by Joel Barrett
Nothing says happy 50th birthday like receiving my first invitation to join AARP. Turning 40 was a walk in the park, but 50 meant I was now my parents. I remember when they were this age. They were so OLD. Now here I am at 50, but I don’t feel old at all. And neither did any of the other nine LGBTQ community members who gathered recently to share their thoughts and feelings about being of a certain age.
“I don’t think youth is a number,” Ken Petti said. “Youth has no age. I really believe it is a spiritual entity. You have to live to realize it.”
Petti is a 50-something transplant from New York City who moved here a year ago to be with his partner Scott Heidmann. The two met on Facebook four years ago and are now planning their wedding in January 2017.
Heidmann agrees with his partner.
“I think there’s something so freeing about being this age,” Heidmann said. “50 is not old. I’m 57, almost 60! So many people say you’re supposed to be a certain way at that age, but if you’re happy and you enjoy life—you could be 75 and sitting here young at heart.”
Recent estimates based on a study from from UCLA’s Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and the Law suggest that there are at least 1.5 million LGB people 65 and older in the United States, and this population will double by the year 2030. These figures are low considering they don’t include the transgender community. There is also great difficulty in measuring the number of LGBTQ people in our nation due to factors such as stigma, underreporting and other methodological barriers. What we do know is that nearly 20 percent of our population will be 65 or older by 2030.
Just four years ago, Suzanne Wheeler, a 46-year-old transwoman, sat in the basement of her home preparing to commit suicide. She had been told all her life that following her dream and being who she was would destroy her.
Instead of ending it all, she found the courage and support to begin living as her true self. Turning 50 this year has been a season of major transition for Wheeler. She began living full time as a woman. With the encouragement of her daughter, she came out at work.
Soon after, she retired as a 32-year veteran and Colonel in the U.S. Army. The Army honored her transition and presented her with documents and certificates with the name Colonel Suzanne Wheeler on them. At her retirement party, she introduced everyone to her partner Marsha Riley.
“My life is more vibrant, happy, and full of love now that I can be honest.” Wheeler said. “For the first time in my entire life, I know what a real relationship feels like— a truly loving relationship. I think that’s a huge piece of the fabulousness on this side of the fence!”
Her partner Marsha is a 66-year-old transwoman who retired from the corporate world and now spends her time serving on various boards and volunteering at local LGBTQ organizations, including the Mid-America Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. She describes her transition as a rebirth.
“Being reborn at the age I was, was spectacular because I had so much experience to bring to the table. I feel fabulous! I feel reborn! I am six years old!” Riley said.
Jerry Jackson, a 53-year-old gay man, feels grateful to be living at this point in time.
“This conversation 20 years ago would be a very different conversation,” Jackson said. “This little bubble that we got to live in— that we got to be 50 something in— is amazing.”
At 45, Jackson realized that his life was probably half over.
“My priorities lined up pretty quickly,” Jackson said. “I realized I was not leading an authentic life. I was not who I was supposed to be.” So he made the decision to come out.
Today, Jackson is single and finds that his age brings clarity to his relationships.
“It’s a time in my life when I know what I want,” Jackson said. “Much of my life was spent trying to figure out what I wanted.”
There is no question that everyone in the room remembered younger years when fear was a controlling force. Courage, confidence and freedom have replaced that fear.
Kymberly Griggsby, 54, has been with her spouse for 14 years.
“I thought when I came out these dark clouds were going to form and people were going to turn their back on me and life would be so different,” Griggsby said. “But actually my life has been so enhanced.”
Her 23-year-old daughter once asked her how she was able to let go of caring too deeply about certain frustrations. Her answer? “You get to be 50-plus and fabulous and then you don’t care.”
Griggsby loves her freedom. “I feel alive, like a butterfly,” Griggsby said. “It’s been very freeing. I don’t feel like I have to hide. I was able to open a business and do business the way I want to do it. I live the way I want to live. I just didn’t see years back that it would be this way.”
Amanda Daniels, a lesbian transwoman who graciously hosted our gathering, unapologetically embraces her freedom.
“Being 53 has allowed me the freedom to choose the relationships that I want to be in. Instead of having relationships dictated, massaged or trying to conform, I don’t care anymore. If we get along, we get along. If we don’t, I’ll move down the road. I’m not going to change myself any more,” Daniels said.
Daniels said she is more committed to being herself and her own happiness than she was at 20, 30 or 40, when she was concerned with trying to make others happy.
Heidmann puts it this way: “If you like me great, if you don’t, that’s your problem. I don’t care what anybody thinks of me anymore.”
Everyone agreed that the friendships we share now are much deeper and more meaningful than in our younger days.
“The friendships I have now are branches, the friendships that I used to have were leaves. They fell away after a season,” Daniels said. “Growing up male for more than 50 years, I had no male friends. Now, coming out, I have more friends than I have ever had, and they are much deeper and more significant.”
Riley loves her new community. “The biggest surprise I’ve experienced [after coming out] is the greatest, most sincere, and most truthful people I’ve ever met are in this community. I enjoy all the different colors of this rainbow more than any other group of people I’ve ever met.”
One of the beautiful things about our gathering was the lack of pretense. Everyone came ready to be open and authentic in their sharing. Before we finished our introductions, there were already a few tears shed and many laughs.
“I think we are facing a lot of truths at our age,” Daniels noted.
Riley agreed. “You develop deep, sincere friendships that are based in truths when you’ve faced your own truth.”
Bob Washburn, 60, came out 14 years ago. Several years ago, he met a younger man who is now his partner.
“There’s a generation of younger men who like men my age,” Washburn said. “I love the feeling of having a secure and trusting relationship.”
Petti had convinced himself that he was happy and content being 50-something and alone in NYC. “I think in my life I did everything really exceptional in my career, but I never did anything right with love.”
He attributes that to not truly accepting himself. He took a leap and met Heidmann.
“At this age you say ‘This is who I am’ and if I can attract a man from New York, then I am happy and fabulous,” Heidmann said. He and Petti say they are the happiest they’ve ever been in their lives.
What was supposed to be a two-hour conversation stretched into four hours of laughter, love, tears and heartfelt sharing. We came as strangers and left as friends. The nine of us agreed that we want to meet again and continue to build our friendship. We plan to meet regularly and to invite other members of our community who share the distinct honor of being 50 and over.
A Facebook group called “LGBTQ and Fabulous at 50+” has been established. Join it and we’ll keep you informed of future gatherings.
As Heidmann put it, “Being in our 50s is fabulous because there is opportunity and we’re here to prove that there is.” After our time together, I have never felt more encouraged and empowered to be 50 and fabulous!