“I don’t want to go back into the closet” – what happens when gender identity and sexual orientation meet old age?

“I don't want to go back into the closet” – what happens when gender identity and sexual orientation meet old age?
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Amongst some older people, the topic of sex is taboo and heterosexuality is taken for granted; in some minds, there’s no such thing as elderly gay or transgender people. Such stereotypes persist, even in countries committed to equality and with advanced legislation on LGBTI rights.

This is the case in Spain, one of the European countries most in favour of same-sex marriage, where elderly LGBTI people are forgotten by the collective imagination and become invisible.

Although in many ways their lives are not radically different from those of other elderly people, the problems faced by elderly members of the LGBTI community are often far more acute. They generally live alone and as they age, they fear being forced ‘back into the closet,’ especially if they have to move into a retirement home.

“I want to be around people who fully understand me without judging me,” says David, a 65-year-old gay man. “I’ve worked my whole life to break down barriers, but I don’t have the energy to fight anymore.”

Ensuring adequate services for these individuals requires long-term funding and support, which state administrations are often slow to provide for fear of ‘ghettoisation’. As a result, the LGBTI community has to search for its own solutions, such as supervised housing.

“After living a life full of struggle,” says an indignant Paulina Blanco, lesbian and member of the Casal Lambda association in Barcelona, “and paying taxes while being denied our basic rights for many years, as we reach old age we demand the availability of spaces where our personal journeys are taken into account and our affections are respected. I’m married and I want to be sure that if one day I have to move into a retirement home, I can live there peacefully with my wife.”


David lives in one of the supervised flats for elderly LGBTI people provided by the Fundación 26 de Diciembre. The foundation is currently launching a public elder-care project that takes into account sexual and gender diversity and offers accommodation to people with limited economic resources (Madrid).

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

Of Irish origin, David was born and raised in the United States. In the 1980s he joined the Pink Angels, a group formed to patrol the streets of Chicago and protect people from homophobic attacks. He moved to Spain in 2016 after hearing about the Fundación 26 de Diciembre.

“I looked for LGBTI residences all over Europe, but the existing ones are usually private and very expensive and I spent all of my savings on my last cancer treatment,” he explains. “Other more affordable ones, like the Rainbow House in Stockholm, have waiting lists of more than four years! When I found out that a public residence for gay people was being built here, I decided to come because what I need now is a safe space, wherever that may be. I don’t want to be the victim of harassment at this point in my life.”


Marià in her flat in Ripollet (Catalonia). “I could look for a carer but I’m afraid to end up with someone that I don’t feel comfortable with. A lot of people think that being gay is a bad thing. I couldn’t live with that in my own house.”

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

Many LGBTI activists stress the importance of training for medical personnel and support staff who work with elderly people that takes sexual and gender diversity into account. “Once we went to a retirement home with more than 200 residents and when we asked how many LGBTI people there were they said none!” says Paulina, 69.

Studies such as those by Alfred Kinsey (1948) estimate that between five and ten per cent of the global population is homosexual, making it statistically impossible for there to be none in a retirement home. But many LGBTI individuals who move into such homes hide their sexual orientation for fear of being rejected or mistreated, whether by staff or by other residents.


Maite, in the retirement home where she has lived for several years without revealing her sexual orientation. Valdemoro (Madrid).

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

Maite is one of the people who have gone “back into the closet” in their own home. A few years ago, she moved into a retirement home to be closer to her daughter. “I have good neighbours, very nice, but I don’t tell anyone that I’m a lesbian,” she says. “It’s a subject that’s totally rejected here. I miss being able to talk about my life. I feel lonely and isolated.”

As a young woman, Maite went through many tumultuous periods, from a stay in a convent, to bisexual experiences and a marriage, to a long and happy relationship with the love of her life, Rosa. In 2005, when Spain legalised marriage for same-sex couples, Maite appeared on the television programme Espejo Público to talk about her experience as a lesbian mother. Today, she tries to avoid such subjects, allowing herself moments of freedom only when she’s away from home.


Maite and Rosa were in a relationship for 14 years. They lived together with their respective children, telling people they were cousins. Today they remain close friends. Valdemoro (Madrid).

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

For many years, the LGBTI community ignored its own elders. Today, the first generations that fought for equal rights are reaching retirement age and the issue has been forced on the community. In countries like Spain, where caring for the elderly often falls on children and family members, the situation of elderly LGBTI individuals is even more urgent. Many do not have children and others lost contact with their children after coming out. Affordable and specialised care services are vital for these individuals.


Pako married and had three children with whom he managed to reconcile and rebuild a relationship after years of estrangement. Cardedeu (Catalonia).

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

As a young man, Pako always dreamed of having a family, but shortly before his marriage he began to have doubts. “I went to talk to a priest I had known since I was a child,” he explains. “He assured me that with strength of will I could change. I soon realised that it was a mistake, but I already had children. Time went by and the lie I was living grew and grew. I thought that all I could do with a man was have sex, but when I fell in love with one at the age of 30 the lie fell apart. After my divorce I felt liberated, but for my children, who were very young, suddenly finding out that their father is gay must have been traumatizing.”

The subject of parents (many of whom are now grandparents) ‘coming out of the closet’ continues to be very delicate for children and it is rarely discussed. Even among people who consider themselves to be open, it’s not uncommon for children (now adults) to react with reserve or even rejection. Many find it difficult to accept the homosexuality of their father or mother. Feelings of betrayal and misunderstanding contribute to the erection of barriers that often take years to break down.


Brenda at her house in Lavapiés (Madrid). “I never felt shame or rejection towards my body. I feel good with the body I was born with and I know that I’m a woman.”

Photo: Hanna Jarzabek

The isolation and vulnerability experienced by transgender people can be even more acute. When receiving physical care, whether in their own homes, at hospital or in a retirement home, they often fear the reactions they will receive when they reveal that their biological sex does not correspond with their gender.

“When I came to Spain, everyone told me I had to get an operation,” explains Brenda, a 64-year-old transgender woman originally from Peru. “[Everyone told me this] doctors, social security workers, everyone. Ok, but what if I don’t want to? Even my endocrinologist once told me: ‘Brenda, you would make a perfect woman. No one who sees you on the street would think you’re a boy.’ I told him: ‘Well, I’ve never felt like a boy either.’”

Many transgender people live in acute economic precariousness. In their youth, many were forced to work in the (unregulated) sex industry and today they find themselves without resources. They can’t afford private LGBTI residences and fear transphobia in public residences, where the issue of gender identity is ignored.

This article has been translated from Spanish.