PENSIONER'S LINK LESBIAN WORKERS GROUP REPORT ON OLD LESBIANS, 1989.
Susan is a lesbian in her sixties. She has been in 'tied' accommodation for the last twenty years and works for a local council. Although eligible to retire, she has deferred retirement and is still employed at present. The situation regarding her housing is unclear as she doesn't know whether she'll be able to stay in her flat when she does eventually leave her job, or whether she'll be evicted. Obviously this is worrying to her. If she is to move she would like to be re-housed close to other lesbians where she knows there would be support and she wouldn't be isolated.
Helen age 54 years
Helen left her marriage after twenty years to come out as a lesbian. As the marital home was a council house there was no property to sell so the financial settlement after the divorce was very small. Her husband stayed in the council house with the children.
Since then (some seven years ago) Helen has lived in friends' homes as a lodger. Her only income is from her work - at the moment she is in full-time employment but she has had periods of unemployment in between temporary jobs in the past. She has been in her present situation for the last two to two-and-a-half years. For the first two years after leaving home Helen was a full-time student on a small grant. She did not earn enough to take out a mortgage.
The house she is currently lodging in is up for sale so Helen may be made homeless in the near future.
Helen would like to have her own flat in a housing association, if possible, and preferably live near other lesbians. If that were not possible she would prefer to share with other lesbians.
Pauline, age 76 years
Pauline has always been a lesbian but is very closeted. She was born, and grew up, in London. Her last relationship lasted many years but broke up as she gradually became more disabled. She is now severely disabled with osteo-arthritis. At the time her relationship ended she was living in Brighton but she decided to come back to London as her brother lived there.
At present she is living a very isolated life in a flat on the first floor above a furniture shop in Leytonstone. Her accommodation consists of two very dingy and cold rooms, a bedroom and a living room. The kitchen and bathroom are shared by other tenants in the building. Pauline is unable to get out as the stairs are too difficult to manage and she uses a wheelchair most of the time.
As a lesbian, who has lived a very closeted life, Pauline is very isolated because there is not a very visible lesbian community where she lives and the flat is quite difficult to get to by public transport - most of her friends travel by public transport. Pauline became so lonely and despairing that she tried to take an overdose and was in hospital for a while. She has been offered sheltered housing but refused it because she didn't want to share with heterosexual people as she feels she has little in common with them.
Pauline would dearly love to live near other lesbians but dreads the thought of being in a residential home and would rather stay in her dingy and cold rooms than be in heterosexual surroundings. She would need ground floor accommodation.
Lily and Nora
Lily and Nora were two women I met while working as a care assistant in an elderly person's home. The home was split into five bungalows, each with nine residents. I worked in bungalow 5; Lily and Nora lived in bungalow 2.
The first time I heard of either of them was at coffee breaks when staff would talk in disgusted voices about Lily. The general consensus was that Lily was a trouble maker who 'wouldn't leave Nora alone.' I volunteered to swop duties to work on bungalow 2 as often as possible.
Although I do not think that either Lily or Nora would have defined themselves as lesbians, certainly to my knowledge they never used the word, they were quite obviously in love. They liked to spend their evenings holding hands, watching television, chatting occasionally and sharing chocolates. Nora usually went to bed first and would always go to Lily for a goodnight kiss.
The other staff members found their affection for each other unbearable. Pinning all their venom on Lily, as she had never been married and was seen as the instigator with an unnatural influence on Nora, they did everything within their power to stop the relationship.
The report book, ordinarily used to note illness or medication given, contained a steady stream of ageist and homophobic comments. 'Lily interfering with Nora again. Had to send Lily to her room.' 'Moved Lily's wheelchair to the other side of the room. She won't stop touching Nora.' 'Had a row with Lily. She is being very awkward tonight. Tried to sit at Nora's table. I moved her back to her own place.' 'Nora crying tonight. Lily interfered. Told her to mind her own business.'
Lily and Nora wanted to share a room. Lily already occupied a double room which she had previously shared with her sister. When the other occupant died both women asked if Nora could move in. Their request was refused. I complained to the head of the home. I should have known better. The man used to tell jokes about AIDS at breakfast. His response was to have a blazing row with Lily about how selfish she was.
Lily was a very strong woman who would never let anyone know that they had hurt her but even she was shaken. Nora, always a very quiet woman, became more and more withdrawn and depressed. Lily was the only person she would speak to. The staff harassment grew worse. Both women were ill and dependent on staff for many needs. Lily was in a wheelchair and had a severe chest complaint. Staff would leave it until the last minute to take her to the toilet and then humiliate her in front of other residents by saying that she had wet herself. Lily would be bathed when Nora was ready to go to bed so that they could not kiss each other good night. When Lily was too ill to move her wheelchair herself they would ensure that the two women were seated at opposite ends of the room. And there would be constant disparaging comments about how 'difficult' they both were. The local authority in which the home was based was not interested in equal opportunities. Although there was a procedure for reporting physical abuse of residents, the mental abuse that the women suffered could only be challenged through the head of the home, himself a culprit.
A few months after I had started work at the home, Nora started to get very ill. I think she had cancer. She lost a great deal of weight, had trouble breathing and talking. Eventually she was confined to bed. Lily was distraught but was rarely allowed into Nora's room to see her. I would sneak into the bungalow some days and wheel Lily into Nora's room. They would sit holding hands. Lily would desperately encourage Nora to fight but she was quite obviously dying.
One evening I came on duty and was told that Nora was dying. The doctor was with her and she was not expected to last the night. I asked if Lily had been told. She had not. There was a social event that evening and staff thought 'we shouldn't spoil her evening.' A disco had been booked and all the residents were expected to attend. Lily, half guessing as the doctor went in and out of Nora's room, was desperate to see Nora. She argued and argued with the care officers in her bungalow. They wheeled her out into the main hall and positioned her wheelchair at the edge of the dance floor facing away from bungalow 2. I went over to talk to Lily and she begged to be taken back. I argued with care staff, senior care officers and the head of the home. Lily was told to stop whining and enjoy herself, Nora was going to be fine; she should stop making a fuss. Finally, one of the care assistants came out of the bungalow and told Lily that Nora had died. Until then, Lily had never shown what she called 'weak' emotions in public. Even when her sister had died she had shut herself in her room and grieved alone. Now she burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably in front of sixty residents and staff. She cried for days and her health deteriorated rapidly. She had a bad attack of bronchitis and died just one week after Nora.
Anna, 73 years
Anna is a 73 year-old disabled lesbian. She is wheelchair bound outside of her home, using crutches indoors. When she became disabled in 1975 her G.P. advised her to move as the inaccessibiity of her privately rented accommodation was dangerous. After a referral by social services Anna was offered a council flat in Redbridge which she took. However, although her needs as a disabled woman were met, e.g. allocation of bath attendant, meals on wheels, isolation from the lesbian community became a problem, friends lived far away.
After waiting eight years on Westminster's Council list, they offered a 'short-life' tenancy, but when she moved in she found there was only heating in the front room. Moving into this one room, Anna found her first quarterly bill to be £488. It became obvious that Anna needed to move again. Her social worker at the time said that she could find her a place in a sheltered block. Anna told her social worker that she didn't really want to move to a sheltered block, but felt she was not able to explain to her the reasons why. These were that she didn't feel she could be 'out' as an older lesbian living in a close, predominantly heterosexual, community. Later that year Camden Council offered Anna a ground floor flat on a new council estate. She has now lived at this address for seven years. Although she feels more secure in some ways, e.g. there is an intercom and the tenancy is assured, Anna still lives in fear of victimisation from others on the estate if they should find out that she is an older lesbian living alone. Black tenants have had experiences of racist attacks with bricks thrown through the windows, and neighbours openly refer to lesbians and gay men as 'perves.' Although she lives nearer her lesbian friends the homophobia that surrounds her on the estate brings an isolation of its own.
Since contacting Penionsers Link and discovering the services it provides for older lesbians, Anna has had the opportunity to meet regularly with other older lesbians to discuss issues surrounding their lives. The housing needs of lesbians has proved to be an issue of great concern to the group.
Julia is a lesbian in her late 70's who is mobile but very frail. She lives in a sheltered block which has one male resident. She is the only lesbian in the block and is assumed to be heterosexual. Thus, although she has physical support, she feels very socially and emotionally isolated and not valued for herself. She has nobody with whom she can share her life experience or with whom she can identify. Julia is scared to come out and feels no sense of connection with the other people in the block. She is desperate to live close to other lesbians.
These case studies reveal that there are lesbians in residential care who are vulnerable and who are being abused by both workers and management because of their sexuality. They reveal the total isolation many old lesbians find themselves in when they have to live in heterosexual environments; they reveal the desperate need for special sheltered housing for old lesbians.
The Lesbian Workers Group have made the following suggestions to care workers and managers in residential homes:
* Although this point has been made many times, it is still worth emphasising that not everyone is heterosexual, in fact the commonest figure is that 10% of the population is gay, so don't assume that all the residents are straight.
* For those people unable to care for themselves and who need help, they may prefer to be helped by a male or female worker.
* Everyone has the right to privacy but unfortunately, in communal living, especially for older people, this is more often than not disregarded. This is not just for things like bathing and dressing but stretches to personal affairs also.
* People living in residential care should be consulted about policies and changes in their living arrangements and should be instrumental in forming those policies.
* Residents should have the same access to community facilites and services as anyone else and the right to chose their own G.P., etc., without questions.
* Residents should be able to mix with anyone outside in the community and be able to invite their friends and lovers into the home.
* Everyone has the right to have their sexual needs/desires respected and accepted.
* Personal belongings must be allowed to be kept private, i.e. rooms locked and no-one should be allowed in without the residents permission.
* Residents should be able to share rooms with whom they like; to live as a couple and sleep with whom they like.
* People should be able to show their emotions and feelings to their loved ones.
* Residents should be allowed to talk about their past without being ostracised and attacked.
* Women should be asked how they would like to be addressed and not quizzed as to whether they have been married and why not. Workers should not assume that everyone has been married, or that they are necessarily gay or straight.
* Gay residents should have the space to be able to meet up.
* Gay residents also have the right to live as a group, i.e. shelterd accommodation for older gay women.
* Residents should be allowed to live as a couple, maintain sexual activity and be able to look after each other in privacy.
* Gay publications should be made available to residents who wish it and available as a matter of course to the home.
The Pensioners Link Lesbian Workers Group can be contacted by ringing 0171.241.0440 ("Cold Line").
EXTRACTS FROM: "SOCIAL WORK WITH LESBIANS OVER 60," LYN RIDLEY.
"...I was never alerted to any issues around equal opportunities and probably never throught once about old lesbians. I am sure this is not peculiar to ... social services department and that most other social services departments do not even begin to think about the needs of old lesbians. In discussion with my ex-team leader recently I mentioned that I was writing my dissertation on Lesbians over 60, she was very intrigued, in her 20 years experience in Social Work she had not once thought about the issue!
This experience is backed up by my last placement, here I worked in an Old people's home in ... in an officer position. In discussion with my Officer in Charge about this work, she informed me that she had never had an old lesbian in the home, she had been there fifteen years! Thinking back to my last working situation, I was in a team with two other out lesbians and our area manager was a gay man. Never once was the subject of old lesbians put on our team agenda. I don't think it ever once touched our consciousness. What chance do most social work teams have in beginning to formulate ideas about these issues?...
Out of Freud's theories grew the notion that homosexuality and lesbianism were simply forms of arrested sexual development, representing a failure to progress satisfactorily to mature heterosexuality. Unfortunately such views remain very prevalent today. Despite my own CQSW course delving deeply into issues around equal opportunities, I find social work students who remain very ignorant about homosexuality. A number, for religious reasons, are openly battling with deep-rooted feelings that homosexuality is a sexual sin - a perversion against god's will. Others struggle long and hard with the 'nature of homosexuality'; many still believe that homosexuality is a 'learned condition' due to a trauma in early life for example and fail to understand the inherent homophobia within this attitude!..."
WEST COAST CELEBRATION II AND CONFERENCE OF OLD LESBIANS, KATE ROSENBLATT, 1989
Dinnertime, Friday, August 4, 1989. I looked around the dining room of the Seven Hills Conference Center at San Francisco State University. The room was packed with women, mostly old women - women over 60, all Lesbian! It was the beginning of the Old Lesbian Conference and Celebration II.
What a wonderful feeling to be in a roomful of old Lesbian peers, to look around and see the gray and white heads, to hug and be hugged by friends I haven't seen in ten years or ten months. We call ourselves old as a political statement and a reality.
From Friday evening to Sunday noon we met, talked, listened, laughed and cried together. We all met in small groups on Saturday morning, by age, to do consciousness-raising on ageism. In the afternoon we had workshops on Coming Out after 60, alternative Housing, Legal Issues, Spirituality, Contributions and Concerns of Women of Color, etcetera.
We came from Massachusetts, Texas, New York, Canada and London. There were 14 women between the ages of 75 and 85, and 35 women under 60 who were partners of old Lesbians or who had worked on the planning committee. All told, we were slightly over 200 women.
War veterans, Jewish women, writers gathered together to discuss common issues and problems. A grass roots political caucus evolved to form a national activist group which would speak to matters which concern us all, and which would meet regularly between conferences to keep up work on educational projects and plan actions to address organizations and legislatures when our voices are not being heard.
We danced together on Saturday night and circled and chanted at noon on Sunday. Can you believe our diversity? Life-long dykes in their 80s, women who came out after reaching 70, women who experienced the oppression of the 30s, 40s and 50s, others who had raised families and then come out in the second wave of feminism - mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, civil rights activists, bar dykes, closeted executives, school teachers - we were all there!
Some will say it was better/worse than the first conference. It was different, as number three will be something else. Old Lesbians are a diverse group with varying backgrounds and experiences, and each conference will reflect a facet of that variety. I renewed friendships, met new women, talked in small groups with women with whom I shared common interests, danced and played. It was a mellow time and I left with a warm glow and a feeling of solidarity generated by our interchanges, our commonalities and our differences.