Gay and Gray

A look at the lives of older LGBT adults.

Gay and Gray

Gay in America

Dino Alan couldn’t breathe like he used to.

The 58-year-old Harry Potter World train conductor’s ultrasound showed he had an undiagnosed birth defect. He desperately needed open-heart surgery. He had just a 3% chance of survival.

Alan and his partner of 18 years, Rick Lasher, decided to do something that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years prior: they got married.

Older generations of gay men became particularly aware and had understood the privileges involved in marriage. During the AIDS crisis, many romantic partners were barred from visiting their significant other in the hospital because they weren’t legally recognized as family. They were often unable to make crucial medical decisions for incapacitated partners, and there was no legal framework for inheritance in cases where loved ones died without writing a will.

A 2015 Supreme Court decision on marriage equality eliminated such concerns making it possible for people like Alan and Lasher to wed from one end of the country to the other.

A younger LGBTQ generation in places like California, where marriage equality first became law in 2004, has come of age knowing they have the right to marry and many see it as a given or norm.

But many older couples-- who grew up in eras of blatant discrimination against homosexuals and lived through the AIDS crisis— bear the scars of those past battles.

Alan remembers the deaths of friends during the AIDS crisis, as well as the feelings of fear and social isolation that erupted in the gay community.

“We were right in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, and there were no cures, no one knew anything and people were so scared. Even the hospitals, they had no idea what to do, they put the people infected in full hazmat suits. I had seven or eight friends who got it, and they just went so fast.”

We are now a few decades past the AIDS epidemic, yet new research indicates that the emotional and psychological wounds from those years do more than just leave scars. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it does stay with you. Those painful memories and childhoods are undermining their health as they approach their golden years according to various studies, which states that older LGBT members have a higher prevalence of mental health issues, disability, disease and physical limitations than older heterosexual people.

Older people faced intense stigma, over their sexulity, the fear of expulsion from jobs or military service, and even being sent to insane asylums, given that homosexuality was categorized in the manual of mental disorders as late as 1973.

In their daily lives, conservative religions promoted the idea that homosexuals who were also banned from adopting children, would burn in hell. Several prominent religious figures said that AIDS was god’s curse on gay people.

“When you grow up in an environment that isn’t friendly towards gay identities it sticks with you. An individual feels that prejudice, and internalizes that, into internalized shame or homophobia,” says Daniel Green, social worker at the USC School of Social Work.

Green, who has been researching the health disparities in the older LGBT adult community for four years says, “They feel the hate that radiates around them, and they bottle it up, and that in turn becomes feelings of shame and internalized homophobia that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

He says that older LGBT adults struggle with “minority stress,” which he describes as the idea that “LGBT people aren’t having mental health and physical health issues because of their sexual identity, but rather because of the environment they are currently in, or grew up in.”

Minority stress can also lead to higher rates of general physical disabilities, adverse mental health conditions and greater emotional distress, social isolation, substance abuse, and other risky behaviors such as unprotected sex according to Green. It is also associated with a greater likelihood of certain types of cancer, like cervical cancer. He adds.

Out and Older

The health complications that the older members of the LGBT community can be saddled with

The Deadly Closet

Christina Tangalakis grew up in the 80s, in a strict conservative household.

Her older brother, Steve, stood out.

He was an out gay man, which resulted in him facing a lot of judgement and isolation.

In 1993, right after Christmas, Christina was 20 weeks pregnant, and she received a phone call from her brother. He had HIV.

“My brother, he didn’t come to terms with the fact that he could die. He had walled off the possibility of death, and I was already mourning him.”

She explains the rift that this caused in her family, especially when her brother began to opt for risky treatment in hopes of getting better.

“He went to Europe, to have his blood reheated. Which means they took all the blood out of his body, and then reheated it to a higher temperature and put it back in thinking that it would kill the toxins.”

By the time Steve passed away, he had alienated himself from his entire family.

“He didn’t die in peace, he died without consent. There were no goodbyes, no reconciliation, he was just gone.”

His death did not bring any semblance of peace for the family either.

“My parents didn’t even attend his funeral, things just kept getting worse.”

At this point, Tangalakis was in the darkest period of her life. But this darkness also forced her to begin to think about her life honestly.

“My brothers death was very significant grief, and it caused me to rethink everything and the foundation of my life. I decided to live honestly and really look at my life, I was committed to this sense of authenticity. That struggle for authenticity was what really pushed me into understanding that I was gay, but that still took me a few years.”

After her and her husband got divorced, Tangalakis moved herself and her three young children into a new neighborhood. In 2001, she moved in next door to Ellen Baeth, a senior consultant working in higher education.

They began to talk and get to know each other, one thing led to another and they started a relationship.

“It was my first long-term relationship with a woman, it was really my first real partnership. It felt very different,” she said. “We’re so much more compatible than any of my previous relationships.”

Tangalakis explains that Baeth is like a parent to her children, and even walked one of her daughters down the aisle at her wedding.

Still, the scars from her past present themselves, to this day.

“I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for years, all the way back to the 90s,” says Tangalakis. “I think it comes from that pervasive feeling of knowing you are different, that ultimately causes stress on your mental health and your sense of self.”

Dr. Tam Phan, an assistant professor at the USC School of Pharmacy works closely with the LA LGBT Center and is an advocate for the LGBT community. He explains that, “There are very unique mental health and physical health issues for this population, because of the unique worlds they grew up in,” says Dr. Phan. “There’s a dual stigmatized identity they deal with as LGBTQ and as older adults.”

Queer people over the age of 45 for the most part, were shaped by environments that were radically different — and in many ways less accepting and more difficult — than for younger queer people today. More than 9 in 10 of LGBT adults say that society has become more accepting of them in the past decade, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Tangalakis agrees, she says, “Things have changed so much in this quarter century, things are so much better now. There was no parade for me when I came out.”

There are valiant efforts being made in order to protect and advocate from the older LGBT generation.

We’re finally making more progress and saying that ‘coming out’ is okay,” says Dr. Phan.

When Dr. Phan works with older LGBT people, a lot of them say how much they wish they could have grown up in this era, which has queer role models, media, and relative social acceptance.

Such sentiments are part of why organizations like the LA LGBT Center are attempting to counteract historically anti-gay rhetoric and policies propagated by U.S. government agencies.

“There is a push towards building programs that invite people in, especially while lawmakers are trying to put walls up.”

There are many programs and resources that are now available, like LGBT friendly retirement homes.

Older LGBT adults are now being given a chance, and a space to tend to their scars, no matter how deep that may run.

A Better Future

Alan and Lasher sit on their couch, in their cozy apartment in West Hollywood. Their dog Jessie, lays vertical on Lasher’s legs, her head delicately rests on his calf.

It all started with a simple message of “hi” in an AOL chat room 21 years ago, after chatting for 2 months, they decided to meet up in Palm Springs.

After the trip, Lasher returned back home to Ohio, and Alan decided to go out on a whim and ask Alan if he would like to move out to Los Angeles and try living together to see where their relationship could go.

They’ve now been together for 20 years, and Lasher is endlessly thankful that Alan survived his open heart surgery, and that the law allowed them to get married.

“I’m just so happy that he made it, when you almost have someone snatched away from you, you learn to appreciate everything, every little moment,” says Lasher.

Marriage was never something Alan even thought would be possible for him. Yet, when it finally was legalized, he had the idea to propose to Lasher on their upcoming trip, to Middle Earth.

On their trip to New Zealand, they went on a tour of the Hobbiton movie set where “Lord of Rings” was filmed, which is Lasher’s favorite film franchise.

While on the tour of Bilbo Baggins home, Alan got down on one knee and pulled out a ring and proposed, to which Lasher responded “Yes!”

They had been engaged for a few years, with no concrete plans on when they would officially wed.

But right before Alan went in for open heart surgery, they officially got married. That way Lasher could have complete control over decisions, just in case Alan did not make it.

Thankfully, Alan came out of the surgery alive and well, and with a husband and they are both living a life that no one would have thought possible just 20 years ago.

Through the AIDS crisis, homophobic rhetoric and laws, the murder of Harvey Milk and countless other setbacks, Lasher and Alan represent the resiliency of the older LGBT adult community as they stand together, united.

The Couples

Photos of partners Dino & Rick and Christina & Ellen