Gay and grey a double stigma?

November 2010 Vol 11 Issue 7

web p BernieKushnersmile

Ageism and homophobia – will gay men face both from the health sector when they age? Unitec nursing lecturer Bernie Kushner shares early research findings into New Zealand gay men’s experience of ageing.


The ageing population of New Zealand is growing at a phenomenal rate. Not only did the aged population of the country treble over the last century, it will rise an estimated 166 per cent over the first half of this century. 

It is estimated that three to 10 per cent of a population may be gay. Based on New Zealand’s current population of nearly 4.4 million, there might be a non-heterosexual population of somewhere between 130,000 to 435,000 people. It is not known how many people in New Zealand would consider themselves gay and it is even more of a mystery how many of these are male and over 65 years old.

Research into the ageing of the gay male population began to emerge as early as 1977 in Kelly’s article, ‘The Aging Male Homosexual’, where it was proposed that societal stigma such as ageism, potential for institutionalisation and lack of legal recognition of gay relationships might cause difficulties for older gay men. After the New Zealand homosexual law reforms of 1986 there was still no guarantee that gay men would not continue to be identified as pathologically unwell by health professionals. An English sociologist has found that older gay men’s (and lesbians’) life opportunities are still limited by economic, social and cultural resources. However, older gay men might be better suited to adapting to old age because they might have grown up being discriminated against due to their sexual orientation, and therefore they might find ageist attitudes easier to deal with. Secondly, they learn to be self-reliant at a young age because of being gay, which in turn might better prepare them for the experiences of late adulthood.
My research for my Master of Philosophy degree at Massey University aims to explore the narratives of gay men over the age of 65; and identify areas of support these men might need as they age, and to inform professional health practice about the care needs of older gay men. It is hoped that an understanding of their life and ageing experiences – along with the strengths and hardships in their ageing process – can be illustrated.

Why Bother?
As we know aged-care is in a crisis – insufficient funding, poor staffing levels and incidents of poor care have been exposed in the media. As for the furore caused by Neville and Adams’ article (Kai Tiaki, July 2010) and Tunnicliff’s retort to the offended readers (Kai Tiaki, August 2010), I shudder at the lack of openness, homophobia and hostility present in a workforce of supposed professional and caring registered nurses. Though the above authors were not the impetus for my work, the lack of research attention paid to this group in New Zealand and to a greater extent, Australasia, was.

Twelve interviews lasting from one to three hours were conducted with older gay men ranging from 66 to 81 years. Several of these interviews saw me, and the interviewee, crying as a result of their profound life stories and experiences. Throughout their lives, many of these men have lived through adversity, exclusion, condemnation and significant health challenges. They are now coping with older age, some more successfully than others. One common element that stood out to me was a number of the men’s c

web 200573083 001

oncerns about where they will go for continuing care if they have to leave their home. Many of the men do not want to go into a long-term care environment, staffed by heterosexual nurses and caregivers, and live amongst heterosexual residents.

They have informed me they are afraid of being victims of abuse because they are gay and they do not want to go back into the closet after fighting and succeeding at coming out of it. These beliefs are summed up perfectly by another researcher’s interviewee, an elderly gay man who stated, “to go into a residential home as a gay person, your life would be hell”.
There is no data in New Zealand regarding institutionalised gay men and their living and caring experiences. However, there has been some work done in Australia and North America and the findings do not make pleasant reading.

Institutionalised homophobic abuse exists. Aren’t our later years supposed to be the twilight of our life and not the darkness? The nurses and care assistants employed to care for the elderly are generally thought of as respectful and kind, but why is it that some of this group discriminate against their older gay and lesbian residents? I guess for a start, lack of exposure to gay society, religious intolerance, cultural factors and a lack of education of GLBTI (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered/intersexed) lives.

I look forward to delving into my data and analysing it in the coming weeks and months so this information can be shared amongst the nurses and other healthcare staff in Aotearoa. I hope that this short article has made some nurses in this great country re-examine themselves and their attitudes towards gay society and that it might begin to break down the barriers that exist.