A personal reflection on life course and leadership
By Michael Adams
Movements for social change take place in response to structural conditions that call out for action. The presence and nature of leadership is one factor that determines whether movements get started and how they fare. This article, which shines a spotlight on a budding movement with and on behalf of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) older adults in Latin America, will focus both on the social conditions that make change necessary as well as early progress to transform the landscape. But the article will start with a brief personal reflection.
Twice over the last year I’ve found myself immersed in scenarios that would have been inconceivable to me just a few years. In October 2017, I joined a team of LGBTI activists from Bolivia, Costa Rica and El Salvador as we formed a delegation to testify before the first-ever public hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights focused on LGBTI elders. The night before the hearing our unlikely team met in the lobby of our hotel to craft our opening remarks, which would provide an overview and shared perspective of the challenges confronting LGBTI older adults in the Americas. As we sat there hammering out our approach, I couldn’t help but be struck by the significance of the moment—that this small, intergenerational band of activists (at 57, I was the oldest; my youngest colleague was in her mid-20s) was about to engineer an important leap forward in terms of the visibility of LGBTI elder issues in human rights discussions in the region.
Fast forward to August 2018 and members of this same band of activists found ourselves together in Toronto at the 14th Global Conference of the International Federation on Ageing. We watched mesmerized as Bolivian elder Sassa Almendro Zavallos defied the gender binary while performing a traditional Andean dance to open the conference’s first town hall meeting focused on LGBTI aging. In the days that followed we heard riveting remarks not only from Sassa but also from elders from Costa Rica and Brazil. It was now our elders who had taken their rightful place in the forefront of this budding movement by and for LGBTI elders in Latin America. In Toronto I could not help but marvel at how far this incipient movement had come in just a year.
LGBTI Aging Experiences
Work on behalf of LGBTI older adults, emerging in the United States and several other global north countries in the 1970s, sought to cope with social isolation and thin support networks, which had been identified as defining characteristics of LGBTI aging experiences. In the United States, LGBTI elders are often disconnected from their families of origin, are much less likely (than older people in general) to have children, and are more likely to grow old single and living alone. This global north paradigm also includes significant health disparities (including high rates of depression and other mental health issues across the full LGBTI spectrum and high rates of HIV/AIDS among gay men and transgender women), as well as disproportionately high levels of poverty that reflect the accumulated impact of lifetimes of discrimination.
These challenges combine to create a greater need for professionalized services and care. Yet, LGBTI elders in the global north often have encountered discrimination in the delivery of services and care, as well as disregard in governmental policies that structure and regulate those services. This disregard reflects the general invisibility of LGBTI older adults in the global north, even within the very LGBTI communities that elder pioneers created. Invisibility further exacerbates social isolation. While social acceptance of LGBTI people in the global north has grown markedly in recent years, this opening has been of only limited benefit to LGBTI older adults because their very existence often has gone unrecognized.
In working with leaders in the budding movement with and on behalf of LGBTI elders in Latin America, I have learned that there are both similarities and differences in the aging experiences they navigate in their countries. Among the significant similarities are social attitudes about LGBTI people and issues. Given that the life experiences of LGBTI older adults are shaped substantially by their age peers, we look to social attitudes among older adults in Latin America for perspective. In 2018, SAGE joined RIWI and ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) in releasing Public Attitudes Toward Aging Sexual and Gender Minorities Around the World—a 75-country survey report. The report found that while there are a multitude of regional, national and population-based variations across Latin America, on the whole social attitudes that shape LGBTI aging experiences are similar to those found in the global north. For example, support for equal rights for LGBTI people among those 55 and older ranged from a low of 59% (Peru and Ecuador) to a high of 70% (Colombia). This compares to 73% support for LGBTI equality among those 55 and older in the United States.
The limited data on LGBTI older adults from the field similarly indicates that the broad themes associated with LGBTI aging experiences in the global north also manifest in Latin America, but with significant permutations. For example, according to a series of interviews of LGBTI older adults across Bolivia conducted in 2014 by the LGBTI organization Mano Diversa, social isolation and discrimination are key issues. In that Andean country, 58% of interviewees reported living alone, with only 17% reporting stable partner relationships. Instead of living in traditional family stractures, many found housing with friends or informally “adopted” younger people. In Bolivia, 60% reported being thrown out of their homes at some point by their traditional families; 43% reported continued discrimination by their families of origin because of the interviewees’ sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Family-based discrimination is exacerbated by discrimination in the larger society. More than half of interviewees reported being subjected to workplace discrimination because of either their sexual orientation or gender identity. In a stark indication of how discrimination works at the same time against different sectors of the society, 34% reported age discrimination in the workplace, while 4% reported being discriminated against because they are from indigenous communities.
LGBTI older people in Bolivia are often quite poor because of these factors. The vast majority of interviewees in the Mano Diversa study report working in the informal economy without access to social benefits. While the life expectancy among Bolivian men (89% of Mano Diversa’s interviewees identified as men) is 69, a full 71% of the interviewees reported that they continued to work well into their 60s in order to survive financially. In 2017, the Bolivian minimum wage was $3,841 annually, and 40% report working for less than that. Health issues pose another serious threat to LGBTI older adults in Bolivia. with 29% of Mano Diversa’s interviewees saying they were HIV-positive. Similarly, less than 30% reported having access to regular health care. Access to elder services was even more scarce. Only 11% said they went to elder centers. Although nearly a quarter of the respondents —23%—said they accessed services from LGBT community centers, many said that those centers did not provide services to older adults.
A similar 2015 study of LGBTI older adults in Costa Rica, conducted by CIPAC (Centro de Investigación y Promoción Para America Central de Derechos Humanos) found results comparable to those in Bolivia. The majority of LGBTI elders surveyed lacked family support and expressed worries about their aging future due to both discrimination and lack of awareness of the existence and needs of LGBTI elders. The majority also expressed concerns about their lack of housing options and the resultant need to rely on centers for elder care, where LGBTI elders fear discrimination. Based on a survey of elder care staff in Costa Rica conducted by CIPAC, elders’ fears of discrimination are well-founded. More than half—57%—of elder care staff surveyed by CIPAC do not believe that LGBTI older adults exist. More than one out of every four elder care staff workers—26%—consider homosexuality to be a mental illness. And 35% report that their centers would not accept an older LGBTI person.
Elders who are not LGBTI in the care centers share similar unwelcoming attitudes, according to data from the Public Attitudes survey report released by SAGE et al. For example, the Public Attitudes report found that only 34% of Latin American survey respondents 55 and older were comfortable socializing with people from sexual orientation minorities (the term used in the Public Attitudes survey to describe gay, lesbian and bisexual people). Interestingly, Latin American survey respondents indicated a slightly higher level of comfort socializing with gender identity minorities (the term used in Public Attitudes to describe transgender and gender fluid people).
While LGBTI aging experiences in Latin America share some attributes with the global north, there are also notable differences. The role of gender, for example, is quite distinct in different cultures. Just as one example, the work of Mano Diversa in Bolivia has focused on both bisexuality and older adults. Both emphases are relatively rare for LGBTI organizations; both coincide with gender experiences particular to the rural Andean region, including an historical tradition of acceptance of gender fluidity in pre-colonial indigenous cultures and a tradition of public and ritual-based cross-dressing in both rural and urban Bolivia that survives to the present. Many of Mano Diversa’s older constituents have been active, and in some cases well-known, participants in this public cross-dressing culture, including through the personage of La China Morena in Bolivian folkloric dance, as documented in Mexican artist Pablo Vargas’ Memoria 2012-2014.
Breaking Down the Invisibility of LGBTI Older Latin Americans
In recent years, important steps have been taken to begin building a movement with and on behalf of LGBTI older adults in Latin America, thanks in part to the pioneering work of national LGBTI organizations like CIPAC and Mano Diversa. That work has been complemented by a successful effort by a band of Latin American and U.S. activists to incorporate explicit sexual orientation and gender identity protections into the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, which was adopted in 2015 (see the article by Flavia Piovesan in this issue).
Recognizing the expanding opportunities for advocacy and progress, in 2017 CIPAC, Mano Diversa and other Latin American LGBTI organizations formed an alliance with SAGE to catalyze an LGBTI aging movement in Latin America. One of the early actions of the alliance was to apply to the IACHR for the Commission’s first-ever hearing on LGBTI older adults in the Americas. That hearing took place in Montevideo in October 2017 with representatives from SAGE, CIPAC, Mano Diversa and ESMULES (El Salvador) participating. The IACHR hearing helped build momentum for the alliance’s work, resulting in the crafting of a Call To Action on behalf of LGBTI older adults that is based on the Inter-American Convention; the Call was announced and launched last summer at the International Federation on Ageing’s (IFA) 14th Global Conference on Ageing in Toronto. Representatives from alliance organizations joined with LGBTI elders from Bolivia and Costa Rica to form a major presence at the IFA conference, dramatically increasing the visibility of Latin America’s budding LGBTI aging movement.
One of the aspects of this early movement work that is worth noting is the intergenerational nature of its leadership. As was vividly displayed at the IFA conference, LGBTI elders themselves are playing a prominent role in informing and leading the work. Elder leadership has given the budding movement both integrity and rich texture. For example, the visible participation of elder leaders like Sassa Almendro Zaballos from Bolivia and Soraya Santiago from Puerto Rico have put the role of gender fluidity in Latin American cultures front and center. At the same time, young activists from CIPAC, Mano Diversa and ESMULES also have played a prominent role both in promoting LGBTI older adults as a priority for their organizations and in pushing international bodies like the IACHR and IFA to pay attention to this long invisible part of LGBTI communities.
My own experience of working in close partnership with younger activists in this movement has reminded me of the tremendous opportunities for movement-building and social change when we combine the accumulated knowledge that comes from generations of experience with the creativity, innovation and technological savvy of younger activists. The success of the alliance’s efforts at the IACHR hearing in Montevideo, for example, was the result of a multi-generational leadership effort that brought all these strengths to bear.
One major obstacle to this budding movement has been lack of resources to support the work and the inequitable distribution of the few resources that are available. For the most part, funders in the LGBTI global space have replicated the invisibility and marginalization of LGBTI older adults by failing to prioritize and support this work. As a result, organizations like CIPAC and Mano Diversa—which operate on very limited budgets—have been trying to advance an LGBTI aging agenda in their countries with very few resources.
The IACHR hearing on LGBTI older adults provided a stark illustration of the problem. While the hearing application was submitted on behalf of Bolivia, Costa Rica, El Salvador and the United States, only the U.S. organization (SAGE) had the requisite resources to pay for a representative to travel to Montevideo to present testimony. With the hearing notice issuing just three weeks prior to the hearing date, SAGE scrambled to leverage a relationship with an LGBTI global funder to secure travel funding for its sister organizations. This last-minute scramble is illustrative of the precariousness of resources available to this young movement; that only SAGE was positioned to secure the travel funds underlines the inequitable allocation of limited resources and concentration of same in the global north.
The movement to shine a spotlight on the needs of LGBTI older adults in Latin America, while promising, is still emerging with its future depending on progress on multiple fronts. Continuing to support, develop and promote elder leadership is essential. At the same time, engagement of younger leaders also is important—a movement with and on behalf of elders who have been isolated from the rest of their community cannot succeed without breaking that isolation. Moreover, cross-regional partnering will be important in this developmental phase of the movement. Global north partners like SAGE bring important assets to the table in terms of experience and infrastructure as well as access to relationships and philanthropic resources.
Making LGBTI older adults a priority in regional and international aging discussions is essential, underlining the importance of efforts like the Call To Action. That prioritization must translate into resources—government and philanthropy must invest in LGBTI elder generations, who are responsible for so much of the progress we have made toward LGBTI equality and equity. Investment of this sort is essential if leaders of all generations are to continue building and advancing this nascent movement with and on behalf of LGBTI elders in Latin America. Together we can build a world where all LGBTI elders age with the dignity, respect and support they deserve.
Michael Adams is the CEO of SAGE, the world’s oldest and largest organization focused exclusively on LGBTI older adults. SAGE works in partnership with organizations across Latin America. Adams holds an AB from Harvard, a JD from Stanford Law School, and a Masters in Latin American Studies from Stanford University.