LGBT Couples in Later Life: A Study in Diversity

Article excerpt

In-depth views of opportunities and constraints.

While the term couple typically evokes an image of a (presumably heterosexual) woman and man linked together by an intimate and formal tie, most often marriage, the examination of "couplehood" among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (lgbt) population offers no such ready romantic image. In fact, to be an older gay or lesbian person means one is more likely to be associated with being alone (Hosteder, 2004). Notwithstanding conforming evidence suggesting a greater proportion of single people among older gay men as compared to heterosexual men and lesbians (de Vries, 2006), diverse manifestations and representations of lgbt couples exist (a diversity that may derive, in part, from legislated marriage inequalities) as do diverse views on what constitutes marriage itself (for example, as not simply a symbol of traditional, heterosexual relationships). Elaborations on this diversity form the basis of the discussion below.

It is important to note, as revealed elsewhere in this issue of Generations, an increasing awareness that varied couple forms exist among adults of all ages and among adults in heterosexual couples as well as in lgbt couples. For example, several years ago in this journal, Huyck (2001) described nine types of romantic relationships in later adulthood: marriage, remarriage, partnership, cohabitation, living apart together (lat: wherein partners maintain separate households and finances and occasionally coreside), affairs, abandoned relationships, absent relationships, and unrequited romantic relationships. Huyck noted that each of these possibilities is evident in later life; de Jong Gierveld (2004) further noted that cohabitation and lat are becoming more common in Northern Europe among people of all ages-a pattern believed to be replicated among gay men and lesbians in North America.

LGBT COUPLES

LGBT has become a ubiquitous acronym. Its reference to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people suggests an inclusive community united by sexual identity or sexual orientation. However, the unity and cohesiveness of diis community has been challenged recendy, including the addition of even a greater number of letters to the lexicon: "Q" for queer and another "Q" for questioning; "I" for intersex; another "F for two-spirit. These additions are driven by many forces, including age (queer is a term more commonly endorsed by younger members of the community-e.g., Adelman et al., 2006), an appreciation of social conditions, temporality and process (the term questioning reflects the more fluid sexual experiences), an increased knowledge and social awareness (the term intersex reflects a renewed appreciation of the complexity of sexual lives, including the presence of genitalia that are neither exclusively male nor exclusively female), and an explicit recognition of the role of culture (two-spirit is a term rooted in Native American and Canadian First Nations' cultures reflecting a third gender or the presence of both a masculine and feminine spirit within the same body). The more complex acronym, lgbtqi, is thus both more inclusive and more diffuse.

Even the more basic acronym, lgbt, represents a large group of older adults-perhaps as many as 3 million people age 65 or older and probably as many as 4 million or more by the year 2030 (Cahill, South, and Spade, 2000). Not surprisingly, documentation about this population (including these numerical estimates) is probably more evocative than definitive and potentially miscalculates actual proportions: the legacy of stigma and discrimination (leading to, for example, a reticence to identify as lgbt), the lack of appropriate and standardized terminology (Miller et al., 2007), and the fluid nature of sexuality (de Vries, Croghan, and Worman, 2006) all bear some responsibility for this lack of precision.

THE ROLE OF (SAME-SEX) MARRIAGE

A central context in the current discussion of lgbt couples is their legal status, most clearly noted in the potent and divisive issue of same-sex marriage in the United States. …