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Interview: Gay Liberation Pioneers Show Resilience in Aging


Dr. Anthony Lyons

Dr. Anthony Lyons

As the men who fought for public acceptance of homosexuality reach old age, a new study has found them lead satisfying and hopeful lives.

The research draws on data from a nation-wide community-based online survey involving 840 gay Australian men. The data was collected between November 2010 and April 2011. The men ranged in age from 40 to 78 years of age.

Anthony Lyons, lead author of the study, is a research fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

The findings were published online in the journal Research on Aging on May 3, 2012.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Lyons in Melbourne.

Ruth Dempsey: What percentage of the older population is gay?

Anthony Lyons: This is not an easy question to answer, but it is probably somewhere between two and seven per cent. For one thing, finding reliable data is difficult, and the results often depend on how the question is asked.

To give you an example, in 2003, the Australian Study of Health and Relationships surveyed a large nationally representative population of men. When these men were asked for their sexual identity, 2.5 per cent identified as homosexual. But when they were asked who they felt sexually attracted to, nearly seven per cent said they felt attracted to men at least some or all of the time.

But relying on the most conservative of estimates, we can say that health and social services are likely to encounter many thousands of older gay men in countries such as Australia and Canada in the near future.

RD: About half the men in the study were in an ongoing relationship. Is that right?

AL: That’s right. There were no differences between men in their 40s and those 60 and older. In other words, men over 60 were just as likely to be in an ongoing relationship as those in midlife.

Gay communities are often perceived to be highly youth oriented, and it is commonly assumed that as gay men age they find it harder to attract partners and are more likely to be single. This was clearly not the case in our study.

RD: How did men rate their overall well-being?

AL: A majority of the men reported feeling good or excellent, but there were still large numbers who reported feeling poor or very poor.

RD: What factors contributed to their sense of well-being?

AL: Our study identified three critical factors: good health, social support and sexual satisfaction.

Simply put, having good physical health, feeling high levels of social support and having a satisfying sex life were most predictive of overall well-being.

Interestingly, age was not a factor. Men in our study, aged 60 and older reported similar levels of well-being to those who were in their 40s and 50s.

But we don’t know whether the presence of these factors caused men to feel better about their lives. Perhaps men with high levels of well-being are better at seeking out social support or at engaging in activities that improve their health. We need more research.

However, based on what we know about well-being more generally, it’s likely that improving physical health, providing greater support, and assisting men to improve sexual satisfaction can make a real difference in their lives.

Here it’s worth noting that sexual satisfaction featured highly. This finding counters assumptions that sex is less important to older people.

In fact, in our study men in their 60s and older were just as sexually active as those in their 40s and 50s. Almost two-thirds reported having sex in the past month, with one-third having sex six or more times.

RD: About half of older men faced age discrimination. This seems high.

AL: Yes, 49 per cent reported age-related discrimination in the past two years.

While this may seem high, there is a wide range of potential sources of age-related discrimination for these men.

Some may experience discrimination in the workplace, for example, or when they come into contact with health and support services. These are common sources of discrimination for both gay and heterosexual men.

Additionally, some older gay men may encounter age discrimination within the gay community. Some aspects of the community, such as the "gay scene", can sometimes favour the young over the old.

So, education strategies to prevent ageism should probably target society as a whole for maximum effect.

RD: Many men lost friends and lovers during the HIV epidemic . . .

AL: Today, HIV is largely a treatable chronic condition. At least in high-income countries, HIV no longer poses the death sentence that it once did.

However, some of these men were adults during the earliest years of the epidemic. And they are likely to have lost friends to HIV/AIDS.

The psychological impact is potentially huge, but few studies have been done.

Many of the current generation of older gay men were pioneers in the gay liberation movement. They were at the forefront of campaigns for public acceptance of homosexuality in the 1970s.

Back then, discrimination in countries like Australia and Canada was far more widespread than it is today. Surviving those years would have required some resilience.

In any case, our study looked only at men who were not infected with HIV. The fact that self-esteem was highest among older men indicates many have coped well.

For some, it is even possible that the difficult years during the HIV epidemic gave them skills to cope with the challenges of old age.

For example, crisis competence theory, suggests gay men (and other sexual minorities and stigmatized populations) develop skills from lifelong stigma that help them resist ageism.

RD: So how do they see their future?

AL: We asked the men to rate the degree to which they believed their future would be better or worse in five years. A majority believed their future would be better or at least no worse.

Overall, older men were less positive than men in their 40s and 50s. This is perhaps not surprising given that the older men were more likely to be facing age-related health problems.

RD: Finally, what are the implications of the findings for health and social services?

AL: In the past, aged care and other health services had less contact with older gay men, not because these men did not exist, but because they were more likely to have concealed their sexual orientation. Some may have even been in heterosexual marriages for all or almost all of their lives.

Today and increasingly into the future, many older gay men are unlikely to want to conceal their sexual orientation, and concealment may be difficult anyway if they have same-sex partners, as many of them do.

While the similarities between gay and heterosexual men far outweigh the differences, gay men do have unique issues that services should be ready to address.

For one thing, there is the potential for sexual discrimination. This may come from clinicians and other health and social service professionals, but is perhaps even more likely from fellow patients, clients or residents in aged-care facilities.

Health and social services should develop strategies to prevent discrimination as well as protocols for handling actual cases.

Older gay men may also encounter legal and institutional barriers not faced by heterosexual men, such as being denied hospital visitation rights or complications with inheritance from a deceased partner. These are big challenges that require considerable support.

On a more positive note, our findings suggest many gay men are relatively resilient and lead lives that are satisfying and hopeful.

This is certainly not the case for all older gay men, but the fact that social support emerged as such a strong factor for well-being suggests health and social services can potentially play a powerful role in enhancing the mental health and well-being of older gay men.