Protecting Our Own
We are our first, last, best defense against abuse
by Hank Trout
At a recent Saturday morning coffee, I spoke at length with artist/photographer Michael Johnstone [A&U, March 2017] who told me a story about his friend “Tony.”
After achieving renown in New York City as a writer and photographer, Tony retired to San Francisco. Early in his eighties, living alone, Tony suffered a nasty, debilitating fall at home. Marshall, a longtime friend already in his seventies himself, was physically unable to give Tony the constant care he needed. Thus, with help from social workers, Marshall and other friends got Tony placed in a respected assisted living space in Redwood City, near San Francisco. Marshall and friends, including Michael, visited Tony regularly, and he seemed to them to be getting along well in his new home.
Still, something was wrong. Living in New York City, Tony had developed a very distinctive, somewhat flamboyant style. For instance, he wore a beloved Panama hat, constantly, outdoors and in. As Tony’s eyesight began to diminish, friends bought him a “talking” wrist watch that could, literally, tell him the time, and he cherished the watch and wore it constantly. But after many months of visiting the facility, friends noticed that Tony hadn’t worn his Panama hat or his talking wrist watch or other jewelry in a long time. On one visit, as Michael and another friend sat outside with Tony, they asked him why he had stopped wearing his hat or watch.
Tony glanced around furtively and whispered, “I’m afraid they’ll find out I’m gay and punish me.”
I hope I never have to type another sentence as sad as that.
Perhaps sadder is realizing that Tony’s fears were not unfounded, not irrational.
Elder abuse, in all its myriad physical, emotional, financial, sexual variants, is not of course an exclusively LGBT issue or even an exclusively HIV community issue—however, as hundreds of thousands of us long-term HIV survivors continue to age, it is an issue we must face. And I am convinced that we must face it together.
An undated “Research Brief: LGBT Elders,” published by the National Center on Elder Abuse, quotes a study of 416 LGBT elders, aged sixty or more. Sixty-five percent of the respondents reported being attacked due to their sexual orientation (attacks including verbal abuse, threatened violence, threatened “outing,” threatened sexual assault); twenty-nine percent had been physically attacked, men nearly more than three times more often than women. The study also examined treatment of 3,500 LGBT residents of elder care facilities: 8.3 percent reported abuse or neglect because of their sexuality, and 8.9 percent reported being blackmailed or otherwise financially exploited by residents and/or staff.
There are many ways in which LGBT elders have been vulnerable to systemic abuse at care facilities by uninformed or downright hostile caregivers: denying visits from chosen family; forcing couples into separate rooms; placating staff who refuse to bathe or otherwise serve LGBT patients; refusing to allow chosen family to participate in medical decisions, sometimes despite a legal directive; and homophobic hostility from residents and staff. It is crucial to remember that these elders in their seventies, eighties, have endured times when, not only was it even more physically unsafe to be out, but the stigma and discrimination were so virulent that queers faced potential arrest, incarceration in a mental institution, and complete loss of family, friends, employment, and housing. Their fear of being punished by staff and/or residents is neither irrational nor difficult to understand.
Now, multiply everything I’ve said about abuse and the fear of abuse by a gigantic quotient of I’m HIV-positive!
So how to ensure that we survivors are looked after properly when we can no longer care for ourselves alone? For heteronormative elders, this responsibility falls to their children, grandchildren. But as Cleve Jones [A&U, January 2017] pointed out to me, “Most of the men of our generation lost their ‘traditional’ family ties when we came out; we lost our brothers and sisters who might have helped look after us in old age. Most of us never even considered marriage and parenthood—and most of us who did marry and have children lost those kids when we came out. This is important because, the primary defense against abuse in a nursing home is having people who will come frequently to check up on you and listen to you, people who will look for signs of abuse. Most of us just don’t have someone like that.”
We long-term HIV survivors must take steps now to ensure our care and safety as we age. We must take steps to ensure each other’s safety as we age. Tony was, all in all, lucky that he had the support of a partner and friends who loved and checked on him. It is going to fall to us—to you and me; all of us—to look out for each other, to check up on each other whether we’re living alone or in a facility, to know and recognize signs of abuse, to make sure we’re still getting our HIV meds.
We stepped up and took care of each other at the beginning of the Plague. We must, and will, step up again.
The National Center on Elder Abuse website offers information (though it warns that it has not been updated): https://ncea.acl.gov. A PDF of the Center’s research brief on LGBT elder abuse can still be found at: www.centeronelderabuse.org/docs/ResearchBrief_LGBT_Elders_508web.pdf.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.