Magazine article Colorlines Magazine

Gay, Gray and Black: A Brooklyn Organization Helps Elderly Lesbians and Gays Find Each Other and Stay out of the Closet in the Golden Years

Magazine article Colorlines Magazine

Gay, Gray and Black: A Brooklyn Organization Helps Elderly Lesbians and Gays Find Each Other and Stay out of the Closet in the Golden Years

Article excerpt

I grew up in Brooklyn. When I was in high school in the 1950s, I always knew I was a lesbian. I can't tell you when I first knew; I've always known. In high school, I met other lesbians. When we talked about being gay around other people, we always talked in code. African-American code is "one of the children," like "so and so is one of the children," or we'd say a person was "in the life." Of course, you have to realize, too, in those days that just wearing pants signified that you were gay or crazy. If you did anything that was out of the gender norm, everybody was aware of it immediately.


I was a gender bender. I wanted to wear pants. But my mother wanted a daughter who had little tea parties. I used to wear pinafores and Shirley Temple curls and little Mary Jane shoes. That's what my mother wanted, so any time I deviated from that she had a fit; nobody could understand it. One time I bought a pair of jeans, and I wore them home so she wouldn't make me take them back.

I used to hang out at the gay clubs in New York's West Village. At the bars, there certainly were older [lesbians], but I didn't think about older people. We had a fine life--and by that I mean we knew people in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens. You could go to two or three dances in one night. One of the things about being so closeted is that we were in a special club. And the special club had its own life.

Struggling with Secrecy

When my friend Tootsie was taken away to a nursing home, well, I had seen things like that happen many times. I'd seen people die and the family come and ship the body down South or whatever--never even had a funeral or went to a funeral.

The family that reaches out is very, very rare in my experience. You have people whose families are not openly against them, but once that person dies the family takes that opportunity to "set things right." I've been to numerous funerals where the family now takes this opportunity to put the person in this dress they wanted them to wear. It's totally negating. But at the same time, these are the things that provoke me to make older lesbians and gays visible and be considered as a community.

For many African-American gays, when we get older, so little is available to us. We may have lied to get into an apartment, because we couldn't be truthful about who our family was. When we owned property, maybe we had all the properties in one person's name because the other person was receiving benefits so she could get health coverage. We know that the property belongs to both of them, but if anything were to happen, we would have no way of proving it.

We're learning now. We need to be able to get married, but we're learning to protect ourselves. My partner and I, we've been together for 17 years, and we bought a house. We have a survivorship deed. That's one protection you can count on. If one of us dies, the surviving partner owns the rest of the house. When you have tenancy in common, though, then my heirs are entitled to half the house, and that's what has happened to so many people, causing them to be homeless. Very often, especially with women, the property could only be in one person's name. The other person may not be able to put the property in their name, because maybe they're getting welfare benefits, disability benefits or TANF.

In the African-American community, especially in the lesbian and gay community, we have survived by secrecy. So we're not willing to tell anybody anything. It's like they say, "What goes on in this house, stays in this house. …

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