Filmmaker Stu Maddux’s new documentary, Gen Silent, takes a look at how LGBT elders, many of them gay rights pioneers from the McCarthy era on, are going back into the closet. With an estimated 2 to 7 million LGBT individuals over 65, this is no small issue. In the film, LGBT Aging Project Director Lisa Krinsky reports that 50 percent of nursing home employees believe “that their colleagues would be intolerant of LGBT folks.”
The numbers are staggering and the stories are heartbreaking. Residents at religiously affiliated instituions report staff “homemakers going in, taking out a Bible, and having the elder pray and asking for forgiveness.” Gary Shepard, a director at LGBT retirement center Spectrum, says he remembers a gay woman who was given a “feminine makeover” by staff after becoming senile. With these kinds of horror stories and the years of discrimination these people have experienced, it’s no wonder that there’s such a distrust of mainstream institutions among seniors.
LGBT elders are more likely to age alone. KrysAnne Hembrough, a transgender woman who appears in one of the six vignettes throughout the film, was rejected by her family after coming out and is fighting lung cancer on her own. Many gay couples have no children, some individuals had poor relationships with their “families of origin,” partnerships often go unrecognized and nursing home residents may reject their LGBT peers. This, combined with a staff unprepared to meet their needs, leaves residents without support systems either outside or within the institution.
“One of the most common lines we get is, ‘we don’t have any gay elders here,'” reports one man who is working to bring awareness to existing nursing homes. LGBT invisibility is only compounded by the conflation of queer identity with sexuality and the permeating belief that seniors are nonsexual people. Without supportive “homes” that validate them, families that respect them, school curricula that honor them, or a culture that celebrates them, LGBT elders are rendered invisible.
Not only are our queer forepeople much more worthy of respect than this, they’re invaluable resources and civil rights warriors. In the words of one woman, “We have a whole generation of people who don’t know who we are, that’s really sad. We know a lot. You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us.” With poll after poll showing that homophobia is aging and dying along with those who hold antiquated beliefs it can be easy to forget that elders are not monolithically intolerant. Sometimes wisdom really does come with age.
Gen Silent will be showing at film festivals and special screenings from now through mid-November. If it’s not coming to a city near you, you can opt to be notified when it’s made available for online streaming sometime this fall.