Photo / Eberhard Grossgasteiger, Unsplash

“We will not be put back in any closets”

The generation that was on the forefront of the fight queer rights is now retiring. But are the healthcare and retirement home systems ready for them?

When most people think of queer activism, they think of the forefront of LGBTQ+ issues and see young activists demanding change. Not many look to aging seniors and see them at the forefront of the discussion. That’s changing though with many in Iceland debating how we can best help queer senior citizens and the elderly. After all, this generation was at the forefront of the fight for queer rights in their day.

“Gay and Gray” homes

Now some of these activists, out and proud for years, are getting quieter when it comes to healthcare and retirement facilities. In shocking stories from the US and UK, some queer seniors have been forced back into the closet when going into a retirement home. The BBC’s Aiden Lewis interviewed American retiree Lucretia Kirby who had faced verbal and physical assault in a care home with her partner Sandra. After homophobic slurs and notes under their door, they moved into one of the US’s handful of LGBTQ+ retirement communities. There they found a welcoming environment.

Similar housing developments for queer seniors have popped up in Britain. Tonic Housing, a project funded with a loan from the mayor of London, is a company with 19 apartments on the River Thames “genuinely aimed at the needs and desires of LGBT+ people.” Other similar projects have been built in Stockholm and an entire village for queers 50+ exists in France.

In Spain, the “26th of December Foundation” was funded in 2018, promising Spanish retirees who grew up “under the torture of the Franco dictatorship” a place to live out their last days with other like-minded individuals. This video from PinkNews shows how the project is helping heal the past traumas of the residents and members of the foundation with help from a psychologist.

“It shouldn’t surprise us that we’re headed in this direction. Queer people get older just like everyone else.”

So could Iceland support one of these LGBTQ+ retirement homes Dubbed a trend called “Gay and Gray” these new housing projects mainly focus on the retiree aspect of elderly living, before assistance is needed on a daily basis. Although no project like this has cropped up in Iceland yet, there’s certainly been more discussion about the topic in general.

After surveys and reports from queer people across Europe, many social arms of European governments are working to solve these issues. Many queer retirees simply say that they’re worried about finding community and being open and proud in these living situations. Although many of them grew up at the forefront of civil rights change, not all of them were out and proud at the protests. To avoid the stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression of “going back into the closet,” they’re asking for help from our leaders.

Netflix’s recent documentary A Secret Love covered the topic a bit, showing the story of lesbian couple Pat and Terry hiding their relationship for nearly their whole life. The pair began dating in 1947 when it wasn’t uncommon for police to raid lesbian bars, breaking up the underground and then illegal queer community. The documentary shows the couple’s struggle with trying to find a nursing home that would accept them, losing independence in old age, and Terry’s difficulties with Parkinson’s disease. We won’t spoil the ending here, but let’s just say this one’s a tear-jerker.

Reykjavik recognizes the problem

Ásgeir Helgi Magnússon, chair of this year’s Reykjavík Pride.

At Reykjavik Pride this year the theme for the festival was Queer of all ages. Ásgeir Helgi Magnússon, chairman of Hinsegin dagar 2021, mentioned in his letter to the community that “we have to make sure that those getting older can spend their senior years in pride and joy, that they can participate in queer social life; that they are not forced back into the closet due to a lack of understanding or poor conditions in our nursing homes and health institutions.”

Ásgeir’s sentiment matches the city of Reykjavik’s commitment to combating loneliness amongst the elderly and ensuring that vulnerable communities like LGBTQ+ folk and immigrants are taken care of properly. The city’s agenda for 2019 to 2022 includes items 54 and 55 “to take actions to break the social isolation of the elderly (paying special attention to e.g. queer senior citizens and immigrants)” and “securing the rights of queer elders.”

Luckily Svandís Anna Sigurðardóttir, a kiwi-Icelandic hybrid, is working on these issues and many others as fast as she can. Her work in the Reykajvik office of Human Rights and Democracy is to identify these issues and go into facilities to help. Some of her most recent work included helping schools better prepare for when a student is transitioning and publishing a wealth of materials for trans youth on the city’s website.

When asked about queer retirees and senior citizens, Svandís says the city is on it. “It shouldn’t surprise us that we’re headed in this direction. Queer people get older just like everyone else,” she says.

However, it’s a bit difficult to get into these facilities when a pandemic turns the residents inside into the most vulnerable population. In-person seminars, Svandís’ specialty, may have to wait for covid restrictions to loosen. “We just haven’t been able to enter these elderly care facilities in covid times. Of course, these are especially vulnerable places. So we’re not going in and talking to people directly with lectures, but this is something that’s on our agenda.”

If there wasn’t a global pandemic, Svandís says the best way to start this work is with the staff. Healthcare workers and employees in retirement homes are the biggest influence. “Those are the people that are employed by Reykjavik city. I always tailor workshops and training to the group I’m working with so they would get a slightly different version than teachers for example. That’s our first way of starting.”

Getting rainbow certified

Beyond workshops with the employees, public service organizations like these can also get involved with the rainbow certification process. “We are the ones that are following the human rights policy, we have the rainbow certification going on so that’s also something that these workplaces could apply for,” says Svandís. The certification scheme, based on work from the Human Rights Council, is aimed to “make Reykjavík City workplaces and services more LGBT+ friendly as well as to prevent direct and indirect discrimination.”

Svandís Anna Sigurðardóttir, from the Human Rights Office of Reykjavik.

The certification process includes questionnaires for administrators and directors to fill out, training for all employees that goes about four hours, surveys, and more. Svandís mentions that they even provide workplaces with physical materials like pamphlets, flags, and posters. The aim is to increase visibility so that when someone is coming in to apply for a job or using a service they can see something in the room that makes them feel comfortable enough to open up about their orientation or identity. This goes for every space from schools and retirement homes to swimming pools and libraries.

“So it’s about getting visibility in these institutions but not so that it’s just a rainbow sticker that they get and then “we’ll see what happens”,” Svandís explains. “They have to have a plan to back it up. You have to know how to answer questions and talk about these topics. These trainings are both to benefit the residents but also the staff themselves. We’ve got all types of people working there too so we can empower them in their positions as well. We want them to be comfortable, to know what the policies within the city are. They have a total right of being open or not about being queer and they should be able to seek help if they face prejudice,” she says.

Wait, this is *my* responsibility as a city employee?

With her work in the Human Rights & Democracy Office of Reykjavik, Svandís sees a lot of good intentions but not a lot of concrete action. For her, it’s obvious the general consensus in Iceland is that it’s this wonderful queer place to live and Pride is one big family-friendly event. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that not every person is supporting that mission with their day jobs. “It’s kind of in line with the stuff we hear like “Iceland is a nice queer-friendly place to live, we accept everyone,” but then in reality it’s like “oddly enough there are no queer people around me and we haven’t talked about it in the 20 years I’ve been working in the healthcare system”,” she mentions.

Is every employee expected to be a trained and certified rainbow ally? Well, actually, yes, kind of. Svandís says at the very least because they’re in public service as an employee of a government institution they should be. “A lot of the work we do within the city is about getting the point across that you as a big public institution, with power, have to be the one that takes the first step. It’s taxpayer money, we’re working for the people and that’s just with every institution. You have to be the one that starts building the bridge to a marginalized community that’s in a position of less power. You, as the city employee, have to start talking about this stuff, asking more open-ended questions, and asking the right kind of questions to make sure that people are able to be out and proud.”

Though it may seem like Svandís is expecting a lot from every firefighter, landscaper, and cafeteria cook, she says she has to push for these changes because most people don’t realize how they exclude others with their language or actions. For example, Svandís says she hears this rebuttal a lot. “Well no one’s ever mentioned this to me, so I’m not going to mention it.” Or: “do I have to mention [queer issues] if no one has even come out to me?”

Instead of complicated reactions to a queer resident or student, the Human Rights office is advocating for preventative and proactive measures before an issue arises. Increasing this education from the beginning also prevents staff and organizations from automatically implementing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Where are all the queer Icelanders over 60?

One of the hardest parts about helping queer elders facing prejudice and oppression in the care system is that it’s incredibly difficult to find and quantify this group of people. There’s just not a lot of research and empirical data on how many older Icelanders identify as queer or how many of them have had issues connected to their sexuality, identity, and healthcare. Many of them also don’t use computers at all, so online surveys are null and void.

“We just don’t have a lot of data,” says Svandís. The lack of information to use becomes more apparent when it’s a minority within a minority too. “[A lack of data] is how it is in general for the queer community so if you’re going to go look for data on smaller subsets of the queer community like queer elderly, it’s even worse,” she says.

Since the city, community organizations, and everyday senior citizens are just starting to talk about this topic, there’s not a lot of experts or people leading the conversation. Svandís says “I went to a lecture last year on LGBT+ elders at the end of 2019. The documentary Svona Fólk had just aired and I was really excited to go to the lecture. Like ok, “what’s the situation, what data do they have?”

“You, as the city employee, have to start talking about this stuff, asking more open-ended questions, and asking the right kind of questions to make sure that people are able to be out and proud.”

Turns out, “the situation was pretty non-existent. There wasn’t a lot of information. The lecture was just kind of talking about and quoting the documentary. They meant well with this topic but there just wasn’t a lot of knowledge there, nothing from the Icelandic context. I was just disappointed because of course, I had seen this show already so I didn’t need to see the quotes up on slides,” she says.

Although it’s a lot of uncharted territory, Svandís is happy we are broaching the topic and trying to figure out what needs to change. “[Queer senior citizens] are entering into institutions and an area that hasn’t been very visibly and vocally queer or made queer for them. So far we haven’t associated a lot of queerness with the elderly and it’s a new area I’m glad we’re going into,” she says.

This article is brought to you by GayIceland and sponsored by the city of Reykjavík.

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