Saturday, April 27, 2013

Defining who we are pt. V: Learning to Care for Our Own

By Sabrina Samone, TMP
No one but you can ever define you. Lao Tzu says, "Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing the self is enlightenment. Mastering others requires force. Mastering the self requires strength."  The great Aristotle, lead by Plato, defined the soul as the core essence of a living being, but argued against its having a separate existence. Ramana Maharshi taught that, self, itself is the world; self itself is ‘I’; self itself is God; all is the Supreme Self. The moral of the story may simply be that even with thousands of great thinkers throughout history, their ideas of defining who you are are no more than theories and the answer to who you are still lies completely in your hands.

The next step, since defining yourself may take your entire lifetime, we have race, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion and countless other labels to try and define how we fit into the grand scheme of things. For instance I often think of how we care for the elders of our community, differ, depending on your culture.  Many Asian countries seem to master it a little more compassionately, to me, than we do here in America. If there is someone elderly in the family, many come together to care for their loved ones and usually remain a part of the family’s household.  To me, here in America, we seem very quick to discard those in society after they have reached a certain age. It seems to begin after retirement. Maybe a result of being a capitalist nation seems that once a person is no longer on the treadmill of a working life, they appear to be deemed less valuable to society.  This is misfortunate because with age comes wisdom that could be more valuable than gold to younger generations.

After working in a dozen or so nursing homes I’ve noticed how forgetful we are of loved ones.  In every nursing home there are lists of residents that only get the privilege of seeing a relative, during Christmas, if they’re lucky. Its part of nursing home gossip to notice who don’t get a visitor the other 364 days of the year.  Why in this country, we don’t cherish those that came before us is a mystery, maybe only Aristotle himself could answer and in the LGBT community it is even worse. It’s been a joke on popular lgbt shows like Will and Grace and countless others, that thirty years of age in the LGBT community is equal to 50 in mainstream society. It may have been used as countless jokes but the reality is more sad and true and if the way we treat our elderly in mainstream America seems alarming, it’s a Greek tragedy when it comes to the LGBT elderly.

The entire community actually reminds me of Greek culture in ancient times, or at least from what I’ve read of course. I’ve read that those born beautiful were given many advantages. Strength, physical beauty and power were celebrated.  The Spartan elders examined all new born babies and ordered that any who were not well-built and sturdy were to be killed by leaving them in the bush at the foot of Mount Taygetus, according to Plutarch, “Life of Lycurgus”, 16. In Greek life they admired those that reminded them of their Gods, those endowed with superhuman strength and ageless beauty. Ask any gay bar fly nearing 50 if they are still in demand, or the fact that Miss Gay USA actually holds a “classic” version for those forty plus. Thirty is the brick wall in LGBT culture, forty is classic and fifty is “you poor thing.”  Add to the fact, this culture is a sub-culture of the great American mosaic, who also, from the time of birth we are trained to fight the ageing process and dread the days of the old.

There is a reason my generation of LGBT peers may have had a lack of how to deal with the elderly; A plague in the eighties that killed millions, denying them, old age. If your over thirty-five, LGBT, you may have started realizing how blessed you are. We all have a list of people that didn’t make it to see 2013. The dreaded plague maybe more controlled than ever before and no longer a death sentence with early detection and treatment. But we kids of the late eighties and on know the fear of first learning about sex, all while simultaneously learning, it can kill. According to the World Health Organization, thirty-five million people had died since the epidemic began and according to, nearly a million gay men in the USA. Until recently there hasn’t been much research in how many trans-women and men have passed but you can be assure our numbers are represented in that.

Imagine the contributions to all our fight for equality and respect in this country would be today had all these fellow LGBT friends were spared this early death.  Would we even, at this point be still waiting on someone to ‘let’ us marry whom we love? The generation that saw the greatest losses were the post stonewall generation.  The ones that fought back in the streets with baseball bats, chanted in the streets I’m here and I’m queer, who help remove Gay and Lesbian as a mental disorder from the American Psychiatric Association and moved us so close to equality by the early eighties. Until Aids came, ignored by the then conservative right wing powers and yes I still hold them partially responsible for so many deaths. Ignoring for so long that Aids was indeed an epidemic. The result...we lost a million of the greatest voices of the lgbt movement and the stigma of Aids silenced the rest of us for nearly the next two decades.

Now, thankfully Aids is no longer a death sentence it once was and when the cure is finally given to the community, it’ll be happy days again, but until then a new generation has emerged, not fearing this disease as those born in the seventies, eighties had and the numbers are back on the rise, especially among transgender men and women. We owe it to our Trans-sisters and brothers to always make it a part of our daily conversation, to remind each other to play safe, now is not the time to think the disease is finished.  Some research has even stated that the disease maybe mutating into a stronger more deadly version. We have lost a powerful  generation already, and my unguided generation has done its best to keep the torch of freedom and equality alive, we don’t need to just live long enough to see another generation wiped from the face of the earth due to lack of self responsibility.

For those few proud LGBT soldiers of equality that now stand where armies once stood, faced with becoming elderly, should not be forgotten or brushed aside. Thankfully there is growing concern within the greater community to provide care for LGBT elderly.  The city of Chicago recently approved financing and land transfer for the Midwest first gay and lesbian-friendly affordable senior housing facility.  Take it from someone, friends, who has worked in senior care for several years, think life is tough if your LGBT now? I promise you, it’s even scarier in a nursing home. Back in 2002, my boyfriend at the time, and I worked together at a local facility in Florence, SC.  There was a very outspoken elderly gay man there, who had spent the disco era of the seventies, when there was no Aids (imagine if you can), in San Francisco. The newly appointed Gay Mecca of the time and he was a very involved gay man in the community with elaborate stories of life as the gay elite of the time in San Francisco. Even on the days we were working he was our pick, taking him out for ice cream, bringing him clothes and gifts, since he had no family that would come see about him. Occasionally we’d check on him on our days off, we adopted him as our grand pa. For me, being transgender it was a no brainer, but I was very impressed by my boyfriend at the time, who was a straight male never in contact with LGBT people until he had met me. He was the first to call him grand pa. It was a conscious decision on our part, because of what we saw and heard from other co-workers. Yes, even in my face they’d use the F, word and refuse to do anymore than the minimum for him, ask him in appropriate questions and try turning his roommates against him. When we started working there and saw this, we did our best to change the attitudes, and I being Trans became, reluctantly, the local Trans 101 instructor of the facility. Our adopted Grand pa reveled in the attention and the growing number of people over time that took up for him. I remember near the end of his life a new girl began work in there and had been told he was Gay. During a smoke break, in  front of him, she began to spit her bigoted venom, and before my boyfriend and I could attack her, several other co-workers lashed out and said, “oh no, you can’t come here hating on grand-pa now, go on with that”, it brought tears to my eyes. I’m grateful he passed with more dignity than he would have if he did not have support.

That’s why the attention on the elderly in our community is needed now more than ever. With people living longer with Aids and those they were lucky enough to pass thru the storm are now faced with ageing in a society that discards the elderly and yet still face discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

We as a community also need to share in the responsibility, though we may not like thinking about becoming elderly, the average LGBT person who does, may face it alone, with no family left alive and no children to care for them. We also owe it to the LGBT youth that are coming of age to be reminded of the dangers of unprotected sex. We have wisdom to pass to the youth and wisdom yet to attain from those who came before us, but as a community we should do more to help both, because helping the newest and oldest generations is the key to helping ourselves. We have to start caring for our own.

Recent news topics from other sources related to elderly and HIV;

Aging and being LGBT

1.       Gay and Gray on Q-notes


Contributed blog on by Trans Matriarch Olivia Ontko 


HIV among Transgender People

3.       Trans-men and HIV


Related TMP Articles

Defining who we are part IV: A message to Cis-gender people, Transgender is not sexuality

Defining who we are pt. lll: The Trans* sex worker and exploitation




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