Ageism in the LGBT+ sector: made for a Venn diagram?

As many of you will know from school, unless you were fast asleep on that day in double maths, a Venn diagram is a visual way of showing how members of discrete groups share common attributes. For example, a friend from the World Health Organisation assured me that many doctors are also members of the LBGT+ community, though the overlapping sections in the Venn diagram of this relationship may be much smaller than the overlapping sections between the LGBT+ community and workers in the service sector. If we add a third circle, of people who are out to their employers, the overlap is likely to go down drastically as doctors tend to be guarded about their sexuality.

Venn diagrams can also be used to show overlap in attitudes, behaviour, and prejudices among group membership. This can be benign: I would put money on the Venn diagram showing the regularity with which people check the daily weather forecasts in both the LGBT+ and general populations to be almost equal!

They can also be used to show more disturbing similarities. In a Venn diagram showing the degrees of ageism in the LGBT+ sector and ageism in broader society, my work with the MESMAC/AGE UK supported project SAGE (which supports older LGBT+ adults in a variety of ways) has convinced me the circles would almost completely overlap! The likely explanation for this is that most members of the LGBT+ sector grow up absorbing the norms, attitudes and prejudices common in broader society. While there are many examples of this I will briefly touch on three, relating only to gay men.

Firstly, gay men and our straight brothers parallel each other’s behaviours on the dating and club scene. Older gay men frequently tell me they feel invisible in a gay venue, joking that if younger gay men could physically walk through you to get to the bar quicker, they would. While there does exist a small group of ‘Daddy lovers’ in some younger echelons of the gay men’s world these are relatively rare, and such preferences may even be considered as fetishism rather than a push for equality. I wonder if my new slogan ‘Twinks get old. Get over it!’ would raise consciousness, and a few eyebrows, on this topic?

Secondly, another area where attitudes within the LGBT+ community, and broader society, coalesce around ageist behaviour is in supporting a blatantly ageist greeting card industry. Equality and respect have yet to arrive in some sectors of society. Recently I bought a birthday card for my partner which said in very bold letters, ‘Happy Birthday you old dinosaur – you still look 21 to me!’. The much smaller punch line followed: ‘At least from a distance’. It was not until much later when I was about to recycle this card that I wondered why on earth I had bought it. I took it for granted it was ok to laugh at getting old, as an old person myself. I sometimes feel like ‘a dinosaur’, and at the time of purchase I never really questioned the inherent prejudice and hurtful sentiments behind the message.

Finally, like many people in broader society younger members of the LGBT+ community are often guilty of assuming that older people have always been old and rarely acknowledge that older people were young once. Everyone has a back story. In the LGBT+ communities that story has involved the struggle to make the future for all members of the LGBT+ community better than the one we inherited. A struggle that has come at a not inconsiderable cost to many. While it might be a bit tiresome for young people to constantly hear about these sacrifices as we are being pushed out of the way at the bar, the sentiments are real. Younger LGBT+ members must be reminded that their clarity of vision has come about, in part, as a result of standing on the shoulders of their older pioneers (even if it is just to get to the bar!).

Sadly, the prejudices of ageism are not the only areas where discrimination is present in both the LGBT+ communities and broader society. Racism, and prejudice towards disability, in the LGBT+ community also parallel distorted views of many people in broader society. Let’s play our part in combatting all of them, not just to benefit the younger generations but for all generations.

If you wish to know more about SAGE’s work on combatting loneliness and isolation you can contact me on [email protected] or my SAGE colleague Tracy on [email protected]

Keith Hargreaves
Community Development Worker, SAGE

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