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Generations of mentorship

  • JAMAL JORDAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Candice Nichols, 65, director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, in Palm Springs, Calif., in June. Nichols is working to encourage more conversations between intergenerational groups in the LGBTQ community. “Telling your story can change you,” she says, “and it can change someone that hasn’t gone through it.”

Aging is a challenge for any population, but the LGBTQ community faces a special set of obstacles.

Gay and lesbian elders are less likely to have children who can care for them in older age, according to Ilan H. Meyer, a scholar at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has spent decades studying the impacts of aging on the LGBTQ community. Additionally, many social support networks (friends, romantic partners) were lost during the HIV/AIDS crisis, and nursing homes and retirement communities are often less-than-welcoming spaces for LGBTQ elders, often causing people to retreat back into the closet.

Looking back on the 50 years since the uprising at Stonewall accelerated the modern gay rights movement, I wanted to know whether the process of aging had changed.

And so I traveled to five states, meeting queer “elders” — gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans persons over 50 — and their younger mentees, as well as scholars, field researchers and older people who just wanted to share their stories.

Miss Lawrence Washington and Raquell Lord

Growing up, Miss Lawrence Washington, 36, had a good relationship with his parents, but, he said, “they didn’t know what was going on with me outside the house.” Gay people “have to learn the streets a totally different way than straight people do.”

Enter Raquell Lord, 48. Lord is a founding member of The House of Balenciaga, a ballroom family founded in Atlanta. Mentorship is inherently built into the world of vogue and ballroom culture that Balenciaga belongs to, in which groups, or houses, face off in performative competitions. For young queer people, especially those who have grown up in the South, the people with whom you share a house often provide support networks, mentorship and a place to sleep.

“I always wanted to show other people who were younger than myself during that time that if you’re talented, your talent can speak for yourself, and it can reward you and possibly sustain you,” Lord added.

“People do what they have to do to survive, until they find these families,” Washington said.

Queer people are some of the “strongest people to ever walk the earth,” he said. “We had to learn how to survive.”

Lee Daniels and Jordan E. Cooper

Lee Daniels, 60, has learned as much from his mentee, Jordan E. Cooper, 24, as Cooper has learned from him.

“I didn’t realize I had a problem until I watched his work,” Daniels said of the younger Cooper, whose first play, “Ain’t No Mo’,” recently ended its run at the Public Theater in New York. (Daniels was one of the play’s producers.)

Even after creating a megahit like the TV series “Empire” and scoring a best-director nomination for the 2009 film “Precious,” Daniels still struggled to see the value in his own work. “I had been brainwashed by the system to believe that my work was of no value, not important.”

The conversation turned to Nigel Shelby, a gay 15-year-old from Huntsville, Ala., who committed suicide in April after years of relentless bullying.

“I had been suicidal at one point,” Cooper said. “I realized how I write for that 13-year-old self who wanted to kill himself. I write to tell that kid that he’s worthy.”

“That’s the beauty of youth today,” Daniels added. “For people in my generation, it’s simply unheard-of to talk like that, to talk about suicide. I didn’t realize that I had been suicidal until (Cooper) told me I was suicidal.”

Candice Nichols on ‘chosen families’

After over 30 years of work of nonprofit work in the LGBTQ community, Candice Nichols, 65, director of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, would like to see more intergenerational groups of queer people simply share a meal. Palm Springs is a resort town about two hours east of Los Angeles known for its beautiful weather and aging gay male population.

I asked her to tell me about her years of activism. She shared stories of “finding her wings” doing work with Las Vegas’ largest AIDS service center in the early ’90s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic; of families uniting over the discoveries that their children were both gay and dying; of the parties that happened on AIDS wards; of the communities of lesbians who spent time making quilts for strangers; of less fortunate gay young men who died terrified, alone and forgotten.

Hearing stories like these, Nichols said, “can change someone that hasn’t gone through it.” And these are the connections she hopes to make for young queer people.

Older queer people in Palm Springs, especially women, often “tribe up and take care of each other,” she said. For many in the LGBTQ community, no matter how old, their “chosen family” may be their only base of support.

Kim Chasen and Mariam Moiseyev on the ‘freedom in being older and gay’

Two members of one of those chosen communities, Kim Chasen and Mariam Moiseyev, 65 and 67, have been friends for 28 years and active members of Palm Springs’ lesbian community.

We talked about the struggles of coming out in the ’70s, of watching entire communities be decimated by HIV/AIDS, and the resentment born of having the validity of your marriage become a subject of debate.

“I feel there’s a certain freedom in being older and gay — it’s like, what are you going to do to me now that hasn’t already been done?” Chasen said, then grinned. “Getting older really isn’t that bad.”

Moiseyev shook her head and laughed in friendly disagreement.

Chasen corrected herself: “Well, at least we’re lucky enough to have each other to get through it with.”

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