Twice Hidden: Older Gay and Lesbian Couples, Friends, and Intimacy

Article excerpt

Are there elderly lesbians and gay men?1 If we look at contemporary imagery of gay men and lesbians, we are most likely to see images of younger adults (see, e.g., the recent Showtime television series, Queer as Folk); this view parallels the general marginalization of older adults in U.S. culture. Older adult gay men and lesbians may be said to constitute the most invisible of an already invisible minority.

Of course there are elderly lesbians and gay men. Some estimates put the number of gay and lesbian older Americans from i million to 2.8 million (Cahill, South, and Spade, 2000). However, little is known about this group relative to what is known about other groups of older adults. In large part, this lack of knowledge is due to some of the inherent difficulties faced in studying lesbians and gay men in general, including problems of definition, differences in selfidentification as gay or lesbian among this cohort of elders in particular, and, historically, a lack of institutional support for research on this population.

Making research and understanding even more difficult has been the social devaluation of lesbian and gay citizens and especially lesbian and gay relationships by government and religious institutions (see, e.g., the Defense of Marriage Act and similar state legislation as well as many churches' punctilious stances on gay marriage that favor heterosexual intimacy over gay and lesbian intimacy). Additionally, the research that has been conducted has been biased in favor of gay urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, with gay men and lesbians who are "out," middle class, and predominantly European American (Quam, 1993).

Expressions of intimacy among older gay men and lesbians counter the negative image of these older adults as alone and lonely. In the few such studies available, there is evidence that a sizable proportion of lesbians and gay men are in long-term relationships (see, e.g., Bell and Weinberg, 1978; McWhirter and Mattison, 1984) or live alone but are not lonely.

Cahill, South, and Spade (2000), for example, indicate that although gay men and lesbians may be more likely to live alone and without a life partner than their heterosexual counterparts, they may have stronger nonfamilial social networks than do heterosexuals. According to these authors, "[n]ew forms of relationship in old age can include living independently but continuing close, intimate relationships with one partner or several. Nurturing friendships, not just a long-term relationship with a partner, seem to provide a major source of life satisfaction."

Isay (1986) speculated about the dynamics underlying successful gay male relationships. He posited that for some same-gender couples, similarity (i.e., a higher degree of compatibility and mutual understanding) is an enhancing factor, especially early on in a relationship. For others, complementarity contributes to successful relationships in that it "allows for the tension of sexual desire and also the emotional space for the couple to grow in" Other factors that contribute to long-term intimacy include emotional fidelity (more so than sexual fidelity), sexual flexibility, and psychological-sexual attitude flexibility (i.e., greater flexibility in attitudes about sex roles).

Kehoe (1988) speculated about the dynamics underlying successful lesbian relationships. She posited that freedom from gender role stereotyping in relationships contributes to a more equitable distribution of power and responsibilities. "[Lesbians] want companionship and affection, together with enduring tenderness and concern.' In addition to intimacy within couplehood, lesbians may rely even more on their circle of friends and family than do gay men (Cahill, South, and Spade, 2000).

These characterizations of relationships for older lesbians and gay men have, at least on the surface, much in common with successful relationships for heterosexual women and men; successful relationships in varying forms are constructed on bases of similarity and complementarity and nonstereotyped behaviors. …