Back in 1975, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Ireland, Chair of the Irish Gay Rights movement, David Norris, spoke on RTÉ, placing himself at odds with the law by publicly coming out as a gay man and defending gay people. It would take 18 years after this interview with RTÉ for homosexuality to be decriminalized and the state to cease actively opposing the foundation of organizations aimed at helping people come to terms with their sexual orientation.
Fast forward to 2020, and Ireland has experienced the AIDS epidemic, witnessed the Fairview Park murders and has seen same-sex marriage passed into law by popular vote – the first country in the world to do so. While these historical events, for better or worse, have brought the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) into everyday conversation, we must question whether current support resources in Ireland are benefitting all members of the community.
Despite an improvement in the status of LGBT rights in Ireland that has happened over the course of their lifetime, the older generation seems to have been left behind. As stated by LGBT Ireland, “as a group, older LGBT people have been much more invisible in the community. However, this group does exist and it is estimated that up to 8% of persons in Ireland aged-65 years and over may be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
In an interview, Senator David Norris stated that nonprofit organisations such as BeLonG To and SpunOut offer “resources that are principally targeted at young people. This is exactly as it should be as they are the ones facing an urgent crisis in their life.” However, he admits that “more general support would be very useful” in regards to educating and supporting older members of the LGBT community at all levels, including government, community and familial.
Although BeLonG To and SpunOut are specifically aimed at providing guidance for younger people discovering their sexuality and gender identity, steps have been taken to help integrate older people into the LGBT community and the support systems it provides. For example, LGBT Ireland has created the specific role LGBT Champions Coordinator, intended to offer support and information for older members of the LGBT community.
James O’Hagan, the current coordinator with the organisation, elaborated in an interview on the importance of the role: “The LGBT Champions are a network of health and social care professionals working in older people’s care services.[They] have received training on how to make their practice, and practice settings safe, inclusive and enabling environment where an older LGBT person can feel comfortable being who they are.”
Like other minority groups within Ireland, older members of the community face a unique “set of challenges above those of their straight peers, mostly derived from isolation and from living in a society in which they could not be open about their sexuality or gender identity. There is a much higher risk of older LGBT people being lonely and isolated and this can have an enormously negative impact on their mental and physical health and well-being over time,” said O’Hagan. This is precisely why organizations such as LGBT Ireland represent a key opportunity for older LGBT people to connect with a community and avoid isolation.
On Friday 7th February, the conversation around the experience of coming out for older people resurfaced with fervour when talk show host of This Morning, Philip Schofield publicly announced on Instagram that he was a gay man. The announcement shocked some, as he had been married to his wife Stephanie for 27 years with two daughters.
Schofield discussed his decision to come out at the time with co-presenter Holly Willoughby on their show; the interview has gathered over six million views at the time of publication.
“People who are choosing to come out later in life will have grown up in a more repressive and unaccepting society than exists today, this may have reinforced a fear of not being accepted and created a shame around their true gender identity or sexuality which will be deeply embedded,” noted O’Hagan.
According to O’Hagan, “older LGBT people may also have practical considerations to take into account when coming out that will be very different from teenagers, many older LGBT people may have spouses or children, and will experience guilt associated with how their decision to come out will impact these people.”
These factors have combined have resulted in a disparity between younger and older generations of the LGBT community. As stated by O’Hagan, “It is definitely the case that older LGBT people are often forgotten about, or are an invisible group in society.”
Students who have come up through the education system and recognise the gaps in education and resources available have begun to address these issues at a grassroots level. In UCD, the LGBT society has introduced a postgraduate representative to aid outreach with the older community. Society auditor, A.E. Quinn, said that after noticing the lack of engagement with mature students, “the role has worked and created a more diverse age group in the society this year, but we’re not perfect and there’s still more work to be done.”
According to A.E Quinn, the UCD LGBT society emphasises the importance for young people to acknowledge that “there’s definitely more judgement for older people and in some instances, kids are involved. There’s a bigger risk of a breakdown in relationships, but on the other side some people are held to ransom and made come out.”
“For older people, I definitely feel there’s a greater stigma around coming out despite the known narrative of people proclaiming we’re too young to know our sexuality and gender.”- A.E Quinn
Almost thirty years after decriminalisation in Ireland, elderly LGBT people are finally beginning to see more events, tailored campaigns and initiatives aimed at people aged over-55; For example, the ‘Older than Pride’ initiative is organised between Dublin Pride and Age Action Ireland to “celebrate and highlight a forgotten demographic.”
Photo by Fæ
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