By Jessica Alpert
Margueritte Wilkins was, as she likes to say, “born, bred, and buttered” in Manhattan’s Sugar Hill neigborhood, a northern section of Harlem. Wilkins remembers that she came out to her family when she was in kindergarten: “My brother called me an early bloomer.”
Her family didn’t really know how to respond to her homosexuality and so they just “played it by ear.” As she found support in friendships throughout middle and high school, her relationship with family deteriorated. Now, at age 66, Wilkins has no contact with her family. “They think something is wrong with me,” she sighs.
Recent analyses suggest that there are at least 1.5 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans over the age of 60. These numbers are based on an estimate from UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and the Law which has calculated that approximately 3.8 percent of Americans identify as LGBT.
LGBT elders deal with significant economic and health disparities as compared with heterosexual seniors. According to a 2011 national health study co-authored by the Center for American Progress and Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE), more than half of LGBT respondents have been told by a doctor that they have depression; 39 percent have seriously contemplated suicide; and 53 percent feel isolated from others. Social isolation remains a major issue as LGBT seniors are 3-4 times less likely to have children, twice as likely to live alone, and twice as likely to be single.
According to a 2010 MetLife Study of Boomers from the MetLife Mature Market Institute, about 42% of the LGBT population identified their relationship status as single, far higher than the 27% of the general population. Like Margueritte Wilkins, many LGBT seniors may also be estranged from their biological families.
“This generation came of age when homosexuality was considered criminal, a form of mental illness, or a security risk,” says Brian De Vries, a professor of gerontology at San Francisco State University. “They don’t have the safety net available to them that heterosexuals have.”