This article originally appeared on The Guardian’s website.
In some cases older LGBT people in sheltered housing and care homes have hidden their sexuality
When same-sex marriage became law in July this year it was a victory for gay rights and another step towards complete equality. But for a whole section of the LGBT community, it seems there is still some way to go.
A BBC report on the worrying issue of homophobia in the UK’s care homes claimed that elderly gay and lesbian people are suffering homophobic bullying from care staff. The report highlighted the case of a woman who faced carers praying for her because she is a lesbian and another refusing to care for her because of her sexuality.
Many charities working to combat this believe that victims are too scared to speak out because of fear of repercussions and some researchers believe that one factor may be the care sector’s increased reliance on foreign labour, including staff from strongly religious backgrounds, where homosexuality is taboo.
Currently, Opening Doors London (ODL) from Age UK is the biggest project providing information and support services to and with older lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (OLGBT) people in the UK. Age UK and Stonewall Housing are now working on a joint piece of work – developing a national LGBT charter mark for housing providers and other service providers working with OLGBTs.
Back in 2010, Stonewall commissioned pollster YouGov to survey a sample of 1,050 heterosexual and 1,036 lesbian, gay and bisexual people over the age of 55 across Britain. The survey asked about their experiences and expectations of getting older and examined their personal support structures, family connections and living arrangements.
The findings made for alarming reading. Three in five of the respondents were not confident that social care and support services, such as paid carers, or housing services would be able to understand and meet their needs. More than two in five were not confident that mental health services would be able to understand and meet their needs and one in six were not confident that their GP and other health services would be able to understand and meet their needs.
Nearly half of those canvassed said they would be uncomfortable being out to care home staff and a third would be uncomfortable being out to a housing provider, hospital staff or a paid carer.
It is estimated (according to Stonewall) that 5–7% of the population is gay or lesbian. The total population of people over the age of 55 living in the UK is 17,421,000 (based on 2009 mid-year statistics).
So the OLGBT population is a sizeable one. Yet a paper from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year revealed a worrying number of horror stories. One lesbian couple talk of moving to a sheltered housing flat and not disclosing their sexuality. When they completed a standard “peace of mind” information form for their housing association they ticked the civil partners box, the tenant association chairman and his wife, who had previously been extremely friendly, started to avoid them. Other residents in the scheme also started to become hostile.
Another anonymous care home user says: “This fear can be on the part of care providers – staff have fantasies about our lives but no knowledge,” adding: “There is a total incomprehension of why an old, gay man cannot be like an old straight man with family ties and grandchildren to keep him happy in life.”
Roger Newman MBE, 72, is one of AgeUK’s ambassadors and a founder of the Lesbian and Gay Carers Network. He says the problem is more about lack of empathy: “Discrimination is illegal so it’s not helpful to talk about that. If discrimination takes place then one goes straight to the law. The problem is that the vast majority of older LGBT people are single people so it’s very difficult to find whistle-blowers.
“One of the biggest issues is that homes tend to talk about treating everyone the same. That doesn’t help anyone because as LGBT people we actually don’t want to be treated the same, we want to be treated as LGBT people and all that involves.”
What that involves, says Newman, who married his partner in March, “is often a huge amount of baggage. People of my age can remember what it was like to be illegal. We have lost jobs and been beaten up. Those experiences have made us build defensive walls around ourselves. Many people of our age won’t even admit their sexuality.” One of the issues, he says, is that people who have been partially out of the closet in later life, go back in when they go into a residential home.
He recounts the story of a friend: “To all of us he was as camp and vibrant as one would want but when he got dementia and went into a residential home there was suddenly nothing to suggest he might be gay or anything from his past. Where we would ordinarily have kissed and hugged him we were reduced to a handshake.” As someone with dementia, his LGBT links were crucial to his wellbeing.
There is work being done. Care home provider Anchor is doing its best to make LGBT people feel welcome and three years ago set up an LGBT group for residents. Liverpool-based Rainbow Lives Project has developed a training package used by Liverpool’s In-Trust Merseyside to provide diversity training for care workers and residential care home staff.
Newman believes residential homes should be more overt with their anti-discrimination policies: “It’s no good having partial agreement, there needs to be something on the wall stating that discrimination will not occur. And residents should have to sign up to their acceptance of that. Simply because we are old doesn’t give us the right to be homophobic.”
It’s also about being made to feel comfortable, Newman adds: “If I go into a residential home I should expect there to be magazines which relate to me and to be able to have photos of my ex-partners on display. We need to hear our language. We use the word “gay” not “homosexual”, for example. If I want to know whether someone is “on my side” I would expect them to understand some of the ways we talk and what we say. If I go to my doctor and say ‘I’m gay,’ and he says, ‘that’s ok, it doesn’t matter,’ that’s not what I want. It does matter.”