At dinner, my friend David, with sadness in his voice, recounts what it was like to come out reluctantly to his 80-year-old mother.
She was stunned initially, uncomfortably so, and then openly fretted: "You better not tell your older brother. He is so conservative. He probably won't understand what is happening."
Unlike a younger generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth who more readily self-identify who they are, David, who is now in his sixties, decided that he didn't need to come out to his older brother. He remains in the closet, for his brother's sake. He has dropped hints, but has never come out and told his family that he is gay, fearing the aftershock of sharing such news in the sunset days of life.
David is like a lot of LGBTQ people who are nearing retirement. Theirs is a generation of women and men who, having established themselves in life in the closet, see no advantage of letting others know who they really are later in life.
Deciding whether to come out later in life is but one of the unexpected hurdles that LGBTQ people encounter.
Over a cup of coffee with my friend Stuart, we talked about unexpected questions and issues that are raised when one grows older. Stuart is a Southern gentleman, born and raised in Tennessee. Almost 65 years old, he retired here after a lifetime in ministry as an Episcopal priest. Having served various parishes throughout his life, his last parish was in New York City.
From his experiences in the South and metropolitan New York and New Jersey, he believes there are more retirement communities and care facilities that are more welcoming of lesbians and gays up there than in the South.
Nevertheless, he moved back to the South because "my roots are here; these are my people."
Stuart shared the grave problems facing many lesbians and gays who retire here in the South. Growing up in the South as a closeted young gay man in a straight man's world, Stuart said, "Coming out meant that one would almost literally be marked with the letter 'S' for shame."
The Southern culture made sure that the shame was not only overt, but was so insidious that it entered into one's very unconsciousness, the marrow of one's bones, thrusting generations of lesbians and gays deeper into their closets.
Stuart continued: "To be gay meant that one was defective, in need of psychiatric care, or should simply move away, for the sake of honoring the integrity of one's family of origin who had to endure such an embarrassment."
The culture of shame that entombed many lesbians and gays continues this very day in many care facilities and nursing homes in the South. Some administrators and staff of various retirement communities in the area, while welcoming gay and lesbian couples to their institutions, do not openly broadcast that they are safe places for gays and lesbians to retire. In looking on the websites of many retirement communities in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area, none publicize that they are especially welcoming of lesbian and gay residents.
Meanwhile, there are stories in the South in which lesbian and gay retired couples have been quietly asked to leave care facilities because their relationship has made other straight residents, or staff and administration personnel, uncomfortable.
"As a result of such discrimination, lesbians and gays walk on egg shells, some reverting and re-closeting themselves," said Stuart. "After all the time, energy, and talent it took to come out in one's younger years, this is where many lesbians and gays end up: back in the closet."
The culture of shame that labels LGBTQ people as "defective" leaves little wiggle room for older gays and lesbians. They are caught between the rock of grief and the hard place of regret as into the closet they go, again.
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