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GLBT Elders Visibility Lacking in Media
posted 02.09.2015

By Ken South

GLBT elders have been called an invisible generation. A search of Google scholar using the terms “invisibility of GLBT elders” will show more than 2,000 journal articles referencing this phenomenon. Some older folks, especially those in the “pre-Stonewall” generation (those aging prior to the late 1960s), lived a discreet personal life, which enabled them to survive in a hostile social environment. Many in this WWII generation are proud they were able to hide their sexual orientation.

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However, for the post-Stonewall GLBT generation who are aging, invisibility is not by choice. It’s because of ageism that equates being old with failing health, failing looks, failing sex lives and the attitude of many in the GLBT community that old folks no longer contribute to the vibrant life of the community. These notions are all myths, but seem all too real for GLBT elders.

To test this theory of invisibility, I conducted a basic ethnographic research survey. Arthur Brisbane’s “A picture is worth a thousand words” was true when coined in 1911, and is true today. I collected four issues each of two popular GLBT publications in Washington, D.C.—“The Washington Blade,” a nationally respected GLBT newspaper, and the “Metro Weekly” a GLBT magazine. I then counted all photographs of people in each issue, and of those counted, I judged the number of those depicting people older than 50.

The population of GLBT elders in the Washington, D.C. metro region is not easy to calculate. Data on these older adults has not been formally collected, but one can extrapolate from government-posted census of seniors in the general population. While estimates vary widely, for the purposes of this research, I used 27,742 GLBT seniors, which is 5 percent of the total number of seniors in the five-county area.

The two publications described reach a large percentage of the GLBT community. “The Washington Blade” estimates it has 75,000 readers per week, and the “Metro Weekly,” found in 550 public locations in the region, reports a readership of 45,000 per week.

Invisibility becomes clear when GLBT elders look to their own community media, turn page after page and see nothing but images of younger generations, and precious few of their own.

And yet there are plenty of photos of people older than 50 in these publications. Here is what I found.

In the four issues of “The Washington Blade” there were 269 photos of people in feature stories, advertisements, group events and individual headshots. Only 26 of these photos were of people assumed to be older than 50, which included: one picture was of an assumed 50+ GLBT person, known GLBT personalities like comedian Kate Clinton, an obituary for Leslie Feinberg, Kathi Wolfe, a Blade features writer, activist Frank Kameny, Brigadier General Tammy Smith, and Apple CEO Tim Cook. But the other images of people older than 50 included: an obituary for former DC Mayor Marion Barry, Sen. Susan Collins, Jack Evans (D.C. city councilman), Boyd Gaines, Ed Gillespie, Mayor Vincent Gray, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, actor Tommy Lee Jones, Sen. Mitch McConnell, an obituary for Rev. Myles Munroe, President Obama, Gov. Martin O’Malley, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Chief Justice John Roberts, Dennis Shepard (Matthew Shepard’s father), actress Meryl Streep, an obituary for Van Teasley, and Sen. Mark Warner. It can be assumed that most of these people in the news are not GLB or T.

The four issues of the “Metro Weekly” had 347 photos of people. Of those 347 photos, people assumed to be older than 50 included 14 men and women in advertisements (whether any or all of these people were GLBT is not known), two older gay men featured in one article, 18 gay men and lesbians in photos taken at GLBT events and two men featured in an Ad for a “Fiddler on the Roof” review, their sexual orientations not known. The other photos of people older than 50 included gay playwright Tony Kushner, but also House Majority Leader John Boehner, Mayor Vincent Gray, Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Rob Portman and Donny and Marie Osmond! It is a pretty good assumption that none of these last seven people are members of the GLBT community.

Neither of these publications would dream of publishing an issue without photos of men and women, people of color, people of assorted ethnic backgrounds, etc., yet the routine lack of photos of elders in our community is still tolerated. This is unacceptable. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and in this case, the dearth of pictures says that perhaps these newspapers think elders should remain invisible!

Ken South is director of credentialing programs for the American Academy of HIV Medicine. He has been a GLBT activist for more than 40 years. He served on the steering committee for ASA’s LGBT Aging Issues Network, SAGE Metro-D.C. and the advisory board of Senior Health Resources of DC. He has been President of Prime Timers of DC since 2000.

This article was brought to you by ASA’s LGBT Aging Issues Network

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