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Understanding the Experiences of Older 2SLGBTQ+ Adults

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

Whether you’re a financial advisor, estate lawyer or care home worker, understanding the experience of 2SLGBTQ+ people will help you provide meaningful support.

An older couple smiling, one with their arm around the other.

There has been a lot of progress made in Canada for 2SLGBTQ+ rights over the last few decades but the discrimination and trauma many older 2SLGBTQ+ adults experienced over the course of their lives still lingers. Because of these negative experiences, many older 2SLGBTQ+ adults feel they need to hide who they are when entering into care homes.

With all of the progress that’s been made, it might be difficult to understand why older members of the community may still be hesitant to be open about their sexual orientation and gender identity. Many opt to live in secrecy and only disclose this information unless absolutely necessary.

If you’re working in a care home or helping 2SLGBTQ+ clients put together an estate plan, it’s critical to be aware of the experiences of some older 2SLGBTQ+ people in Canada. Getting a better sense of what people may have experienced and continue to experience today will help you provide empathetic and meaningful support.

The 2SLGBTQ+ community is incredibly diverse and people can have multiple intersecting identities that can impact how they move through the world. The following are a few examples of why people may be hesitant to be their full authentic selves in a care home setting.

Erasure of Two-Spirit people through residential “schools”

Prior to Europeans arriving in North America, Two-Spirit individuals performed important spiritual and knowledge-keeping roles as respected members of their communities. Though the term Two-Spirit was first coined in 1990 by Anishinaabe elder Myra Laramee, Alex Wilson, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, describes it as “a modern term that recognizes our ancient understandings of our identity.”

After Europeans arrived, Christian missionaries rejected alternative concepts of gender and any gender diversity was condemned. Like many aspects of colonization, this rejection of Indigenous concepts of gender resulted in a loss of traditional knowledge. Due to the strong influence of Christian churches in Indigenous communities, homophobia and transphobia are one of the many lasting impacts of colonization.

Laws and attitudes in Canada

Before 1969, same-gender sexual activities between consenting adults were considered crimes punishable by imprisonment. In fact, any activity that could potentially lead to sexual activity between people of the same gender was illegal. This included things like dancing, congregating in a bar, or even attending private house parties.

The majority of mainstream media articles in the 1950s and 1960s presented homosexuality as a threat and social problem and this contributed to the negative public opinions of the time. Additionally, the medical community viewed homosexuality as a mental illness that could be cured using conversion therapy methods that are now banned in Canada.

Trans and gender-diverse people on the other hand were largely left out of the conversations of the time due to the lack of representation in the media. This started to change in the 1980s when daytime talk shows began featuring trans guests in mostly sensationalist and exploitative features. In film and television, trans characters have historically, and continue to be, victims and villains, though representation is slowly improving today.

The LGBT Purge

Between the 1950s and mid-1990s, thousands of 2SLGBTQ+ people were followed, interrogated, and traumatized by the Canadian government in what is now known as the “LGBT Purge”. 2SLGBTQ+ members of the Canadian Armed Forces, the RCMP, and the federal public service were systematically discriminated against, harassed, and often fired.

In 2017, the federal government issued an official apology for its discriminatory actions and policies, along with a $145-million compensation package for people impacted. Due to the lasting emotional impact, some of the claimants needed the help of a therapist to fill out the necessary forms to receive financial compensation. Some also feared it was just an elaborate ruse for the government to gain information that would be used to punish them all over again.

The lasting impact of the HIV epidemic on the 2sLGBTQ+ community

During the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the stigma attached to the virus often made getting compassionate care very difficult. Gay and bisexual men in particular were frequently discriminated against by healthcare facilities and the families of their boyfriends and partners who refused to allow them to visit. Some hospital staff would leave food trays outside the hospital rooms of people with HIV or refuse to change their bedding. After people passed away, some hospital staff would place their bodies in black trash bags and many funeral homes refused to accept them.

The lasting impact of the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on the 2SLGBTQ+ community is especially felt by older members. In Gay and Lesbian Aging: Research and Future Directions by Gilbert Herdt, PhD and Brian de Vries, PhD, they write: “It would be reasonable to say that virtually every gay person of this age cohort alive today has been touched by the AIDS epidemic in one form or another, either by needing to cope with having an HIV diagnosis, or to cope with loved ones and friends suffering from the disease, or to caretake those same loved ones.”

Cliff Morrison, a gay man who worked as a nurse in San Francisco General Hospital’s revolutionary AIDS ward 5B, said “I have dealt with survivor's guilt on and off through the years, and still suffer from PTSD. I don’t have any peers because they all died.”

Moving to find 2SLGBTQ+ community

Societal attitudes are changing but older 2SLGBTQ+ adults still have a greater likelihood of aging without the family they were born into and having a chosen family instead. Even people who weren’t rejected by their families may still have moved away from their families to larger cities like Toronto or Vancouver to find community.

According to Stats Canada half of all same-gender couples in Canada were living in Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, and Ottawa–Gatineau at the time of the 2016 Census. This appears to be slowly changing though, as smaller communities are starting to become more inclusive and welcoming.

For people who have strained relationships with family or have moved away for other reasons, they may not have loved ones close by to care for them as they age. This can mean they’re more reliant on services like home care and care homes.

Trans and non-binary discrimination in healthcare and beyond

Trans and other gender-diverse people continue to endure prejudice and harassment in the healthcare system and many avoid going to the doctor, even if it means missing things like crucial cancer screenings.

Researchers from St. Michael's Hospital discovered that eligible trans patients were approximately 70% less likely than cisgender patients to be screened for breast cancer and 60% less likely to be screened for cervical cancer.

3 hearts made out of the Trans Pride flag - stripes of blue, pink, and white.

Canada is not experiencing the same flood of anti-trans legislation that is currently happening in the United States, but there are growing concerns in the community about the rise of anti-trans ideology in Canada. This has left many trans and gender-diverse Canadians feeling exhausted and afraid for their safety.

For trans and gender-diverse people entering care homes, they fear the same prejudice and harassment they’ve experienced in the healthcare system and larger society will follow them there.

Why it's important to understand the experiences of older 2SLGBTQ+ adults

It’s important to understand people’s unique life experiences and how those experiences impact how they move through the world today.

While many older 2SLGBTQ+ adults fear having to hide who they are when they enter long-term care, this is slowly changing with 2SLGBTQ+ focused care homes in Canada. Toronto is now home to North America’s first long-term care home with a 2SLGBTQ+ wing. The Rainbow Wing in Wellesley Central Place is the first of two wings planned by Rekai Centres and hosts 2SLGBTQ+-focused events like drag shows.

In Winnipeg, Rainbow Resource Centre is working on an affordable housing project for older 2SLGBTQ+ adults entering long-term care. There will be 21 units available with the hope that residents will be able to move in by the fall of 2024. One unit is already reserved for an elder who currently cares for an on-site Indigenous permaculture garden.

We hope that this glimpse into the past experiences of some older 2SLGBTQ+ adults will help you provide empathetic and meaningful support, whether you work in a care home, are a financial advisor, or estate lawyer.

To help your clients find a safe and affirming care home and understand what makes a safer space, visit our new resource Finding a 2SLGBTQ+ Friendly Care Home. We’ve compiled a few things to look for in prospective facilities, questions clients can ask, and regional 2SLGBTQ+ resources that can provide guidance and support for 2SLGBTQ+ folks.

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While we’re passionate about all things estate planning, we’re not professionals. We recommend speaking with your lawyer or financial advisor when putting together an estate plan. Follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram!

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