WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

The Greying of the LGBTQ Community

LGBTblogThe Greying of the LGBTQ Community

October was LGBTQ History Month. We should continue to celebrate, reflect, and get back to work!

It has been less than 50 years since Stonewall, the start of the current LGBTQ Rights Movement. There have been trials and tribulations, along with celebrations. Today, over 30 states grant same-sex couples the right to marry legally. Today, social acceptability has permeated society (Pew Research Center, 2011). Today, groups, businesses, and academic institutions supporting LGBT rights and LGBTQ youth, all with the message of equity and equality, have increased exponentially (HRC, 2014). Curriculum teaching about inclusiveness is making schools safer and more hospitable than they were even 5 years ago.

These accomplishments are certainly remarkable considering a mere 50 years ago homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Gay people feared getting fired from their jobs and, often, only a suspicion of homosexual behavior was enough. Religions condemned homosexuality as an abomination, an affront to the natural order of things. And AIDS meant social isolation and certain death.

With so many improvements in equality and rights for LGBTQ communities since Stonewall, one might wonder what else there is left to do. One area that is unaddressed and under-researched is the challenges LGBT elderly people face. More than six million LGBTQ individuals will be in the “65+” age bracket by 2030 (SAGE, 2014). This, of course, provides some trepidations -- and opportunities—for LGBTQ communities, policymakers, and the general population.

blogpullquoteGreyingLGBTQIn the last couple of years, more research has surfaced regarding LGBTQ elderly people, which provides a sobering look at their attitudes and thoughts about aging. The first and obvious concern is aging in a society and community that places a high value on youth, leaving the elderly feeling useless and insignificant (Fox, 2007). This is both within the LGBTQ communities and in the general population. Ageism is pervasive in the U.S.

The second concern is discrimination or perceived discrimination at long-term facilities and healthcare institutions. SAGE (2014) reported 40% of lesbian and gay elderly people do not tell healthcare providers they are homosexual, and healthcare providers just assume they are heterosexual. Moreover, in long-term care settings same-sex couples are denied same-space living arrangements more often than heterosexual couples (Stein, Beckerman & Sherman, 2010). In other words, heterosexism entitles you to live your life with your significant other, especially in the final years.

A final concern is that LGBT elders worry about financial insolvency more often and believe they will not be able to retire or will outlive the meager retirement savings they have. In addition, current retirees have lived through years of employment discrimination (SAGE, 2014). Even today, there are still some states that don’t ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in their employment discrimination laws (HRC, 2014). About 15% of LGBT women and men 65 or older live in poverty, compared to only 10% of heterosexual men (Table 4; Badgett, Durso, & Schneebaum, 2013). In couples over 65, female same-sex couples are almost twice as likely as heterosexual couples, or male same-sex couples, to be low-income, reflecting the double impact of women’s lower earnings compared to men(Table 9; Badgett, Durso, & Schneebaum, 2013).

October’s LGBTQ History Month is about celebration, reflection, and work. We should celebrate that elderly couples are now, legally, entitled to their married spouses Social Security benefits when one spouse dies. Moreover, we should celebrate that the Affordable Healthcare Act is providing many people, especially transgender older adults, with needed healthcare. Finally, we should celebrate that LGBTQ issues are being discussed and acknowledged with the federal, state, and local agencies. In the span of less than 50 years, LGBTQ communities have gone from despised to celebrated and are seen as important members of the global community. Reflection comes as we realize there is more to be done to truly create equality for all members of society.

Let’s get back to work. We need to call members of Congress and demand that they pass the Older Americans Act (the premier elder care law) with LGBTQ elders added to the definition of vulnerable populations. We must call on state and local decision makers to pass anti-discrimination laws and create new minimum wage laws, so that pay is equalized for males and females, LGBT and heterosexual, gender conforming or nonconforming. Furthermore, let’s do what we do best, continue to initiate meaningful discussions on heterosexism, sexism, and ageism.

Brian Fuss, M.P.A., a Research Fellow at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, is working on his doctorate in Public Policy and Administration. The working title of his dissertation is Public Policy Recommendations for Florida’s LGBT Elderly Population Residing in Rural and Suburban Areas.


Additional References:

Fox, R.C. (2007) Gay grows up, Journal of Homosexuality, 52, 33-61. DOI:10.1300/J082v52n03_03

Stein, G. L., Beckerman, N. L., & Sherman, P.A. (2010). Lesbian and gay elders and long-term care: Identifying the unique psychosocial perspectives and challenges. Journal of Gerontological Social Work 53, 421-435. DOI:10.1080/01634372.2010.496478

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Seeking LGBT Parents in History

ssparentsSeeking LGBT Parents in History

Opponents of LGBT equality often try to make LGBT parents seem like a new and untested phenomenon, and therefore something to be avoided. The history of LGBT parents and our children, however, goes back further than one might think.

The Greek poet Sappho, whose island home of Lesbos gave us the term “lesbian,” may have had a daughter named “Cleis.” That would mean that the history of LGBT parents goes back to around 600 BCE.

The existence of her daughter is only attested through a few fragments, though, making it far from certain. It’s also anachronistic to apply modern identity terms to historical figures, even such a lesbian icon as Sappho. The possibility of her existence, however, should encourage us to reflect that the history of parents who fall under a broad LGBT umbrella (not tied to modern conceptions of the terms) likely goes back as far as the history of LGBT people as a whole. They may not have been “out and proud” like many modern LGBT parents, but we can still see them as their forebears.

Sticking with better documented cases, Oscar Wilde was the father of two boys with his wife Constance Lloyd, and apparently a loving one. His son Vyvyan, in his book Son of Oscar Wilde, wrote about Wilde’s relationship with him and his brother, “He was a hero to us both. . . . a real companion to us. . . . He would go down on all fours on the nursery floor, being in turn a lion, a wolf, a horse, caring nothing for his usually immaculate appearance.” Alas, when the boys were eight and nine, their mother took them to Switzerland after Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency” (having same-sex relations) and they never saw him again.

blogpullquoteLGBTParentsVita Sackville-West had relationships with several women, including fellow writers Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis, and had two children with her husband, Harold George Nicolson (who also had same-sex relationships). Her son Nigel Nicolson later used her account of the affair with Trefusis as the heart of a book about his parents, Portrait of a Marriage. There, he called his mother’s description of the affair “one of the most moving pieces that she ever wrote.” While he acknowledged both parents’ same-sex relationships, he also said their marriage “became stronger and finer as a result.” Their love affairs were mere “ports of call,” but it was “to the harbour that each returned.” Nevertheless, it is easy to see Nicolson as the product of parents who fall under the broad LGBT umbrella, and to place another brushstroke in our picture of LGBT family history.

Looking only at parents who had a more modern sense of their LGBT identities, out LGBT parents go back to the very start of the LGBT civil rights movement. Most still had their children within the context of different-sex marriages, but were more likely than in earlier times to leave those marriages, even though this often meant losing custody of their children. Del Martin, one of the founders in 1955 of Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian rights organization in the U.S., was one such parent. Not surprisingly, her organization held some of the first known discussion groups on lesbian motherhood—way back in 1956. (See Daniel Winunwe Rivers’ Radical Relations, which I reviewed in the Women’s Review of Books earlier this year.)

Even the term “gayby boom”—referring to same-sex couples starting their families together—is already over two decades old, dating to at least March 1990, when Newsweek reported, “a new generation of gay parents has produced the first-ever ‘gayby boom.’” That means that many of the children from that boom are themselves now adults—while many of the first generation of out parents are becoming grandparents.

Think of it this way: the fictional Heather who had two mommies was in preschool in Lesléa Newman’s classic 1989 children’s book. If she were real, she’d now be in her late 20s.

Those who continue to insist that LGBT parents are not good for children have failed to realize that if that were true (even leaving aside the extensive social science research to the contrary), there would be many more maladjusted adults running around. Analyses from UCLA’s Williams Institute have found that currently, between 2.3 and 4 million adults have an LGBT parent. If they suffered harm because of that, someone surely would have noticed the connection by now.

As a lesbian mom, I believe that learning the history of LGBT parents and their children can also help us feel less alone, less like we are the first to face each challenge. Having confidence that others have succeeded before us can translate into confidence in our parenting skills, which in turn can positively impact our children.

Knowing the struggles—and triumphs—of LGBT parents in the past can also give us hope and strength in overcoming the challenges—legal, political, social, and emotional—that we still face.

And seeing how the early organizations for LGBT parents helped shape the overall LGBT rights movement of today (a story told in Rivers’ book and in the 2006 documentary Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement) can inspire us to keep contributing to that broader effort, even as we balance the demands of work and family.

LGBT History Month for this year may be drawing to a close, but the work of exploring our history must continue.

Dana Rudolph is the online content manager for the National SEED Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is also the founder and publisher of Mombian, a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and associated newspaper column for lesbian moms and other LGBT parents. She has a BA summa cum laude from Wellesley College and an M.Phil in Modern History from Oxford University.

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Creating Space for More Than Tolerance

ItsElementaryCreating Space for More Than Tolerance

I was asked to write this post about The International Day for Tolerance and I must admit that I had never even heard of it.

But as I considered "tolerance," I thought of its role in my life. Being a middle aged queer mom, I came of age in the 70s and 80s not expecting tolerance from anyone--expecting to hide my sexual orientation in all but the private parts of my life and to navigate the world carefully in that way.

When I had come out to my mother at 17, she said, “You don’t have to tell anyone… and never tell your father.” I would say at that point that level of tolerance was the "gold standard" of what I was hoping for in my life journey

So when my second fourth-grade daughter came home from school one day all a-flutter, exclaiming, “I’m going to take those movies to school tomorrow!”--referring to It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School and Both My Moms Names are Judy--I cautioned her. I said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think that might not be what you want to do. It might not go well.”

She was adamant and then she told me why. A boy in her class had called her and her reading partner lesbians because my daughter had her arm around the younger girl’s shoulder as she was guiding her reading.

“We told him we aren’t but he said it again--in a mean way.”

My daughter was confident that it wouldn’t be necessary for me to call her teacher; she would just bring in the movies. She did. Her teacher did choose to show the 10-minute film and she stopped it along the way for discussion. As the conversation unfolded, the boy said that he had heard that gay people abuse children, so he was sure that they were bad. Others in the class, including my daughter, spoke about family members and people they knew who were gay. As the time unfolded the boy understood that what he had been previously taught did not match the people about whom he was now learning.

blogpullquoteSpaceForToleranceAll day I wondered how the class had responded to the film. I was worried, but the description of the discussion surpassed my expectations. I called the teacher to thank her. She said that they had been working on stereotypes and biases for several weeks but it wasn’t until kids who were classmates talked about their own experience that opinions and attitudes shifted. This was before standardized testing and she was a brilliant teacher who made time for this important discussion. I know there are many brilliant teachers who could create spaces for tolerance in their classrooms if given some tools and language to guide them.

At the Wellesley Centers for Women over the last 25 years, two tried-and-true programs create space for tolerance in schools: Open Circle for students and school communities and the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum for teachers and community adults.

Though the reality for young LGBT people has changed much in the last 25 years, “tolerance” like I experienced as a teen is viewed as sub-par in today’s world of activists. I would argue, however, that the challenge of creating spaces for tolerance is as great as it has ever been. In educational settings there are so few spaces and places that are devoid of competition and assessment; spaces and places where tolerance can thrive without an overlay of hierarchy and judgment even for a limited time.

I want to give a shout out to all the skilled teachers who are intentional in making space for tolerance. Through this commitment they are cultivating affirmation, respect, connection and cooperation and making room for these to grow in their classrooms and school communities.

Emmy Howe, M.Ed., Co-director of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum, is an original writer and founder of the Welcoming Schools Project.

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Thanks so much for this post, Emmy. I hold writing circles for women with just the parameters you describe - space for tolerance w... Read More
Wednesday, 20 November 2013 17:40
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Marriage: Love, Benefits, ...

DOMAblog Marriage: Love, Benefits, ...


Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that denying recognition and benefits to same-sex couples is unconstitutional. Gay and lesbian couples who are legally married (they are able to do so in 12 states and the District of Columbia) will be able to take advantage of such benefits as tax breaks and pension rights that are available to other married couples. Further, legally married same-sex couples will have the same immigration rights as heterosexual couples. Reflecting on the Supreme Court’s ruling, I am reminded of the research study my colleagues and I launched in May 2004, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ decision went into effect, making Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

blogpullquoteLoveBenefitsMy colleagues and I interviewed 50 same-sex couples in Massachusetts and their children. Some of the couples had chosen to get married and some had not. Whether or not a given couple chose to marry, they talked about the importance of the legitimacy and the recognition the change in the law offered them. Their sense was that when legal marriage is available to same-sex couples, the ramifications stretch far beyond the couples themselves. Perceptions of families, co-workers, neighbors, and strangers shift toward greater acceptance.

Rod* (married, in a 27-year relationship) put it this way:
It has been an amazing experience. I do feel in some fundamental way that it has changed me in the sense of legitimizing me… I always used to say, I’m married, but it wasn’t real. And now it’s real, you know? It’s real, real. You know? I mean it’s like legal real. In that way I think it fundamentally changes the way I approach the world. You know? It’s like, “Are you married?” “Yeah!” And it’s your problem to figure out who it is that I’m married to, or whether this is a straight marriage or a gay marriage or whatever. And I’m extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity to do that.

Regardless of whether they believed that legalization changed their personal relationships, and whether or not they chose to marry, all respondents clearly recognized the tangible and intangible benefits that come with official state approval. These included access to family health insurance, legitimacy for second parents, and next-of-kin status in medical contexts. The issue of medical access, privileges and decision-making was specifically mentioned by a number of families. Linda and Sally, a couple who had been together for 24 years, described the importance of a marriage license for their family’s legal protection:

Linda: Well, I honestly feel like, not to be unromantic but, the marriage part was really just the medical benefits and that sort of the financial and…
Sally: Get the piece of paper.
Linda: Right and, just the things that help the family in a time of crisis.

Ada, a married woman in a five-year relationship described the transformation from a cautious to a secure position with respect to her family and their public entitlements:
If we didn’t have a legal marriage, I would feel like I was constantly on the defensive about what should I do, how I should do it and… And instead I’m able to take a much more assertive stance and be able to advocate for the family in a way I didn’t feel like I could have before, because I didn’t have anything behind me to do it.

Other respondents shared similar sentiments, identifying a sense of “safety” or protection that comes as both a formal and informal benefit of legalized marriage:

Jaidyn (married, in a ten-year relationship), said,
To be legally validated and whether or not someone likes it, we’re married. They can’t say ‘Well, that’s not real’. I think there was a feeling of safety that would come along with the legal marriage. …We were very safe in our relationship with one another, in our lives, but [now we have] safety from people who might want to deny us our civil rights.

Despite the real benefits and protections that came to same-sex couples in legalized unions in Massachusetts, the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was repeatedly mentioned by study participants as a source of unequal financial burdens on couples who chose to take advantage of the availability of family benefits that were state but not federally recognized.

Leo, a married man in a 27-year relationship, described the dilemma confronting many couples in the study as they contemplated taking advantage of the new opportunity to put a same-sex partner on the other partner’s family health insurance plan.
Even though I could bring him under my health insurance, I would have to pay a tax on the contribution the state of Massachusetts--because I was a state employee. So [the contribution that] the state of Massachusetts makes towards his health insurance, I’d have to pay a tax on that. That’s a considerable amount, because the state pays seventy-five percent of the insurance. So … there are still some penalties that same-sex couples face that opposite sex couples don’t.

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court has lifted the penalties and unequal burdens. We rejoice.

[*The quotations in this piece are from “What I did for Love, or Benefits or…: Same-Sex Marriage in Massachusetts,” by the Same-Sex Marriage Study Group, Wellesley Centers for Women. Names of the study respondents have been changed. The paper can be downloaded for free through July 2013: http://www.wcwonline.org/pdf/paid/422.pdf . In addition to the WCW Working Paper, you can also download this publication from the study: "Never In Our Lifetime": Legal Marriage for Same-Sex Couples in Long-Term Relationships.

Sumru Erkut, Ph.D. is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Members of the exploratory study of same-sex marriag in 2004-2005 were: Erkut; Ineke Ceder; Georgia Hall; Amy Hoffman; Erinn Horrigan; Gloria Luong; Jean Murphy; Anne Noonan; Konjit Page; Michelle Porche; Diane Purvin; Catherine Senghas; Lisa Sankowski; Ellen Schechter; Joyce Shortt; Allison Tracy; Jasmine Waddell; Nancy Wechsler; and Jodie Wennemer. Additional expertise was provided by Jean Hardisty; Nicolene Hengen; Karen McCormack; Nancy Marshall; Jan Putnam; and Donna Tambascio.

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