The Silver Series: Narratives of older lesbian and gay persons
The Silver Series are articles that focus on older LGBTIQ individuals. We aim to create more awareness on this important topic in order to ensure that no one is left behind.
Malta has enjoyed a top ranking in LGBTIQ+ rights for over 5 years thanks to the monumental progress made in laws and mechanisms put into place to safeguard all persons from discrimination, harm, as well as promoting civil liberties.
Our Pride Marches nowadays take the form of celebration of diversity and love in all its forms with an ever growing acceptance towards LGBTIQ individuals when they come out. We see young people living their lives more openly, visibility of same sex couples increasing, more presence of rainbow families, businesses and the media being more representative and most politicians seem to have changed their narratives and beliefs.
There is much to be celebrated and hopefully none of this to be taken for granted by the current and upcoming generations. One particular cohort however, seems to be left behind and that is the senior LGBTIQ+ group. By senior we are referring to individuals over the age of 55 years.
Christian Vella took a keen interest in this field ever since he did his post-graduate diploma dissertation in Psychology in this area where he interviewed gay men over the ages of 45 and 65. He then progressed to dedicating his dissertation of his Masters in Ageing and Dementia Studies on Queer Women & Gay Men between the ages of 59 and 73 to explore disparities within social and health care support in Malta and will be continue his PhD research in this area. These are some of the highlights of his findings from the MA study.
(Older) Lesbians are harder to find
Vella's first observation came about when locating queer older woman for his interviews. Gaining access to older gay man seemed to be less of a challenge than locating their queer counterparts. Gay men seem less fearful to continue living their lives openly whereas women tend to 'go underground'. This could also be found in previous research (Averett and Jenkins 2012, Heaphy, Yip and Thompson, 2004) whereby lesbians are more likely to hold reservations about their identity in 'going public' are seen as an ignored and invisible sub-population. Vella further noted that with men in his research, they felt comfortable self-identifying as gay, in terms of sexual orientation, whereas with most women they preferred not to be associated with any label with the exception of one woman who preferred to identify herself as gay rather than lesbian.
A life of struggles
The participants in Vella's research spoke about their past of having "the same support that youngsters have today, so you had to find your kind, which was something very difficult". Some of them even contemplated suicide multiple times throughout their lives or else conforming with society's expectations of entering into heterosexual marriages, leaving the island or joining priesthood.
Experiences of receiving health care and social support services
Most participants do not recall having experienced discrimination, however one particular participant felt he was mistreated in view of his sexual orientation. This participant recalls how he took his husband to hospital in view of heart problems and healthcare staff were asking all sorts of questions regarding the participant's relationship with the patient. To add insult to injury, the patient and his husband were referred to the GU Clinic to be checked for any STDs before undergoing any further diagnosis. He stated:
"This really hurt me...eventually we had to go to a private clinic and when the consultant saw his heart scans, he was admitted immediately to the general hospital as he was going to die"
Respect for a person's self determination also seem to be an issue. In another episode with the support services, they would not allow for a male carer to assist with his activities of daily living as he was told that due to his sexual orientation and marital status, he would have to be supported by a female carer.
A lack of belonging with the LGBTIQ Community
The general feeling expressed by the participants was that they do not bother to interact with the local gay community as they felt that there is no space for them and that the gay community is split. A sense of fear is also expressed by being associated with social gatherings organised specifically for LGBTIQ persons as charlotte stated:
"In Malta I don't go for the fact that someone would bash you, Malta is too small". One disclosed how most feel defeated when arriving at older age as he stated "gay older persons who feel resigned, poor them, and don't have anywhere to go".
Nearing the end of the rainbow
All participants hoped that given the option, they would age-in-place, as they all dread the idea of being sent to a care home. Some held the belief that they would 'die young', while others did not give much thought to it and lived day by day, while others took the necessary measures and retrofitted their home. The idea however of later-life did come with deep concern as someone stated:
"The worst part of that is when you start to get old and you end up in an old people's home. That scares the hell out of me, and it scares the hell out of a lot of us, because your parents die and your siblings don't want to take care of you"
From invisibility to visibility
All participants disclosed the hopes of someday having the option of a gay friendly care home, or exclusive premises. They feel that since Malta is the leader of LGBT rights in Europe, this is the next big thing which the government should embark on. Ideas were disclosed of transforming abandoned buildings into an exclusive LGBT care home, to even allocating a wing within St. Vincent de Paul Residence (SVP).
What troubles the participants is the fact that if they are to be placed in a random care home which is run under a heteronormative culture, they would be stripped of the freedom to express themselves,
“that would be very hard that you would not be able to speak about or share your story with others”.
It was further elaborated how inclusivity is to be transmitted in the approach to service, irrespective of how one identifies, placing great importance on the type of language used, “there needs to be more tactfulness on this
matter, more sensitivity” (Peter).
Christian Vella's paper can be retrieved from the following ebook
Vella, C. (2020). Narratives of older lesbian and gay persons: Exploring disparities within social and health care support in Malta. In M. Naudi & C. Azzopardi (Eds.) Mapping the rainbow: Researching the diverse colours of the LGBTIQ community (pp. 35-48). Valletta: Human Rights Directorate within the MinistryforJustice, Equality and Governance.