Happy Pride to Incarcerated LGBTQ Older Adults
As Pride Month comes to a close, I’ve been thinking about some folks who likely aren’t getting much of a chance to celebrate: LGBTQ older adults who are incarcerated. A handful of years ago, I was asked by GEAE, a local nonprofit supporting LGBTQ folks and their allies in Erie, PA, to give a presentation about incarcerated LGBTQ older adults at an event. I work with and care about those folks, but hadn’t ever done any research about them, so I jumped right in.
From what I could tell based on my experience and the research I was doing, at that time there was an increased awareness of the needs of older adults in general as our population ages. This has led to an increase in awareness of the needs of an aging prison population. I also noticed an increased awareness of the LGBT community, and their needs in an incarceration setting. This increased awareness seems primarily focused on young members of the community. The intersectionality of the specialized experiences and needs of LGBT older adults in the criminal justice system has thus far gone virtually unnoticed by researchers, as far as I can tell.
In my research, I searched in places I THOUGHT would be concerned with the experience and needs of this group, but it was rare to find information or articles addressing all three pieces of this intersectionality. My search included places such as the National Institute of Corrections Website, ACLU, American Society on Aging, PA Prison Society, Human Rights Watch, and various professional journals.
I would get excited when I came across an article….but it was always THE SAME ONE ARTICLE! Sometimes I would come across a documentary and get excited…..It was always the SAME 5 minute video, actually made by the writers of the aforementioned article! THEN I got excited because I found a chapter in an edited, 2016 book called “Handbook of LGBT Elders.” I was hopeful to see the chapter was titled “LGBT Elders in the Criminal Justice System.” Much to my surprise, the chapter primarily focused and discussed…..get ready for it….The very same one article and documentary I kept finding…….so I bought the book.
The message was pretty clear….there’s not a lot out there. There aren’t many researchers or professionals paying much attention this group of individuals. I suppose I could have turned over more rocks, and maybe found a few more crumbs of information…. But I’d already turned over a lot of rocks, and hadn’t come up with much.
I’m thinking about this because I was recently asked to update this presentation for the PA LGBTQ Health Conference in Fall 2021. I started doing research, and was finding the same gosh darn article, documentary, and book chapter, and nothing new since a handful of years ago. This time though, I am a member of AASECT, and I reached out to our Listserv to see if anybody out there new about new research that I wasn’t finding.
The only person who responded, but did so with GREAT energy and enthusiasm, was Jane Fleishman, a sex educator who is enthusiastic about sex and aging. She is also a blogger, podcaster, and has done a Ted Talk. Coincidentally enough, I’d just picked up her new book, The Stonewall Generation, at the library! Jane was full of energy, support, and ideas about who I should talk with, what resources I might want to check out, and what directions I could go with my presentation, while also acknowledging the dearth of resources focusing on this population.
Buoyed by Jane’s energy, I then attended the LGBT Elders 10th Annual Conference (which, not surprisingly, Jane was presenting at) and sucked up as much knowledge as I could from the presenters (often themselves LGBTQ elders) about the experiences and needs of LGBTQ elders. I took lots of notes, jotted down lots of resources, and maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll find some professionals out there who are paying attending to LGBTQ older incarcerated folks.
It really struck me, as I’ve been searching, that there IS one group who is paying attention to our incarcerated LGBTQ elders: Other LGBTQ folks, particularly formerly incarcerated ones! While the research is lacking, the grassroots advocacy and support organizations are certainly not. Along the way, I’ve interacted with or learned about grassroots organizations by and for LGBTQ incarcerated folks, often led by strong black trans women. Organizations such as Black & Pink, Hearts on a Wire and the TGI Justice Project. I’ve seen the documentary about tireless and infamous advocate Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and I’ve just recently seen Dominique Morgan, Executive Director of Black & Pink speak powerfully at the AASECT Conference. And the folks who ran and presented at this LGBTQ Elders Conference, and the one sexuality professional who reached out to me; ALL LGBTQ elders.
As I continue to learn and grow in the area of better understanding incarcerated LGBTQ elders and how to support them, it seems clear that the direction it’s most useful to go in is not toward scholarly research, but toward these powerful folks and the organizations they’ve built to support their own. I hope to learn more and connect with some of these folks over the coming months, and I hope to see whoever is reading this at the PA LGBTQ Health Conference. But for now Happy Pride to our incarcerated LGBTQ elders. I see you, I’m thinking about you, and you matter.