The Politics of Caring for Our Queer Elders

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Those who we owe the most to in the LGBTQ community are precisely the people who today are most often silenced.
Every October, the LGBTQIA community comes together to celebrate our history and our movements, and to commemorate the wins and the struggles that have led us to where we are today.

And as we close out this LGBT History Month, it’s a time to pause and reflect, and to remember those who came before us and all that they have done to fight for our people, our rights, and our freedoms. Because those who we owe the most to in the LGBTQ community are precisely the people who today are most often silenced, invisibilized, and left without access to basic rights and services many of them dedicated their lives to fighting for.

Today, our LGBTQ elders face some of the greatest unmet financial needs. According to a 2014 SAGE study, 51 percent of LGBT elders are concerned about having enough money to live on as they age, compared to 36 percent of non-LGBT elders.

Julia Bennett is a Brooklyn based healer, lesbian elder, and activist. In her own words: “I am a Black cis woman, nearly 70 years, and identify as lesbian — a woman who loves women. Though the shoulders I stood on in the 1970s had already dug deep roots to nurture and protect me, they were still perilous times. We had to be vigilant in our commitment to walk a dignified and just life, and movement building and forming allied relationships were intensely important.”

Julia has provided critical healing support to marginalized people of color communities in New York City for over 30 years. Her own story began in the 1950s Jim Crow-era South, where she grew up against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement. Much of her work and commitment to healing justice is influenced by the ways she sees past and current movements building toward liberation for Black communities, while recognizing that many of the struggles and traumas of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are ever present today.

“I don’t question the authenticity of movements and what drives our social justice movements, but I do question how the intersection of politics, government, and privilege can challenge movements,” she says.

In the 1990s, Julia ran a support group for lesbians who were HIV-positive, including some whose diagnosis had progressed to AIDS. Today, Julia is one of the cofounders of the Third Root Community Health Center, which places social justice at the core of healing. Julia partners with a group of diverse revolutionary practitioners who have built an alternative community health clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y., with the goal of making health care a safe, informed, accessible, and affordable choice.

For Julia, healing justice must also be at the core of social justice. Her work is centered around the fact that activists and organizers face a tremendous amount of burnout as a result of their work, which must be addressed through healing practices if we want to honor the physical, psycho-social, and emotional body of those on the line and if movements are to be sustainable.

“What being an elder lesbian activist healer means to me is that I am charged with staying the course to eliminate as much harm, disparity, injustice, and patriarchal oppression for all people through the lens of the feminine,” Julia says.

Julia’s commitment to the healing of her communities has been tremendous. Yet Julia and so many like her who are aging today are not only being underrecognized for their immense contributions but are actually being left behind in the most basic ways.

LGBTQ elders are some of the most discriminated-against people in the U.S. and are far less likely than their cis and heterosexual counterparts to have access to quality healthcare. A 2018 study by SAGE found that about two-thirds of LGBT “older adults” (ages 45-75) have experienced victimization at least three times in their lives, and nearly one-third of transgender people do not have a regular doctor and report poor general health. We must do better.

In 2017, the Astraea foundation created the Acey Social Justice Award as a way to honor lesbian, queer, and trans women of color over the age of 62 who have made significant but underrecognized contributions to our movements.

These are people who have given so much, and in return often have unmet financial needs as they age and face barriers to accessing some of the most critical services, from health care to housing. The award was created in honor of Astraea’s executive director emerita, Katherine Acey.

Julia Bennett is one of our incredible 2019 Acey awardees. This year’s other awardees are Brenda Joyce Crawford, Norma Timbang, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a veteran of the historic Stonewall rebellion. Today, Miss Major is recovering from a stroke she had earlier this year, and a crowdfunding initiative was set up to help her offset the overwhelming medical costs of her care.

And Brenda Joyce Crawford and Norma Timbang continue to be activists in their own right, fighting respectively for cannabis justice and against domestic violence.

Despite having built and sustained movements that centered care, collaboration, and community, many of our LGBT elders face major social isolation as they age. LGBT elders are twice as likely to be single and living alone, and four times less likely to have children. Forty percent of LGBT elders’ support networks shrink over time.

“Unfortunately, LGBT older people and those living with HIV face pronounced rates of social isolation, higher rates of poverty, and a lack of access to culturally competent services and supports compared to their straight, cisgender, and HIV negative counterparts,” SAGE notes in its publication on aging and the LGBT population.

Our Acey Award is just one drop in the ocean toward recognizing our elders. If we don’t, we are doing a great disservice to them, to the movements they have led and the struggles they have waged on behalf of us all.

“We wanted to recognize that so many of them have been activists within and across our movements, but have not always been as visible as others. Several have worked as activists throughout their lives, often in low-paying jobs with not a lot of benefits,” says Acey.

These are the lesbian, queer, and trans icons who fought for our freedoms. We owe our existence and vision to the incredible, bold legacy and work of these elders who paved the way for us. We simply wouldn’t be here without them today, and now it’s our time to celebrate them and fight for their rights.

Mihika Srivastava is the Communications Program Associate at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, the only philanthropic organization working exclusively to advance LGBTQI human rights around the globe. 

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