In a new exhibit, LGBTQ elders share what it was like to spend most of their lives in the closet.
ByJo Yurcaba from nbcnews
Even after they both got out of the Navy, they stayed in the closet. Beginning in the late 1960s, many states criminalized homosexuality through sodomy laws. The American Psychiatric Association also classified homosexuality as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973, when that classification was replaced with “sexual orientation disturbance.” Homosexuality was completely removed from the manual in 1987, but many states still had sodomy laws on their books until 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional.
“I can remember going on many dates with lesbian friends, because they felt they had to stay in the closet at that time, and we're still friends with a few of them today,” Prescott said. “That's what we did back then. You go to somebody's parents’ house ... you'd have a lesbian friend with you, or they would have a gay man on their arm or something, and it was a way of hiding.”
Cunningham and Prescott met in the mid-'90s while working for a bus company, but they still didn’t come out because, according to Cunningham, “If you were gay, you were not promoted.” So they waited until they had both retired in 2001. Even after coming out, they struggle to enjoy LGBTQ pride parades.
“We're from a generation that you dare not hold your partner's hand in public, and we kind of still have remnants of that,” Cunningham said. “It's difficult for us, because so much of the time in our life was hiding. And then when you get older you see the gay pride going on and people totally enjoying themselves. ... It's hard for us to do, not because we don't want to — it’s because we almost can't, because of being in the closet so long.”
Sharing the stories of LGBTQ elders is especially important now, DaCosta said, as the Covid-19 pandemic highlights disparities faced by older people and marginalized communities.
“A lifetime of discrimination leads you to these disparities with your health, with your socioeconomic status, with how you can live your life across the board,” she said.
Research published in the journal The Gerontologist last fall found that lesbian, gay and bisexual people have a higher risk of dementia and cognitive decline than heterosexual people as they grow older. The study’s authors found that the increased risk was partially due to higher rates of depression that older LGBTQ people experience due to workplace discrimination, shame and other stigma associated with their sexuality.
That stigma still persists, but the elders and producers behind “Not Another Second” hope their project can help, even if just in a small way.
One of the elders featured in the exhibit, Lujira Cooper, 72, lived nearly her whole life as an
openly gay woman. In a video trailer for the exhibit, she said, “Things have become more accepting. However, I think part of the problem for elder seniors is because of all the discrimination they felt earlier they’re still not coming out.”
DaCosta said she hopes LGBTQ people who are not out — whether they’re young or old — will be inspired by hearing and seeing the stories of these elders.
“The more these folks come out and share their stories, the more change could happen,” she said. “I like to say this community has so much to offer, and they've offered so much already — Stonewall, civil rights, everything — it's because of these elders who really paved the way.”
As for Cunningham and Prescott, they hope that by sharing their story, people will have more of an understanding of LGBTQ people.
“I am hoping that some people that could be in the closet or know people that are in the closet would be more understanding and not feel threatened by us,” Prescott said.
They encourage LGBTQ people who aren’t out to seek out friends and community at local LGBTQ organizations and to let go of relationships with people who won’t accept them.
“They need to believe down and deep in themselves, believe in themselves, that they can get through this and make a good life for themselves,” Prescott said.