Out On The Couch
By Teresa Theophano, LCSW
For about six years, I have relished my experiences as a queer social worker providing services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) older adults–often defined as people ages 60+. I am committed to the idea of taking care of our own community members who rarely see their lives and needs reflected in mainstream senior services programming. Older adults are wildly underrepresented in both mass and LGBTQ+-specific media, facing ageism as well as homo-, bi- and transphobia. I have been honored to connect with clients who include Stonewall veterans, pioneering scholars in the field of LGBTQ+ studies, artists, and activists. Many of them grew up having to conceal their identities and live in society’s shadows in order to stay safe; they have seen and survived it all!
So, if you are working with members of this community, you will want to ensure that you approach them with sensitivity and competence. That entails consciously using respectful and inclusive terminology. It also means asking people open-ended questions about how they identify their sexual orientations and gender identities, and reflecting back to them what they tell you.
I’ve learned about some important considerations regarding language during my years in the field of LGBT aging. For instance, you may know that being a “homosexual” was stigmatized as a DSM diagnosis until 1973, but you may not be aware that this term was reclaimed by some before the word “queer” became more socially acceptable. I sometimes encounter gay men in their 80s or 90s who will describe themselves as “homosexual,” never as “queer,” while just the opposite tends to apply to younger folks. “Queer” remains a slur in the minds of many–although, of course, not necessarily all–older people, and may be best avoided in the context of working with aging clients.
Similarly, some older adults of trans experience will refer to themselves or other community members as “transsexual,” an unpopular word among subsequent generations. That being said, none of my clients have ever taken offense at the more widely accepted term “transgender,” although they may not prefer to use it to describe themselves. Several African-American men among my client base describe themselves as same-gender loving, others as gay or bisexual. Meantime, I have found that many older women in the community strongly identify with the word lesbian, while others refer to themselves as gay. As with working among any specific population, one size does not fit all when serving sexual and gender minority clients.
So don’t be afraid to ask about the words clients use to describe themselves, and know that it is safe to stick with “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” or LGBT when working with older adults. You can rest assured that these words convey respect. When I conduct trainings on culturally competent work with LGBT older adults, I always include a mention of related terms, including pansexual, asexual, intersex, ally, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary. I also talk about the terms “transgender” and “cisgender,” and the Latin origin of the prefixes “trans” and cis.” While some elders might identify with these terms, many to whom I have provided services are unfamiliar with them. Concepts such as non-binary gender pronouns like “they/them” or “ze/hir” may also be new, which is especially important to bear in mind if these are the pronouns you yourself use.
For further reading on inclusive and sensitive terminology, check out GLAAD’s An Ally’s Guide to Terminology, which is applicable across age groups. And per my previous article on LGBT older adults, the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging is an excellent online resource.
Dame, A. (2017, May 22). Tracing Terminology: Researching Early Uses of “Cisgender”. Retrieved from https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2017/tracing-terminology-researching-early-uses-of-cisgender
(n.d.). LGBTQ+ Definitions. Retrieved from http://www.transstudent.org/definitions/