Hidden In Plain Sight: Where Are Black Gay Elders?
A piece written by South African writer Motlatsi Motseoile and published on Mamba Online.com, recently raised some important questions around the invisibility of Black gay elders, while urging them to play a more active role in the development of LGBTQ teens and young adults.
“Heterosexual people have the benefit of documented history and life lessons passed on; therefore they have social templates on what to do, how to do it and where to go when things don’t work out. We, on the other hand, often have to rely on our own experiences to learn many things in life.
That’s why there is a desperate need to see and hear older gay men; even if just – at the very least – for them to show us that one can and will be gay right into the golden years. It’s vital for our parents to see that too, and understand that we can live as happy, gay men even as we retire, and beyond. That is what visibility can do.”
Black LGBTQ visibility definitely matters and is instrumental in disrupting stereotypes and changing the narrative about our lives within the larger Black community. Living Out Loud 2.0 spoke with four African-American same gender loving men between the ages of 49-69 to learn more about their experiences and why it appears this population has either been decimated or hidden in plain sight.
H. Reginald Miller, 52
“There aren’t a whole lot of non-hetero Black men living long enough to become ‘older.’ I’m 52, and I can honestly say, I never imagined I would see this age or that my life would look the way that it does because so many of my role models didn’t live to be 60, or 50, or even 40. Assotto Saint, Marlon Riggs, and Essex Hemphill were all born in 1957; they would have made 63 this year, but instead they died of complications related to HIV-disease at 36, 37, and 38 years old, respectively. Sylvester died at 41. I lost most of my peer group in my 20s and early 30s. And many of those who didn’t die from HIV-disease still died early because Black people still die prematurely from other ailments like cardio-vascular disease, cancer, violence, trauma, etc. There are so many tiles missing from the rich mosaic of Black queer life, and now ’Rona threatens to remove the few left that are still hanging on.”
Alan Sharpe, late 60s
“Despite the fact that homosexuality has probably existed as long as people have, it’s not that much of an overstatement, and still not so long ago, that suicide could be considered the only appropriate and acceptable response for anyone who was not heterosexual. “Out and proud” is still a relatively recent concept. I’m in my late sixties. Like my contemporaries, I grew up at a time when homosexuality was widely considered to be the worst, lowest form of human existence. Open expression of that particular sexual truth was not just an absolute abomination, it was also completely illegal and the grounds for immediate arrest and imprisonment. The closet remained the safest place for many.
Just as those attitudes finally, incrementally seemed to be changing for the better, the onset of HIV/AIDs, ramped up the stigma against Black gays in our communities to an almost hysterical level. That same pandemic also effectively wiped out a generation of potential activists, policymakers, artists and other social influencers, while simultaneously decimating a certain segment of the community who would have been among the elders of today.
As with any other group, as Black gays and lesbians age, we can become less active and outgoing. We’ve also established more private social lives with our peers, that revolve far less upon being out and about among younger folks. When we do venture out less than welcoming atmosphere, if not open derision and hostility perceived from younger generations in social settings can also make older members of the community less inclined to be an active part of the mix. Age is a reminder of mortality – not a popular subject for most, but especially not for the young. Health issues and the public perception that age, infirmity or loneliness make us prime targets for exploitation and crime are also real disincentives.
Although present and available as a resource, older people can be easily overlooked and fade into the background, unless others are interested willing to actively engage without feeling threatened."
Alvin McEwen, 49
"I think older gay men are visible but are pretty much being ignored unless they meet a "characteristic," i.e. successful and with physical looks which supposedly belie their age. This community sometimes is so geared towards embracing youth and vitality that it tends to ignore things like resiliency of age and the wisdom which comes with it. So we focus on superficial outer appearances and badges of status. It's yet another shield we have built to protect ourselves from the homophobia which comes from some parts of society.
Amistad Arromand, 49
"I, too, was once an ageist, but then I grew up and got older. Like body shaming, our communities do this thing with age shaming where the wisdom that comes with growing older takes a back seat to insightful youthfulness. This form of thinking leads to the devaluing of brothers and sisters who have (and are) navigating what is a very natural and inevitable process for us all. In the same ways that the heteronormative culture pushes false norms, gay youth-normative culture also pushes false norms about who and what is and is not a valued gay (man or woman). Building on this concept, we see everything from public images to public and private spaces geared towards the “acceptable” crowd and less towards the others. These days when a young person says: “You’re old!” My response is “If you think 49 is old, get here!”