Queer people grow old, too

Queer people grow old, too
From social clubs and custom painted vans to bathhouses and retirement communities, more and more filmmakers and photographers are showing what life actually looks like for LGBTQ+ elders.

Kay and Celine have been in love for 32 years, but their romance was almost soured in its infancy by a shit jumper. “I can still see it,” laughs Kay, describing the “really hairy” jumper that Celine wore on one of their early dates. “Well,” exclaims Celine, feigning indignation. “I was warm!”

Light-hearted moments like these are at the forefront of Cathy Dunne’s documentary short Where Do All The Old Gays Go? It’s an intimate glimpse into the lives of queer elders across Ireland, the kind of stories that rarely get told on-screen because they aren’t salacious or sensational. “We were looking for quieter humans,” explains Dunne, “those who hadn’t had much experience on camera.”

The result of this approach is a small but charismatic cast. There’s Trish, a married trans woman who loves nothing more than Celtic wood carvings. Clive and Dan have been together for 30 years, and by the sounds of it, they’ve had some cracking sex along the way. Then there’s Daíthí, a self-described epicene (a term for “genderless” which dates back to ancient Greece) who finds joy in speaking to young queer people across Ireland. “They give me hope,” says Daíthí with a smile.

Dunne’s short film charmed Wema Mumma, an Assistant Programmer of the long-running LGBTQIA+ film festival, BFI Flare. “I don’t have a specific niche,” she tells me, “which gave me the opportunity to hop around and discover what most intrigued me.” This year, Mumma found herself emotionally drawn to stories which “happened to centre queer elders,” so she selected five of her favourites for a short film programme, Ageing With(out) You. “I think part of my curiosity was because the stories of queer elders are extremely rare in my community,” she continues. “Seeing so many different versions of them was fascinating to me.”

‘Where Do All the Old Gays Go?’, courtesy of BFI Flare.

Increasingly, these long-ignored stories are being told. That’s pretty important, especially for a community whose elder generation has been partly decimated by the AIDS crisis. We think of the ‘80s and we think of death, structural discrimination and fury. To see the softer side of these stories – the community-building, the laughter, the love – is a salve for younger queer and trans folks, constantly dealing with the wounds of the UK’s institutional transphobia. Plus, it’s a welcome reminder that queer people get to grow old, too.

Shon Faye’s 2021 podcast Call Me Mother centred these stories beautifully, featuring conversations with a broad spectrum of older queer and trans people. From activists and filmmakers to lawyers and air force officers, each interview illuminates a different perspective.

Photographer Tiu Makkonen has similarly spent years documenting the lives of older LGBTQ+ people in Scotland, starting with her 2017 project Letters to Ourselves. Frustrated by the lack of “photography work highlighting the experiences of older LGBTQ+ adults,” she set out on a mission to fill this void, which took her across Scotland and across to the Shetland Islands. Makkonen made fond memories along the way. “One participant, Gigi, took us on a tour of her island in their custom painted van,” she recalls, during which they went puffin-spotting, explored Gigi’s croft house full of antique clocks, woodworks and fedoras, and met a man named Frank, whom Makkonen said was “one of the first people to come out as gay in Shetland in the 1970s.” Although Frank “politely declined” the chance to be in the project, he gifted Makkonen “a little crystal sugar bowl from his collection” as “something to always remember him by.”

In 2019, she followed the series with the ongoing Portraits of an LGBTI+ Generation, part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Coming Back Out Ball. This project went a step further, hosting monthly social dance clubs for queer elders to meet one another. The plan was to stage a grand ball in the summer of 2020, but the pandemic scuppered this idea; so instead, Makkonen once again picked up her camera, travelling across Scotland to photograph the participants, who carried on their meetings online throughout the early months of the pandemic.

Becky, photographed by Tiu Makkonen.

Rosemary, photographed by Tiu Makkonen.

DeeDee, photographed by Tiu Makkonen.

Ageing With(out) You builds on these existing narratives, taking viewers through tales of love, loss, grief, legacy and joy. “Ageing isn’t only a sad affair,” explains Mumma. “Like any other stage of life, it’s filled with ups and downs, and it looks different for everyone. So I wanted to take viewers through a journey, geographically and thematically, and I tried my best to balance the emotions through the order of the films, ending on a lighter note.”

Not all of the films are documentaries. After Sunset, Dawn Arrives opens with a beautiful shot of a curious sixty-something man named Wan, who peeks through the ornate red curtains of a fictional Lai Lai Ballroom. Inside, he glimpses a luminescent queer utopia. When fleshing out the scene, director Andy Yi Li thought back to an “underground ballroom dance hall in Shanghai” – also named the Lai Lai Ballroom – nestled away in a “secluded, worn-out neighbourhood.” Li dreamed that a “similar place for the East Asian gay community” in Los Angeles existed in the past, but she could find no trace of one – so for this film, she created her own.

The short film complicates stories of queer love. As he falls deeper in lust with Ken, a sexy, self-assured dance instructor three decades his junior, Wan affectionately polishes the altar of his late wife Fang Fang, talking to her as though she were still there. “Love is complicated,” explains Li. “Wan and Fang were partners in crime, soulmates. When he was younger, he was truly in love with her – both emotionally and sexually – until he figured out that his true passion was for men.” It’s not a linear narrative, and Wan’s homosexuality doesn’t cast doubt on his love for his late wife. Instead, he seeks guidance from her photograph, attempting to bring her spirit with him on this new adventure.

‘After Sunset, Dawn Arrives’, courtesy of BFI Flare.

Li was similarly careful not to desexualise Wan. He stands naked in a local bathhouse, fantasising lustily about the sex he could have with Ken. “I’ve found that elderly people are constantly being desexualised in the media,” she continues. “LGBTQ+ filmmakers should be wilder and more fearless; we should tell more untold stories, and break the stereotypes.”

As well as offering a glimpse into the lives of queer elders across the USA, the Philippines and Ireland, Ageing With(out) You offers insight into their challenges and demands, too. The main takeaway from curating the selection, Mumma says, was that “we need more queer nursing homes in the world! People still need to feel safe and free to be themselves as they access the care they need as elders.”

Dunne learned of these difficulties while filming Where Do All The Old Gays Go? Daíthí speaks candidly about being diagnosed with prostate cancer, and the “heteronormative care” they received. After decades of being out and proud as queer and gender non-conforming, they started feeling pressure to suppress their identity when dealing with nurses and hospital staff.

Kay and Celine both speak of their determination to stay active and independent, partly because they fear being the only same-sex couple in an unwelcoming nursing home. “We don’t have any LGBTQ+ care homes in Ireland,” explains Dunne. “I can only imagine what it might feel like to have to go into a nursing home, an institution, and face peers that might never have accepted you. You might have to deal with homophobia from the moment you enter the door.”

Tracy, photographed by Tiu Makkonen.

Liz and Ed, photographed by Tiu Makkonen.

Daíthí applied to be housed in the UK’s first LGBTQ+ retirement community, which consists of 19 flats in Vauxhall, just next to the River Thames. The lucky residents have access to a restaurant bar, floating garden and roof terrace, but places are limited. As Daíthí quickly learned, waiting lists were extensive. Clearly, there’s a demand for queer elders to be housed in care facilities which centre their experiences, surrounded by like-minded folks eager to be cared for without discrimination. In 2013, Rainbow House, an LGBTQ+ retirement house, opened in a sleepy suburb of Stockholm, Sweden. It’s been hailed as a long-term success story, with idyllic articles painting pictures of cosy, friendly common rooms decorated with queer art, rainbow-coloured sweet bowls and LGBTQ+ event posters.

As Daíthí highlights, older generations of LGBTQ+ people have often dealt with legal and societal discrimination for decades. As they advance into their twilight years, their goal is to retire happily, and be treated with dignity, empathy and respect – and, in some cases, to be surrounded by other LGBTQ+ people. It’s fitting that Where Do All The Old Gays Go? opens with a shot of a twinkling disco ball; there’s clearly a desire to keep living a vibrant, joyous life as the years pass by. “It’s been so positive to see the conversations being sparked at the end of every screening,” says Dunne. “People feel energised, and enthusiastic about the need for change.”

Gigi, photographed by photographed by Tiu Makkonen.

You can watch all films included in BFI Flare 2023 at BFI Southbank or on BFI Player from 15 to 26 March 2023.

Learn more about Tiu Makkonen’s Letters to Ourselves project.

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