Friday, December 23, 2011

Our Spinster Aunts and Uncles

By Kelly Cogswell, HuffPost

Bing might still be dreaming of a white Christmas, but I'm longing for a nice, bright Bastille Day in July. The weather is better, and you get to celebrate the rise of the people and the end of kings, not their birth. And families have no role at all.

Let's face it. During the "holiday" season, the family schmaltz that's so often disagreeable for straight people is downright torture for many queers. Not enough has changed, especially for older or disabled LGBT people, who are often alone in the world, with no close family, no kids. And if you do have relatives, they may hate your queer guts and resent the shame you've brought down on their heads. When health issues strike, they've been known to ignore us entirely or, worse, joyfully lock us away in nursing homes, far from other LGBT people.

And after a lifetime in a bigoted world, we're more prey to physical and mental problems than the general population. A study published in November of last year, "The Aging and Health Report: Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults," found that the older members of our community had significantly more "disability, physical and mental distress, victimization, discrimination, and lack of access to supportive aging and health services." Aging queers of color and the transgender have particularly hard times.

I hadn't thought much about aging until four or five years ago, when I visited my friend Al in an assisted living place on New York's Lower East Side. A black, gay photographer, Al couldn't take care of himself anymore after complications from diabetes and a bout with cancer. I found out later that he had family, but they didn't turn up until he was in the hospital on his deathbed, wheezing away on a respirator, and they got curious about his estate.

Al was pretty brave about the cancer. What bothered him most were the nurses. They were West Indian homophobes who spent their coffee breaks talking loudly about what they'd do to batty boys if they got the chance. Cut them into pieces, maybe, or set them on fire. It was the first time in his life Al stayed in the closet. And for the first time I started to panic about being poor and queer, and at the mercy of strangers. One more good reason to fight homophobia all over the world, I thought. The bigot nurses might end up in your neighborhood. And you're lying there, literally, in their vicious hands.

Last week, I visited another friend, this time in upstate New York. She'd been placed far from her old friends, but at least the nurses seemed nice enough. I didn't really get the creeps until I noticed something I hadn't counted on before: the other inmates. You can string Christmas lights, plant poinsettias right and left, and crank up the carols, but the simple fact is you don't get to choose your companions in institutions like that. It can be worse than high school. You don't get to go home in the afternoon.

The meanest was this carefully dressed and coiffed lady with a thin, pinched face, like my mother. She suddenly got up in her walker and came over to warn me, "He doesn't belong here. Get him out of here. He's not supposed to be in here!" I looked around but didn't see any male and thought she was having an episode of dementia, until I noticed the tall woman sitting behind me. She had short hair and an angular face and was maybe a dyke like me.

Gender police are everywhere. And they insist on getting their way. Later on, when the butch woman got up and was moving around with her walker, the angry, lipsticked woman scurried over and tried to smash her own walker into the butch one's, attempting to chase her away. The demolition derby could have been funny, I guess, if you weren't stuck there for the rest of your life. And unlike young queers, nobody can tell you, "It gets better."

As much as young queers, our aging and disabled people need our help and attention right now, including our physical presence. This is a simple enough matter. You don't have to change the world first, just put your coat on and go. My friend didn't recognize me at all, but she lit up anyway at the sight of somebody who was clearly a dyke. We held hands for a while, and she flirted a little, happy with the attention. Aging changes a lot, but not that. Not our queer hearts.

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