Gay Lives in the Third Age: Possibilities and Paradoxes

By Cohler, Bertram J.; Hostetler, Andrew J. | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Gay Lives in the Third Age: Possibilities and Paradoxes

Cohler, Bertram J., Hostetler, Andrew J., Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

The present generation of elders is the first in which gay men have become visible members. As a consequence of social and historical changes over the past three decades, an ever larger number of men self-identifying as gay have become interested in their own lives as they grow older and have become activists in groups such as Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), which was founded in 1977. Kimmel (1979-1980) has well portrayed the life-situation of young-old gay men. The generation of young-old gay men that was welleducated but underemployed due to workplace discrimination beginning early in their careers offers a unique perspective on the study of aging in contemporary society (Cohler & Hosteller, 2002).

Having learned across a lifetime how to overcome the stigma of being gay and to manage their lifestyle and same sex desire within the heterosexual community, these elders may have learned a "crisis competence" (Kimmel, 1978) that has provided a unique preparation for dealing with the additional stigma posed by age discrimination. In addition, because they have often encountered hostility from parents and siblings because of their sexual orientation, these gay elders have developed close ties with friends who serve as a source of personal resources and social support at times of need (Kimmel, 2004). Significantly at this time of rapid social change regarding the acceptance of same-gender sexual desire, several of the participants in our study have commented that they feel age discrimination to a greater extent than discrimination founded on sexual orientation. These elders self-identifying as sexual minorities represent a unique group of Third Age pioneers, and they are the subject of the present chapter, which addresses the issue of lifestyle challenges for gay men living in the Third Age of life (Laslett, 1996; Cohler & Hostetler, 2002).


This discussion of gay men in the Third Age is informed by a continuing study of men and women self-defining as gay or lesbians across the second half of life. The study was conducted by student and faculty colleagues of the University Chicago's Committee on Human Development. Over the course of the last 10 years, our research group has conducted questionnaire studies with more than 100 gay men in midlife (Herdt, Beeler, & Rawls, 1997), and approximately 60 life-histories interviews, primarily with middle-aged and older gay men. In the present report, we discuss five of these life histories, including the linked lives of two long-term couples and an activist gay Third Ager preferring to live alone.

The present generation of gay Third Agers was born prior to the second World War and came to adulthood in the conservative post-war years, when particular stigma was attached to homosexuality (Cohler, 2005). This generation of gay elders presently in the Third Age was already nearing midlife at the time of the gay rights revolution of the 1970s (Clendinen & Nagourney, 1999). Having come of age at a time when same-sex desire was both invisible and severely stigmatized, the early generation of gay urban pioneers learned to live beneath the social radar. Many led the double life (Chauncey, 1994), passing as heterosexual during the day and spending evenings and weekends in the shadowy gay enclaves hidden from public view yet always subject to police raids (Brown, 2001; Read, 1973).

Many men in this generation worked as librarians, accountants, or in other occupations that required little social contact at work, and in which discussion of personal issues could be avoided. Social life outside of work differed little from that of their heterosexual counterparts, consisting primarily of quiet dinners at home, gatherings with a small circle of friends, and weekends in the country. This generation enjoyed the benefits of the gay rights revolution, yet was often little involved in the political activism characteristic of later generations of gay men, whose identity was formed in the context of this period of heady activism.

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