men: They’re living with HIV. It’s good news that they’re living and have made it into their golden years. But some were brought back from the brink just as new drugs hit the market. That means that some of them were unable to work and sock away money for retirement during their prime earning years. You can read more about that in this piece I wrote for Healthline News.
Sound depressing? That would be one way of looking at it. But that’s not the angle filmmaker PJ Raval takes in “Before you Know It,” a must-see film that you can learn how to purchase by clicking here. You can watch the trailer by clicking here.
I can only describe it as incredibly uplifting, albeit brutally honest.
PJ followed three elderly gay men for five years, from 2009 to 2013. There’s Robert, the crotchety owner owner of the oldest gay bar in Texas, in Galveston. He calls himself, “Robert the Mouth, the Ugliest Girl in the South.”
And Ty, a black man in Harlem who works for SAGE. Ty lives a pretty good life, but without an organization like SAGE looking out and offering support and community to elderly gays in Harlem, that likely would not be the case. You can learn more about SAGE and their work with elderly gay people in this piece that I wrote for Los Angeles Times Content Solutions.
Finally, we meet Dennis, or “Dee” as he calls himself when he goes out dressed as a woman. Like Ty, a Navy veteran, Dennis also served his country, in the Air Force. After military service, Dennis worked 30 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was married to a woman during that time. When his wife died, he finally came out as gay, and later as a cross-dresser.
None of these men have it easy, especially not Dennis. But this remarkably uplifting film shows how they boldly moved past isolation, stigma, and hardship to squeeze every last drop out of life as they edge closer to going over the rainbow.
“When people watch this film what I’m hoping they take from it is that the aging process doesn’t discriminate,” Raval said. “It’s actually something that happens to all of us. And gay men are facing some of the most extreme examples of ageism, isolation, without a family structure, often single and with no children. They have to make their own communities and find their own communities.”
Cross-dresser finds peace at gay retirement complex
Dennis winds up finding community at a gay retirement complex in Portland, Oregon, called Rainbow Vista. At the age of 82, Dennis still lives there today, paying $745 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. The facility no longer offers meals – it’s essentially just a place to live, and for active seniors only.
But Dennis remains active, taking gay cruises and even going out for a cocktail now and again dressed up as Dee. It’s not something he ever would have done prior to moving out of his water-damaged trailer in Florida several years ago after finding Rainbow Vista on the Internet.
“I was married 30 years to a woman and kept everything under restraint,” Dennis told me Saturday while aboard a ship cruising through the Great Lakes and Erie Canal, ending in Warren, Rhode Island. “In Florida I never ‘dressed’ because of the community attitude. Dennis says rainbow vista is “no frills” but adds, “I love the companionship I’ve found there.”
Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene comes near the end of the film. As he takes a final pass through his trailer before leaving before Florida for good, he declares his family won’t mind that he’s gone. “I’ll be out of sight, out of mind. For years they just tolerated me.”
It’s a sentiment so many of us now all too well, even those of us who are not seniors yet. I asked Dennis how he got past such hurt, and got a response that warmed my heart.
“I have been reconciled with my family,” Dennis said. “I think that the pope’s comments helped.”
There’s a heart-warming scene, too. I hate to be a spoiler, but you won’t want to miss Dee riding aboard the “TG Girls” float in the Portland, Oregon Pride Parade.
Sucking Downs Suds and Cigs at the Gay Bar
Robert “The Mouth, Ugliest Girl in the South” not only finds community where so many gay people find it – a gay bar – but as the bar’s owner, he’s the one who provides that community.
In many communities, the gay bar still is the only town square for gay people. In conservative Galveston, Texas, Robert has provided that town square for many, many decades, but not without hardship.
While it may sound like a sad life on the surface, for some elderly gay men, sucking down cigarettes and suds at the local gay bar is the only community they’ve got.
Robert’s Galveston gay bar bears striking resemblance to a gay bar in my own community, as a matter of fact, at least in terms of the extremely direct banter.
In one scene, a drag queen who works for Robert begins to very frankly declare what those who judge elderly gay men who frequent gay bars – and “chase chickens” – can do with themselves.
She has a point. These men often don’t have anyone beyond the fellowship at the bar. I’ve been in that situation myself during lonely periods of my life. I’m sober now, but how quickly I forget the fellowship I received at the local gay bar when I needed it.
“I worry sometimes about this emerging view that the LGBT community is so widely accepted,” Raval said. “It’s actually not, and these seniors are examples of it. Not everyone is a 22-year-old living in the Castro District with a gym-ready body.”
A sad irony in all of this is that gay community itself is very much to blame for placing eternal youth ona pedestal.
We don’t stay young forever, and many gay people do end up alone. It’s often a parent’s biggest fear when their gay child comes out to them.