Gay, Lesbian and Trans Elders, Pioneers Find Themselves Back in the Closet

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.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 308 articles for us.


  1. This is heartbreaking. I wonder if there is a way to start volunteer groups of queers to go into homes and visit with these people? I can’t visit my own grandmother because I live in another state, but I’d love to get to know some queer elders and maybe even take down oral histories of their lives. =/

      • Thanks for this info/idea. I teared up at my desk watching this with a first thought of “What can I do?” You two are steps ahead. I’m def interested to joining/starting a program like this.

      • anybody know of any similar organization that’s national, or in the atlanta ga area? I’ve used my google machine and still haven’t managed to find any.

        • You guys are so awesome! I don’t know of any organizations or anything but I do know that Gen Silent has contact info and I bet someone there would be able to point you in the right direction.

      • SAGE New York does! It’s called the friendly visiting program and it’s run by Michelle Laguerre. Here’s more info on the program:

        To be a friendly visitor you need to be in or around the NYC area for at least a year, but SAGE has many more great volunteer opportunities if you can’t make that kind of commitment. I have been involved with SAGE for a few years now and I have had the privilege of volunteering in so many different ways. SAGE NY offers a volunteer training the second Wednesday of every month at the LGBT center. Happy volunteering, all!

  2. Absolutely heartbreaking. Thanks so much for the link! It looks like they, sage, are mostly in NY? But I’m hoping through their links to see if anyone is acting to prevent this kind of situation where I live (in Denver).

  3. This is an incredible documentary that everyone in the queer/trans communities needs to see.

    But one point… when you have headlines like “gay and lesbian elders” you’re basically making trans people invisible. There have already been some issues with gay/lesbian senior communities perceived as not being entirely welcoming towards trans seniors.

    • Hi Gina, thanks for bringing this up! I titled Laura’s article with “gay and lesbian” because it tends to have better SEO and search results than LGBTQ or other options, unfortunately, and it felt important that people be able to find and see this story. But you have a good point, and obviously we don’t want to be part of the problem, so I’ll go add ‘trans’ to the headline now!

  4. For those of you in the Chicagoland area, the Oak Park Public Library is hosting a screening of “Gen Silent” on Sunday, October 2nd at 2:30 p.m. Director Stu Maddox will speak after the film, and the event will kick off a month of weekly LGBT documentary screenings.

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