By Guest Contributor Scot Nakagawa
I love my culture, my people, my so-called slanted eyes, tan skin, and black, now greying and thinning hair. I’m not short. Other people are just tall. I’m one of those people. I like being me. I am a child of Hawai’i, raised in the intersection of two great peoples–Japanese Americans and Native Hawaiians. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
But, while I love who I am, I’m not always so in love with who I’m not. I often feel like not being white is both a gift and a curse. The curse is in how I am often treated by white society as a person of color. The gift is that the kind of treatment I face provides me with a bit of perspective on just how callous, even cruel, our society can be to people for totally arbitrary reasons.
Take aging, for instance. I know more about the social stigma attached to aging than most 51-year-olds and have paid attention to it for decades. My sensitivity to the issue is not the result of greater empathy or generosity when it comes to dealing with older people. I think about it because, as an Asian American gay man, I’ve been old for about 20 years now. Aging has been on my mind for a while.
Considering aging got me looking to the one national resource I know of for LGBT elders, SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders). According to them, there are about one and a half million LGBT people 65 and older in the U.S. And that number is expected to double by 2030. As we age, we queers face a whole host of potential problems, including isolation, financial insecurity, health risks, all of the stuff you expect old people to end up dealing with compounded by the fact that many of us are isolated from our families of origin, more of us don’t have children, and, until recently, none of us in same-gender unions had marriages recognized by the federal government which means no Social Security survivors’ benefits, and maybe no way to protect other assets like our homes, joint savings accounts, and bequests when we’re widowed.
The future may be looking brighter, but I’m guessing we have a whole lot of elders on our hands who were too late to get on the marriage equality bandwagon.
Yet, despite the fact that so many of us are aging into such vulnerability, aging isn’t an issue that’s pushed its way up to the top of the LGBT community agenda. The situation makes that old joke, “getting old’s not for sissies” all the more ironic.
From my perch, it seems to me that these issues haven’t risen to the top for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that the activist base of the LGBT movement tends to be young. In fact, it’s especially young because so many join the movement as a way of finding a community when they first come out. And lest we forget, queers of my generation survived a plague. Getting old feels like a privilege when so many of your loved ones died so young.
But our invisibility is more than incidental. As we queers age, we grow invisible, fall off the “gaydar” of the community, and disappear from queer consciousness. In a community so stigmatized and therefore so defined by sex, faded is not so x-rated, and that puts us in the margins.
This I know from personal experience. Like I said, as an Asian American gay man, I’ve been old for decades. When you’re Asian and male, especially in a primarily white gay male community, you’re definitely not the staple of everyone’s sexual and romantic fantasies. If appetite is the analogy, we’re definitely in the foreign foods section. And our expiration date comes quickly. There’s no Asian “daddy” fetish in the American gay male community outside of particular Asian male enclaves. So, by the time we’re in our late twenties, we’re already aging out. By our early 30’s, we start to grow invisible. Once we start to approach middle age, we might just as well not exist. By 50, we virtually disappear.
But we’re not alone in this. It just happens to us faster than for most others. We’re the miner’s canary where LGBT aging is concerned. And if you happen to be poor, why, regardless of race or gender, your poverty only serves to isolate you further.
The LGBT movement will need to address this issue as we come of age as a social force, get beyond the vital wins on issues like marriage and employment discrimination. Once that time comes, we’ll be faced with the reality that just equal isn’t always enough for a community whose special needs are rooted in the difference that allows us to recognize one another as family.
Scot Nakagawa got his first job as a community organizer in 1980, and since then has worked in organizational management, social research, public policy analysis and advocacy, and philanthropy. He also has a background as a teacher and a service provider working with low-income communities to create accountable organizations that are responsive to community needs. Before forming ChangeLab, Scot served as the Field Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Associate Director of the Western Prison Project (now the Partnership for Safety and Justice), Interim Executive Director of Social Justice Fund Northwest, Executive Director of the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, and as Education Co-Coordinator of the Highlander Research and Education Center. Scot’s primary work in progressive social change has been as a social movement analyst with a particular emphasis on analyzing and creating strategies to counter right-wing movements. His current blog, Race Files, addresses race and racism in U.S. politics and culture.