Tag Archives: Ageing

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

Reflections on Retirement

As I have just retired, I thought I would use my blog to share and reflect on my transition. I doubt there will be any earth-shattering discoveries or anything particularly new about my experience, but sometimes reading someone else’s experience can be helpful. I am sure that my reflections will be helpful to me. I tend to think and figure things out as I write. I am certain my brain is really in my fingers. 

One of the other things I am sure will emerge in this journey is that my experience will likely fit into the research or theoretical understanding of retirement and early old age transitions. One of the things that frustrates me is that I am not special or unique. As much as I want to be different or want to not have to experience things because I ‘know about such things’ – I can’t seem to escape being human like everyone else! For example, years ago I was doing a talk/workshop in a geriatric hospital where I was working to a group of caregivers whose spouses were currently in the psychiatry or dementia wards. My partner at the time had bi-polar illness. As I was giving the workshop about self-care all I could do was think…I should be sitting in the seats with them! Just because I knew about the stresses and strains of caring, didn’t mean I could escape all the stresses and strains. Another example, I have reflected on my life at regular 10 -15 year intervals and built new structures to prepare for the next phase of life….just like Daniel Levinson wrote about in his normative research on the Seasons of a Man’s Life. Because I’ve spent my career looking at ageing and life transitions, I think I should be exempt from having to experience the uncomfortable parts and just get to the good stuff. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Well that’s what goes on inside this brain of mine. I get to learn the lesson of humility on a regular basis.

I’ll make regular posts about my transition, but I’ll make this first blog post about the decision to retire. It’s a bit historical now, but it will set the scene for future retirement posts. 

My Decision Making Process

My husband and I have been together for just over 20 years and he is 8 years older than me. I always planned on retiring a bit early so we could have good healthy years together in retirement. Prior to this relationship I had always thought I would be one of those academics that was found dead in their office at 85 years of age. But then, before this marriage, I was married to my job. One of my pensions allowed for retirement at 59½ without penalty so I knew that was the earliest I could retire – never thinking I would retire that early. But knowing that date set an early financial parameter.

Two years ago (just before the pandemic) we took a 3-week holiday over Christmas and New Year and booked a cottage on the Kyle of Lochalsh. I hadn’t had such a long period of down time in 20 years. I used this time as a ‘taster’ for retirement. Could we stand to be in the same place all by ourselves for this period of time? What would it be like to have a long stretch of unstructured time? Would I get bored? I also used this time to start some serious retirement planning. I’d done a lot of reading and some financial planning previously, but this was now done in earnest and with the potential reality on the 4-5 year horizon, rather than something abstract. This three-week period was really useful and a couple of things emerged. The 1st was that we really did like each other enough to survive being cooped up in a cabin all by ourselves for 3 weeks (The 1st lockdown confirmed this even more). The 2nd was that I was okay with unstructured time. I wouldn’t want to do it indefinitely so I would need to develop a structure and pattern when I retired (duh…that’s that all the research says).  Finally, I outlined what I needed to do to get ready to retire and get a firm plan. This included some serious financial planning with our financial advisor and doing a proper retirement planning course. At this point two years ago, I was still thinking of a retirement date 4-5 years away, but knew I wanted to get the planning started now and done soon. I put those wheels in motion. Then the pandemic hit. 

Despite the pandemic I was still able to have a planning session with my financial adviser (virtually of course) and also enrolled in a great online retirement planning course that covered every aspect of retirement. It was well worth the money. Through both of these processes I discovered I really could retire at 59½ if I wanted to. I still loved my job and was getting great intrinsic reward from it. The pandemic made things a bit more stressful, but I’ve always thrived in a crisis (one of the benefits of growing up in a dysfunctional family). Being a good leader and helping my school and staff survive and thrive themselves while also providing excellent education despite the pandemic was rewarding, exciting, but also VERY exhausting. 

Though I was still thinking of retirement being 4-5 years away, we decided to start making changes to prepare for retirement.  Again, some of the research talks about the importance of planning and getting structures in place prior to a transition. I wasn’t thinking about the research, but I can be so normative. Anyhow, we loved Dundee and the Tayside region. It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and the City of Dundee is a small vibrant city in the midst of a remarkable transformation. It’s simply an amazing place. Yet, it wasn’t quite right for us in retirement. We decided it would be better for us to retire to Glasgow for a range of personal reasons – including being close to family and friends who could help out with caregiving and being part of a larger gay community. We decided to move before retirement so we could establish a good social network and be part of the community. And that’s what we did. We downsized further and bought a small flat in the City Centre, close to all amenities and travel links. (Sounds like a retirement planning cliche)

During this time there had also been a series of leadership changes at the University. Previously I had been very influential within the University and was making a very positive contribution both to my School and the wider University. With the changes in leadership I began to feel pushed aside. Having been central to many important developments and having a lot of influence over a number of years, it was painful and frustrating. I know that universities across the world do these sorts of things from time to time – in with the new and out with the old – and it is not personal. But it is still sore and feels personal at times. There was also a period of considerable moral distress when processes were occurring that were wrong (in my opinion) and I was unable to influence the processes to be fit for the light of day. It also became apparent to me that my face did not fit for future leadership roles. There was great sadness about this. I also knew myself well enough that if I stuck around in a lesser role, I would turn into one of those people that could be destructive rather than facilitative. In my family of origin, I learned how to be fantastically passive-aggressive. Luckily, I have a very good Superego that keeps that sociopathic ID-driven part of my psyche well controlled. However, occasionally that passive-aggressive side does break through my defences. I worried the temptation to be a snide, snarky grenade thrower would be too great. I didn’t want that to happen and wanted to leave my career with integrity intact. I went back to my financial advisor to discuss moving up the timeline, and there was no real financial reason to delay retirement. 

At this same time, I was approached by two head-hunters for other senior posts in two other universities – I was the ideal candidate for both. Head-hunter’s always butter you up, and it feels nice. At the same time, they also can talk straight about how you sit in the pool of potential candidates.  They were both really keen on me and said both universities were keen on me too. In the end I decided to not go forward for either of these positions, even though it felt fantastic to be wanted by two good institutions when I felt pushed aside by my own. I believe if you go for a senior role, you really need to commit to at least 4-5 years to the job or its unethical to go for it or take it. With my husband’s decreasing health and my increasing need to provide care, I knew I couldn’t realistically commit to that length of time. This brief interlude did help with my discernment process, and I decided to make the decision and actually retire early. 

Once I made that decision a huge weight was lifted, and my stress levels plummeted. Ironically, a new senior appointment was made at my university who quickly began to fix the processes that were so wrong in my opinion. I had a momentary twinge of…did I jump too soon? But quickly realised, no I haven’t jumped too soon. This is the right decision for me and my family. I have had a long discernment process, did a lot of planning, and made changes to support the transition. I feel prepared and eager, and I believe I have built the structures that will support the life I build for the next life stage.  

My next retirement blog entries will chronicle the transition as I go through it.