The aim of the workshop was to look at positively supporting older people from LGBT and BAME communities.
The afternoon had a range of speakers with an opening address from Mark Rounding CEO of Age UK Bradford who talked about creating age friendly communities where older people can be accepted and valued for who they are. In common with all the speakers Mark made a very real connection between the personal and the political by drawing on his own experiences to illustrate social, cultural, attitudinal and legislative changes which have led to improved rights for people from LGBT and BAME communities.
For me the high point of the afternoon was a series of short talks by three ambassadors from Opening Doors London openingdoorslondon.org.uk, a charitable organisation providing information and support services for older LGBT people. Highlight some of the barriers, particularly later in life when they may face prejudice and homophobia when accessing older people’s services. Both indirectly, by professionals making assumptions about their sexuality, and more directly by other older people using those services who may have grown up in a time when society was less accepting and discriminatory views against LGBT people widely held. Taking them back to a time when there was a greater need for people to hide their sexuality for fear of recrimination and receiving less favourable treatment. Often leading to situations when the very people who have fought for some of the freedoms we now take for granted are having to deny their true identity and hide who they really are, increasing the risk of them becoming lonely and isolated.
One speaker in particular resonated with me. On the face of it, Maggie’s story seemed typical of the experience of many older LGBT people growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. She is in her mid-sixties and originates from Wales. As an adolescent and young woman, she hid her sexuality, married a man she didn’t love at an early age and went on to have two children. It was only when her children started University that she had the courage to leave her husband and live openly as a lesbian. What struck me about her story was the courage and integrity she displayed, which ultimately led to her being ostracised from her local community. Subsequently she moved to London where she worked as a nurse and was able to live openly both in her professional and personal life. But when she retired and joined the University of the Third Age things came full circle and she was again faced with homophobic attitudes from her own age group. Determined to take a stand she wrote an article about herself and her sexuality and this was published by the University, encouraging others to come forward to support her, and to feel more able to openly express their own sexuality. Fascinatingly, Maggie later told me she gained strength from watching young LGBT people on YouTube who inspired her to speak out; highlighting the importance of intergenerational friendships for all age groups videos.
What I came away with from the Confident with Difference event was a realisation that it’s easy to be complacent, to believe that due to changes in the law and attitudes LGBT people now have the same rights and freedoms everyone should enjoy and that the fight for equality is over. But for older people this is not always the case. The reality for many as they age is that they are less likely to have had children, may be estranged from their families and as their social networks diminish they can face hostile treatment and assumptions from older people’s services which leads them to once again feel the need to hide who they really are. Indicative of a wider issue of the way we devalue older people in society to the point we deny them a sexual identity, and if we are to acknowledge this at all it is all too often a default heterosexual one.
Ultimately, it’s too easy for many people who are straight to feel that this is an issue affecting a minority, that we should all treat each other the same and that differences shouldn’t matter anymore. But one of the messages that stood out for me was from Richard Dunbar from Bradford Council and Cares’ Resource, who said that for someone who is heterosexual to challenge homophobia can give a very powerful message that we will not accept other people’s prejudices and we take LGBT rights extremely seriously. I think in St Anne’s we all have an obligation to champion diversity and even though you may not identify directly as part of the LGBT community your support as an ally and advocate for people’s rights can make all the difference in challenging some of the negative assumptions older people and others may face both within our services and wider society.
We rightly acknowledge a debt of gratitude to previous generations who fought in the First and Second World Wars, but older LGBT people have faught a war closer to home. They’ve put themselves in danger for their beliefs and showed incredible bravery and courage, paving the way for current and future generations to enjoy freedoms they could only dream of. We all have an obligation to ensure their rights and dignity are protected and they are afforded the support and respect they are entitled to later in life.