Vancouver Pride brings hundreds into the streets each summer to celebrate decades of 2SLGBTQIA+ protest for the right to be ourselves in public. But, older generations of Queer people who created that history often face access barriers which are under-resourced and understudied.
UBC kinesiology researcher Dr. Laura Hurd wants to change that.
Hurd, who is also an associate dean in the Faculty of Education, bridges sociology and kinesiology to study people’s physical and social experiences of aging. For the past five years, one of her focuses has been on Queer aging, exploring how 2SLGBTQIA+ seniors describe their experiences of gender, sexuality and health over the course of their lives.
“When I went to the literature, what I found was that Queer research has tended to not look at the experiences of older people. And gerontology, or aging research, hasn’t typically considered LGBTQ+ folks,” said Hurd.
“There seemed to be gaps in both those fields, and I wanted to try and bring those things together.”
Hurd’s research shows that aging often compounds struggles for visibility and autonomy. It also illustrates how, as acceptance for 2SLGBTQIA+ identities has increased in the past fifty years, many Queer seniors benefit from new vocabulary and community.
‘More and more unseen’
Hurd’s research study, titled “LGBTQ Older Adults: Media Portrayals and Everyday Experiences,” has been running since 2017. It’s based on interviews with 2SLGBTQIA+ Canadians between the ages of 65 and 83.
Hurd and her research team interviewed each of the 30 participants at least twice, producing hours and hours of stories about Queer peoples’ experiences of growing up and growing old. The interviews started with broad open-ended questions to get a sense of how people narrate their own stories, and to build safety and trust in the interview room.
“I do want to say that doing those interviews was a huge privilege,” said Hurd. “Sitting and being able to spend four to six hours with each person hearing their stories ... You know, that is probably the most profoundly moving study that I’ve ever done.”
Hurd said that many of the participants shared that they became more secure in their Queer identities as they aged — a product of a general upward trend in public awareness and acceptance of 2SLBGTQIA+ rights. However, aging can bring new forms of discrimination, and intersect with familiar ones.
“A lot of people talked about how, particularly as they got older, they felt more and more unseen,” said Hurd. “So in that sense, aging is compounding homophobia, transphobia and so on.”
Elderly people tend to receive less attention and support due to the prevalent ageism in Western culture. In 2012, six out of ten Canadian seniors said that they had been treated unfairly because of their age.
For Queer seniors, this statistic may increase — a 2015 study found that gay men felt aging was more difficult for them than their heterosexual peers because they faced both a loss of desirability in Queer spaces, and homophobic discrimination in heteronormative spaces.
This dovetails with a lack of media representation of older Queer people — another topic of Hurd’s research.
Health risks that come with aging cause many seniors to interact more frequently with medical institutions. The patient-caregiver power dynamic can leave marginalized patients vulnerable to discrimination, causing some 2SLGBTQ+ seniors to feel pressured to conceal their identities.
As one interviewee from the study said, “The lesbians I know who are in care facilities, whether they’re [in] partial care or long-term care, are feeling a need to hide … [and] go back in the closet.”
Marginalized communities, including Queer people, low-income populations and BIPOC, also often face greater health risks due to the stress of discrimination and systemic exclusion. This increases the 2SLGBTQIA+ senior demographic’s need for specialized care.
Breaking access barriers in Queer spaces
Older people can also feel neglected by their Queer community as traditional gathering spaces like bars no longer feel as accessible.
“Events ... aren’t always inclusive of older people and older people’s needs,” said Hurd. “If you have a mobility impairment it’s hard to go to a film festival then find yourself seated at the back of the room where you can’t see or participate in some Pride events and activities.”
Qmunity, a Vancouver-based Queer community organization, provides senior programming to fill those gaps. They hold senior support groups, community connection events and advocacy sessions.
According to Programs Specialist Courtney Dieckbrader, 150–200 people use their senior services monthly, with more around special events like Pride.
“Pride event coordinators should remember that there is a whole generation of folks who have been event planning, rallying, and bringing people together for years,” wrote Dieckbrader in an email to The Ubyssey. “When Pride Planning, seek out and ask older generations what they want to see. Include them in the process.”
“... You might be surprised at how many people show up in a really meaningful way.”
Qmunity has been holding seniors programming since 2012, but “the org has always supported seniors on some level,” according to Dieckbrader.
Civil rights strides such as marriage equality and treatment improvements for HIV/AIDS have made it easier for some older Queer advocates to envision a future in a way which was previously unimaginable.
“With [those wins] I think everyone in the community started thinking ‘okay, I’ve got to make some plans now for what the rest of my life can look like,’” wrote Dieckbrader.
Aging with Queer joy
Hurd’s study is not just about medical discrimination and struggle — her emphasis on hearing people’s full life story provided hours of stories about how experiences of Queerness, self-discovery and coming out evolve over time.
“I think that, as a researcher, I want to create spaces where people can feel able to be vulnerable and tell me about the struggles, and also be able to share with me some of the joys,” said Hurd.
For some interviewees, Queer joy meant finding the words to express who they are. One study participant described recently coming across the term “pansexual” for the first time and feeling a new sense of self-recognition.
“A lot of the people that I interviewed for this study … talked about the fact that there weren’t vocabularies available to them growing up. So they had this sense that they were all alone in this world and that their identities were unique.”
Many participants are also hopeful about how awareness and tolerance of Queerness have increased within their lifetimes. As isolation can hurt health outcomes, that sense of community can play an important role in improving 2SLGBTQIA+ seniors’ health.
In August, as Pride weekend sweeps Vancouver with parade floats, raves and rainbow crosswalks, Qmunity is bringing together Vancouver’s 55+ 2SLGBTQIA+ community for their annual Aging with Prideevent on August 2, featuring entertainment, free food and community.
Hurd and Dieckbrader both hope that other event organizers and the wider community follow their examples in honouring the stories and access needs of Queer seniors.
“I think we can become more aware and sensitive to the fact that aging amplifies exclusion for a lot of older people,” Hurd said. “We need to think through different needs and different ways of delivering programming.”
A previous version of this article stated that Hurd interviewed 68 people, when she actually interviewed 30. This article has been updated. The Ubyssey regrets this error.