Monthly Archives: May 2022

The Invisibility of Being Old and Queer

I’ve noticed recently that I am no longer obviously gay and that worries me. You may wonder what does ‘obviously gay’ mean and that would be a good question. Members of the LGBTQ+ family come in all shapes, sizes, colours, dispositions, walks of life, cultural backgrounds, presentation, etc. Sure, there are stereotypes and some of us can embody those, but most of us don’t exactly fit the stereotypes either. Though I may have some stereotypically gay attributes and sometimes enjoy playing with those stereotypes, I have never been the stereotype that popular culture portrayed about what a gay man is. And yet, for a large part of my adult life I was consciously obviously gay. 

Prior to coming out in a big way when I was 20, I lived very closeted and secret double life connected to the church. When my big secret was revealed to my community and my family I was abandoned and homeless. Luckily, I was ‘adopted’ by a rag tag bunch of gay men, lesbians, and transfolk who for a variety of reasons were considered the dregs of society. They took me in and brought me back to life. That community felt a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys from the old Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer Claymation Christmas special…with one exception. Though they all claimed their “misfit-ness” they were not sad or miserable like the misfit toys in that TV show. They embraced and celebrated who they were and lived authentic and visible lives. They were outrageous, loving, giving, loud and a lot of fun too. (Think of the TV programme POSE and you’ll get a sense of the community that adopted me) Even as AIDS began to devastate that community, they continued to be outrageous, loving and visible. They learned to live with dignity in their queerness, and in the height of the early AIDS epidemic they showed others how to support each other to die with dignity. When society abandoned us at our hour of greatest need, we banded together and thrived….even in death. I began to realise at this point that every act of being out, whether of the outrageous/flamboyant type or the quieter “this is who I am” type, was both personal and political. The AIDS crisis made it even more important for LGBT people to be visible and to be seen as part of wider society. When my partner died from AIDS and I was immediately made homeless for the 2nd time in my life due to homophobia I became a bit of a militant “in your face” gay man and I made sure strangers in the street were aware I was a gay man. Though I mellowed a great deal over the years I’ve always been adamant about the importance of being out. I’m convinced that one of the reasons we made great strides in LGB rights is that so many of us began to be out and huge proportions of the general population began to realise that they had lesbian or gay family members, friends, work colleagues, doctors, plumbers, nurses, cleaners, etc. It was difficult to ‘other’ and demonise that which you know. As I progressed in my career, I thought it was even more important for me to be visibly out so that younger LGBT people could see successful and happy older LGBT people…something I didn’t have growing up.

So here I am now at 60 years old and I worry that I am no longer easily identifiable as a gay man. I think this is partly down to ageism and wider society still doesn’t see older people as sexual beings or as having a sexuality. Ageism also exists in the LGBT community and we can be excluded from the younger LGBTQ scene (though there is a sub-culture of ‘daddy chasers’ who like us older men).  But moving beyond ageism, some of the external stereotypical things I used to like to do have diminished as well. For example, how I present myself has changed. I look like an old man now, rather than as a gay man. Certainly since I retired I no longer have any fashion sense at all –  joggy bottoms and a fleece with coffee stains will do just fine for a trip to Tesco (what have I become?)! The LGBT work lanyards are gone. My public leadership of LGBT staff networks or city Pride organisations is gone. In addition, I’ve gone from doing things with a large LGBT friendship circle to having few LGBT friends I do things with publicly. In my 30s and 40s I was regularly going out to restaurants, the cinema, theatre, sporting events, theme parks, conference, sports tournaments etc with 5, 10 or 20 screaming queens and butch dykes. Last night we went to see the Pet Shop Boys with another older gay couple and aside from the initial kisses and cuddles when we saw each other, we would have blended into a predominantly straight crowd. 

On one hand there is something to be celebrated in the fact that I can quietly live my life as part of a gay couple and have peace of mind that I now have the same legal rights as a straight married couple. Never again will I be flung out on the streets if my partner dies. There is something to celebrate in the fact that I can go to a concert, meet two gay friends and have a brief cuddle and kiss in public and not get beat up or arrested. But there is also something very disconcerting about being invisible again. 

Invisibility feels particularly dangerous at this particular time in history because the pendulum of human rights for LGBT people is beginning to swing in a regressive direction. I lived through and have the scars from the horrible homophobia and oppression of the 1970s 1980s and 1990s. I remember the hate fuelled murders of Harvey Milk, Mathew Sheppard, Rita Hester and many other less famous LGBT people. I remember all the hateful discourse and backlash against LGBT people as public opinion regarding LGB people began to shift positively around the turn of the century until it peaked in the past 20 years. I recognise the language being used against trans people today as the same language used against gay people back then, and how that same language is now once again also seeping into discourse about LGB people too. I recognise the divide and conquer techniques the right is using to get parts of the LGBT community fighting against each other. I also recognise how those same techniques are turning working class people against the poor, refugees, immigrants, BAME people and other marginalised communities. If we get riled up and start fighting each other, we won’t notice when those in power further line their pockets and further undo years of progressive advances. Those in power are not even pretending any longer and are blatantly hostile against the LGBT community as well as other marginalised groups. I must find new ways to stand up and say each and every day that I am here and I’m queer and I’m not going away. I must also find new ways to stand in solidarity with others who are being marginalised. I am also finding my LGBTQ community again. I will not be invisible, nor will I stand by in silence as I see others oppressed. Act Up had it right all those years ago: Silence=Death; Action=Life

The Intentionality Fallacy in Caring

The research I did for my PhD was on stress and coping for family caregivers of people with dementia. I was particularly interested in the appraisal process and how that impacted burden. Stress and coping models suggest that events may not be stressful in and of themselves. How people think about an event (appraise it) can greatly influence if they experience something as stressful or not. Two different people may experience the exact same stressor and one person has a meltdown and the other simply takes it in stride. Though this is an oversimplification it does have some truth to it. How we think about an event can influence how we experience an event, and this can impact our behaviour. Albert Ellis was a psychologist who developed a type of cognitive behavioural therapy built on this idea. He wanted to help people overcome irrational beliefs and manage their emotions and behaviours. His ABC model helped people explore their irrational beliefs and make changes. The A was Antecedent (or activating event), B stands for Beliefs, and C stands for the Consequences of that belief (or emotional reaction). If one could understand their ABC process, they could break the irrational chain. The stress and coping models and Ellis’ ABC model come from very different places, but both land on the idea that how we think about an event or what our belief is about that event can increase our stress or negatively impact on our emotional wellbeing. 

My research suggested that if a caregiver of someone with dementia was afraid that they were going to get dementia too, then the symptoms that came with cognitive decline were more stressful. Carers were more likely to think “this is what is going to happen to me too,” and they experienced more stress. An example from my years of supporting carers also demonstrates this point. Some carers would think that the incontinence of the person they were caring for was intentional. They would say things like John is just wetting the bed to annoy me. Or Margaret waits to defecate until after I change her on purpose. Carers would get so angry at their loved ones, or feel hurt or betrayed because of the belief that the behaviour was intentional. I had countless conversations with a range of carers describing the nature of dementia (or whatever other condition was responsible) and how these behaviours were symptoms of the disease and not intentional acts. When carers were able to get their heads around this, their stress levels would decrease, and it made it easier not to get angry or short with the person they were caring for.  Sure, it was still a royal pain having to change the bedding (again) or to clean someone up (again) who was incontinent of bowel, but not feeling angry or hurt at the ill person for doing something unintentional lessened the emotional burden. Being able to reframe the behaviour as part of the disease rather than a personal attack was important.

I really understand all of this, and yet, when it is my own life, I somehow forget all of this. Though my husband does not have dementia, one of the conditions he has requires the use of a medication during a flare up that significantly impacts cognition. It takes longer for information to get into the brain, and longer for the brain to process, and longer still for a response to occur. The condition itself during a flare up can also really add to this deterioration. Age related hearing loss doesn’t help (especially if he ‘purposefully’ doesn’t wear his hearing aids), the cognitive processing is synergistically impacted. 

Despite having some expertise in carers issues and also really understanding the condition and medication side effects, I found myself getting so frustrated, snappish, short, unforgiving and blaming. I ascribed all sorts of intentionality and became angry and resentful. I even heard my mother’s voice in my head saying, ‘after all I’ve done for you, you treat me this way…’  When this mental story is playing in my head, the caring feels like a burden rather the loving, supportive relational activity it really is.  

Luckily now I do recognise this pattern, but sometimes I recognise it too late and say or do something I regret and feel guilty about. It helps to acknowledge the intentionality fallacy and to apologise for my snapping or my less than charitable behaviour or reactions – when I notice what I’m doing. My morning meditation practice also helps keep me centred and lessens the frequency of my stinking thinking. My regular exercise also helps me keep perspective. 

One of the themes that is emerging across my blog is that knowing something doesn’t mean that you get to skip the experience. I wish that all my knowledge about carers meant I could care for my husband and be a long-distance carer for my mother without making any mistakes or by not having to experience some of the downsides. In my hubris I thought maybe I could escape all of that…but once again I get to learn a little humility and that I do have clay feet too. Strangely there is something reassuring about that.