“Old age ain’t no place for Sissies,” Ian Stewart, age 66, tells me, with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. Ian is quoting his all-time idol, Bette Davis, a woman who arguably suffered all the indignities that old age can throw at a person: a fading career, a vitriolic tell-all memoir by her daughter and, worst of all, a series of crippling strokes. For Ian, however, Davis’ indomitable spirit remains an example to him as he strides proudly towards his 70th year. Old age, for gay people, is he believes, particularly challenging – more challenging than it perhaps is for many heterosexuals.
“I don’t feel that as an older gay man I am visible,” Ian goes on to say. “Perhaps I am a reminder of what the younger generation have to look forward to.” His words remind me of a date I went on a few years ago with a 28-year-old. “I need to make money,” he told me, making no effort to hide his materialism. “Being old is bad enough, but being old and gay and not having money is terrible.”
Ian knows all about the financial hardships that being a pensioner can bring. He trained as a hairdresser and eventually became one of the most respected gentlemen’s hairdressers in the UK, working in London’s Savoy Hotel and then running his salon outside the legendary hotel. He has known great highs and also terrifying lows. In 2015 he became semi-retired. To prepare for this he took out private pensions to boost his UK state pension, but he could only pay a small amount into each fund as – despite his often prominent profile – his earnings fluctuated over the years. Things were not helped by the fact that his partner of 30 years, John, was an alcoholic and Ian eventually had to look after him. “Although he could have made financial provision for me, he never did,” Ian explains. “He preferred to throw his money away on drink.”
When John died, Ian – who was then 53 - was left to fend for himself. “Suddenly I had to face the world alone, and it was all the more frightening as my partner took control of the bills,” he tells me. “My income now comes from my part-time work, a little amount of the two small private pensions and now my state pension. As I still choose to work and my income comes way under £10,000, I thought I would be better off. However, once Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (responsible for collecting taxes in the UK) have added my state pension to my minimal wage, this takes me over the £10,000 limit.”
Ian’s story is the antithesis of the Pink Pound fable which suggests that gay men of a certain age have plenty of disposable income. Through careful management of his finances, he still manages to have a good social life and enjoy trips to the theatre, but times are undeniably tough. On occasion, he has barely had enough money for food, and there was a period several years ago when his boiler broke down, he could not afford to replace it, and he went without hot water for weeks. As Ian grows older, he worries about who may care for him should he become infirm.
In 2014, Europe’s first retirement home for LGBT people opened in Stockholm. It proved to be the start of a trend: a comfortable environment in which gay individuals can be themselves. The concern for many is that a traditional retirement home would possibly involve them going back into the closet or being ostracised by other residents on the grounds of sexuality. A similar home has opened in Spain and France; there are a number in the US. At a time when people are living longer, this is a hot topic. But, as Ian’s circumstances show, not all gay men can afford the care that such a facility would offer. Is this just another case of entrepreneurs cashing in on LGBT people?
For Paul Brown, age 63, the thought of a retirement home – gay-friendly or otherwise – fills him with horror: “I would resist it as much as possible,” he says. “But God forbid I had to go down that route, a gay only environment would be better for me, but I would still see it as a last resort. The loss of independence would be soul destroying and speed up my demise, I think.”
Paul left his job at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in 2011, after taking early retirement. Unlike Ian, he is more financially secure, but he still has to be careful with money. A very positive man who radiates energy, he still manages frequent trips abroad and visits to the theatre – not to mention holding court at his favourite bar until the early hours each weekend.
“The challenges gay people face in retirement depend on social and relationship status,” he says. “If you are single – as I now am - you can get this feeling of isolation, and making decisions such as moving home and area can be very problematic - the unfunny side of the idea of the only gay in the village / small town. Society has moved on but not to that extent, especially outside of large cities.”
Ian spoke to me candidly about how he often feels invisible as an older gay man, explaining that he is overlooked in gay bars on a gay scene that has become overly obsessed with 'image'. Is this also Paul’s experience? “Yes, we do become invisible,” he sighs. “There is this perception that you should be at home watching TV, with a ready meal, wearing a pair of slippers. Additionally, you find that a lot of the time younger gay men – especially from outside the UK - are only interested in what you can do for them on a material level as opposed to an emotional one. Ageism is still rife in society,” says Paul. “And this compounded by the fact that you are gay and alone can make you feel very isolated. It also doesn’t help if you’re looking for part-time work, in my experience. These perceptions need to change.”
Despite the challenges that age brings, Ian remains upbeat. Like many gay men who have spent significant periods without a partner, they’re admirably resilient. “An enterprising person might well think about opening a decent retirement home for gay men,” Ian muses, “but why can’t we have a few bars with tables, chairs, gentle music? Not every gay person likes techno trash, and just because one is older it doesn’t mean you’re not smart, sexual and sensitive.” Would he consider a gay retirement home if money allowed? “Possibly,” he concludes, “but I could never go into a themed nursing home, say for hairdressers. We’d all end up doing each other’s hair.” He lets out a youthful, infectious laugh. “Or one for thespians…Can you imagine? There’d be blood on the carpets as everyone fights to be the best entertainer.”
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