As Ukip mount a challenge to the Tories in the Newark by-election, their apparent inability to stop local candidates going embarrassingly off-script has caught up with them again. And once again, the party and its leader have been consumed by a row over homosexuality and homophobia.
Roger Helmer, Ukip’s Newark candidate, had been accused of homophobic bigotry for various reasons – claiming people find homosexuals “distasteful if not viscerally repugnant”, and apparently agitating for the NHS to provide discredited “gay cures”. Defending his candidate against these charges, Farage responded that Helmer’s views reflected a widely held attitude amongst Britons over the age of 70. The over-70s, as he put it, supposedly feel “uncomfortable” about homosexuality because of the more homophobic era they grew up in.
Understandably, the reaction to this statement has been swift and led to some interesting interventions. Writing in the Guardian, Harry Leslie Smith argued that the majority of over-70s don’t feel this way; it is, he said, just a vocal minority who express such attitudes.
His argument is certainly supported by social scientific research. The most recent British Social Attitudes Survey, for example, shows that all generations have become less homophobic over the past 30 years. Among those born in the 1930s, for example, 61% thought homosexuality was wrong in 1983, compared with 54% amongst that generation now. Some might indeed be “uncomfortable”, but clearly not all those over 70.
But there is another issue at play in Farage’s comments, which might make his candidate feel very uncomfortable indeed. Put simply, a significant minority of Britain’s ageing population, including those over 70, are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (LGBT). Yet we hear very little about this group of older adults, even from within LGBT communities.
A survey conducted for Stonewall in 2011 painted a rather bleak picture of their lives. It suggested that compared to their heterosexual peers, they are more likely to be living alone, less likely to have contact with their biological family, more likely to lack confidence in social care and support services, and generally have greater concerns about their future.
A review for the Equality and Human Rights commission also suggested that service providers often assume that their clients are heterosexual – so-called “institutional heterosexism”. Some residential care providers simply find it incredible that any of their residents could be LGBT.
Although, shamefully, much less is known about the experiences of older transgender people, SAGE, the largest advocacy and support group in the US, suggests that these older people face significant challenges in later life, especially in regards to medical and health services.
People like us
My own research speaking to older LGBT people in the UK about their lives has shown me that these issues are certainly of concern.
A respondent named Pierre, for instance, told me about the homophobia he’d experienced from a GP who asked him why, at his age, he wasn’t married. Sandy, an older lesbian, spoke about institutional heterosexism at an older people’s exercise club. Hugh explained to me that a friend of his, an older gay man, had gone into a residential care home and, as he put it, “gone straight back into the closet!” Asking queer friends not to visit, he explained he was worried not so much about the other residents, but the reactions of the younger staff.
Yet despite these very real and at times frightening stories, many of the older LGBT people I’ve spoken to as part of my research and public engagement activities have also proudly told me about the strength and wisdom they have gathered. Some have very wide friendship networks, and many are active members of their local community. Such “ego-strength” has been found in other studies. It has been credited with providing resilience in later life – one that heterosexual people, particularly widowed heterosexual men, can actually lack.
In “Gen Silent”, a documentary film about a group of older LGBT people in the US, these stories of constraint and celebration are brought to life for a general audience, sometimes shockingly. I’ve shown the film to groups of young people of all sexualities and gender identities, and know others who have shown it to people of all ages. The reaction is always the same: tears, laughter, and an overwhelming urge to do something to recognise, support and celebrate the lives of older LGBT people.
After all, as one of the older lesbians in the film says, “we did a lot for you; you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for people like us”.
This is certainly not only directed at younger LGBT people, although anything that can counter the sometimes pervasive ageism in LGBT communities is to be welcomed. It shows that these older LGBT people have contributed to society throughout their lives, as have all older people – whatever their sexuality or gender identity.
The biggest problems that older LGBT people face stem from their invisibility and others’ ignorance of them. What really angered me about the Helmer and Farage’s comments was not only the idea that all people over 70 are potential homophobes, but the erasure of older LGBT people’s existence. They might make some people uncomfortable – but we cannot pretend they don’t exist.