Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Brian Heaphy and Andrew K. T. Yip (2003) 'Uneven Possibilities: Understanding Non-Heterosexual Ageing and the Implications of Social Change'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 16/11/2003      Accepted: 17/11/2003      Published: 28/11/2003


The article draws from focus group data generated for a UK study of the life circumstances of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals aged 50 and above, to consider some key elements of the conceptual framework we are developing for understanding the issue of non-heterosexual ageing. The article considers ways in which non-heterosexual ways of living have been positively evaluated as 'prime' experiments in late modern ways of living, and identifies three core areas (identity, relationships and community) where it has been argued that lesbian and gay lifestyles can be viewed as indicators of the implications of social change. Employing the data to discuss the notion of 'do-it-yourself' biographies, we identify a number of factors that work to enable and limit an empowered sense of self amongst older lesbians and gay. In doing so, we also highlight the uneven possibilities that exist for self-creation in detraditionalised settings. Non- heterosexual couples and friendships can offer distinct possibilities for 'negotiated' and 'chosen' relationships. These are not, however, uniformly adopted or created by older non- heterosexuals. Finally, our data indicates that while non- heterosexual communities can provide crucial supports and resources for their members, some older lesbians and gay men experience these communities as exclusionary. This raises a number of questions about the dynamics that facilitate inclusion or exclusion in reflexive or critical communities. While the article highlights that non- heterosexual ageing cannot be understood without reference the creative possibilities open to non-heterosexuals, and late modern individuals generally, we caution against celebratory accounts of both non-heterosexual and late modern ways of living, and of social and cultural constraints transformed, that is inherent within them.

Ageing; Identity; Community; Detraditionalisation; Gay; Late Modernity.; Lesbian; Non-heterosexual; Relationships; Social Change


Discussion of older lesbian and gay lives is remarkably absent, both from the sociological literature on ageing and the literature on non-heterosexual ways of living. In this paper, we draw from initial findings of an ESRC-funded study that aimed to illuminate the life-circumstances of non-heterosexual women and men in the UK aged 50 and over, to sketch out some key elements of the conceptual framework we are developing for understanding the issue of non-heterosexual ageing. We suggest that, to fully understand the issue, attention needs to be paid to both the specific implications that non-heterosexuality has for patterns of living, and to the broader developments in social and cultural life that have consequences for contemporary living and ageing more generally.

We begin the paper by outlining, briefly, the implications that processes of detraditionalisation and individualisation are said to have for some core aspects of social life, and the argument that non-heterosexual ways of living can be viewed as 'prime' experiments in late modern ways of living. Then, we employ focus group data to discuss the notion of 'do-it-yourself' biographies that are said to be emerging in the contemporary era, and characteristic of non-heterosexual identities. The data demonstrate the uneven possibilities that exist for these kinds of biographies. We then consider the issue of 'negotiated relationships', and the insights that same sex couple relationships and 'chosen families' are said to provide for these. The data indicate the possibilities that are open for negotiated and chosen relationships, but also alert us to factors that limit choice and negotiation in relational life.

Finally, we turn our attention to the degree to which non-heterosexual communities can be understood as 'reflexive' or 'critical' communities that provide their members with crucial resources for living. While reflexive communities can play an important role in generation of support and resources for 'new' ways of living, membership of these communities is not open to all. The analysis provided highlights the fact that non-heterosexual ageing cannot be understood without reference to the creative possibilities open to non- heterosexuals, and late modern individuals generally. However, we caution against celebratory accounts of both non-heterosexual and late modern ways of living, and of the 'transformation' of social and cultural constraints that is inherent within them.

* Late Modern Ways of Living

Whether we conceptualise the present as 'late', 'post' or 'reflexive' modernity, there is some agreement that the world we inhabit now is being transformed under the pressure of processes to do with factors such as globalisation, individualisation and detraditionalisation (Bauman, 2000; Beck, 1992; 2000; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1998; Giddens, 1991). Several theorists have argued that such processes have a profound effect on all aspects of everyday life (see Beck et al., 1994; Rutherford, 2000), and that traditional models of living, working and relating are under increasing pressure from these processes. Beck (2000), for example, argues that traditional supports for identity and everyday living 'no longer work', at least in the forms in which they have been traditionally most visible. This echoes Giddens' (1991) argument that contemporary culture is marked by a new (radical) contingency, where old models for living are no longer appropriate, and where individuals increasingly have to 'choose' who to be, how to live, and how to relate.

In such accounts, choices, and the degree to which individuals are thrown back on their own resources in making these choices, are key motifs of the contemporary era. In terms of identities, the contemporary self has been characterised as a 'do-it- yourself biography' (Bauman, 2000; Beck, 2000, Giddens, 1991). Family and couple relationships are now viewed as negotiated and contingent relationships that last only 'until further notice' (Bauman, 2000; Beck and Beck- Gernsheim, 1995; Giddens, 1992). Community relationships, too, are not given but 'chosen' (or rejected) and contingent, and community in the sense it was traditionally understood, is fast becoming a thing of the past in an increasingly mobile and global world (Beck, 2000; Bauman, 2000). In short, there has been a 'freeing of agency' in core areas of life, where very little is 'given', and where individuals now have little choice but to choose. While these can be interpreted as either positive or negative developments, many theorists are in agreement that new personal, social and political challenges are becoming commonplace, but that few people are skilled in negotiating these challenges. It has been argued, however, that lesbians and gay men have, in fact, been living with similar challenges for some time.

* Non-heterosexual Living

Non-heterosexual lifestyles have been viewed as prime experiments in late modern ways of living (Giddens, 1992; Weeks et al., 2001), and researchers are beginning to study lesbian and gay lives for the insights they provide into the implications of social and cultural dynamics that are cutting across the homo/hetero dichotomy (Weeks, 1995; Weeks et al., 2001). Put briefly, it has been argued that, in some significant ways, non-heterosexuals have no choice but to live outside the traditional supports and guidelines that have been available to their heterosexual counterparts for identity, relationships and everyday living (Weeks et al., 2001). This implies that a particular creativity is required by non-heterosexuals in relation to identity formation and the establishment and maintenance of the relationships necessary for sustaining such identities (Davies, 1992; Blasius, 1994; Dunne, 1997; Giddens, 1992; Heaphy et al., 1999a; Plummer, 1995; Weeks et al., 2001; Yip, 1997). As Mark Blasius (1994: 191)puts it:
The problematization of their own lifestyle (indeed, more broadly, their way of life) has been based upon a conscious imperative among lesbians and gay men to invent the self and ways of relating to others ...lesbians and gay men must create a self out of (or despite) the heterosexual self that is culturally given to them.... They must invent ways of relating to each other because there are no ready-made cultural or historical models or formulas for erotic same-sex relationships, as there are for different-sex erotic relationships.

Blasius argues that the 'freedom' of lesbian and gay identities is the 'freedom' of living without institutional supports and cultural guidelines. As such, lesbians and gay men, and one could argue particularly older lesbians and gay men, have had no choice but to fashion their own biographies and relationships and their own ways of living. While some view this solely, or primarily, in terms of the necessities and implications of living outside the heterosexual norm (Blasius, 1994; Weston, 1991), others have attempted to make links between lesbian and gay 'everyday experiments' in living, and the broader experiments that we are all, heterosexuals and non-heterosexual alike, faced with in the fast- changing contemporary world (Plummer, 1995; Weeks et al., 2001). It is in this theoretical context that we can make sense of the assertion that the differences between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals may be less interesting than the new commonalities (Bech, 1992), and the notion that many heterosexuals are now faced with the kinds of problems in living that non-heterosexuals have become skilled in dealing with over the past thirty years (Giddens, 1992; Weeks et al., 2001).

In the following sections we focus on three core areas where the challenges facing late modern individuals have been elaborated in the theoretical literature, and where non-heterosexual creativity has been positively evaluated in both the theoretical literature and research. However, we argue that viewing these areas from the perspective of narratives that older lesbians and gay men (50+) tell of living and ageing alerts us to the uneven possibilities opened up in late modernity for creating new ways of living.

* The Research

The narratives discussed in this paper were generated for a study of the social and policy implications of non-heterosexual ageing that was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (award number: R000223465). The project set out to study the life circumstances (e.g. socio- economic, domestic circumstances) of ageing non-heterosexuals; to document strategies developed in the negotiation of ageing; and to identify the distinctive policy issues that arise in this respect. The data in this paper are taken from six initial focus groups (three with women, three with men) that were undertaken with self-identified lesbians and gay men (aged 50 and over) in two locations in Britain in 2001. After these focus groups, further focus groups were conducted, and 266 participants (102 women and 164 men) completed a postal questionnaire. A sub-sample of 20 participants (10 women and 10 men) were later interviewed.

* Do-it -yourself Biographies


The possibilities open to individuals for responding to knowledge of their sexual difference has, of course, varied historically (Plummer, 1981; 1995; Weeks, 1990). While a host of 'knowledges' are available in contemporary western societies for making sense of same sex desires, older lesbians and gay men are likely to emphasise the lack of resources that were available to them. Many point out the pathologising nature of the early frameworks available to them in making sense of their predicament, but also the social and legal sanctions that worked against disclosure and a positive sense of self. As such, 'homosexuality' presented men and women with the challenge of developing coping and surviving strategies - often in silence and relative isolation (see Porter & Weeks, 1990). For some, the sense of shame or stigma forced them into 'freedom' from families and communities of origin (see Cant, 1997). For other individuals, social and emotional ties to family and community of origin were reinforced through economic ties, limiting the possibility for 'escape', as one respondent says about living 'pre liberation':
'I'm going back quite a long way.... When I was young we didn't have any choices... we didn't have any choice about whether we would declare we were going to be gay or not, we didn't. You just accepted that fact that you were gay, if you could, and you got on with it.... You know, we were the twilight men then...we didn't talk about it...we didn't have choices, but it wasn't only in the way we would entertain ourselves.... We didn't have cars...we didn't have houses and flats. So we didn't have all the choices about what we were going to do.' (RM9, 72[1])

Historically, new and different possibilities were to open up for lesbian and gay identity in the wake of the women's and gay liberation movements of the 1960s. Feminism and gay and lesbian liberation offered women, such as the following participant, the opportunity to redefine -or 'reinvent' - themselves in some ways:
'For me, it's a historical development. I'd have started with homosexual, then moved to gay, because that came in, I don't know [early 1970s].... So I moved to gay then, and then to lesbian, and then if I'm in lesbian company, I'll say dyke, because for me, that defines me more as a feminist lesbian...and it's a reclaimed word too, isn't it?' (RF2, 68)

For some men, gay liberation was also to mark the beginning of new possibilities, particularly for those who were involved in campaigning or political organisations. The following participant recalled why he embraced 'gay' as a label of self- identification:
'I mean gay stands for Good As You, it didn't matter whether you were black, white, Chinese...any colour. It didn't matter...whether you lesbian, homosexual male, a [bloke] in a frock, it just didn't matter, you would always be [as good as them].' (RM13, 56)

It is clear that a strong identification with a politics or gender of sexuality can provide a vocabulary and framework for constructing an empowered sense of self. However, lesbian and gay liberation also offered possibilities for those who had a less active engagement with feminist or lesbian and gay political movements. While several individuals followed through on the expectation that they would marry, for instance, the world 'post liberation' offered an opportunity to reinvent themselves, as the stories of two participants in the same focus group indicate:
'My life's been leaving home, getting married, divorced, and living with another man, a break of about a year when that split up and then finding another relationship.' (RM7, 58)
'I've been through a similar sort of phasing if you like, because I was married for just under ten years, and we got divorced, and then there followed a sort of period of quite a few years where [I had affairs] until I met [his partner].' (RM8, 55)

For these, and other men and women, the political vocabulary of the 1960s liberation movement has been employed to justify and validate their non-hetersoexual identities, relationships and lifestyles, and provide an empowered understanding of who and what they were - and could be. The increasing cultural confidence that is evident is the political narratives of lesbian and gay communities, is also reflected in the confident and assured narratives that many of our research participants tell of their recreated personal and sexual identities - narratives that emphasise the 'choices' and possibilities that have emerged for living and creating new and 'authentic' lives. But these are not the only stories that exist.

Old habits can die hard

Irrespective of the political and everyday possibilities that exist for coming out post-1960s, it is clear from our preliminary research that the perceived possibilities for creating or living non-heterosexual lives varies widely. Some of our participants have, for instance, acknowledged their 'homosexuality', but continued to live 'heterosexual' lives, and have not chosen, or felt able, to reject the pressures to 'go along with' the (heterosexual) identities they are allocated in everyday interactions. One man (RM14, 64), for example, has never had a relationship with another man, and has only ever been open about his sexuality to one sister. To the remainder of his family of origin and his network of friends he presents a heterosexual self. When asked about the implications this has had for his life he recounted a 'very deep sense of isolation and loneliness'. Other men, like the participant quoted below, have had a long-term committed relationship, but have been almost totally closeted:
'I was brought up in a society in my younger days...where no one mentioned it [homosexuality] at all. So, therefore, I have around me or as integral me...that I do not disclose.' (RM11, 71)

Besides habit, other factors and pressures can work to make being 'closeted' a preferable option. Many older lesbians and gay men have a strong sense of the risks that coming out entails. These can include risks to livelihood and of violence:
'I think, in business terms, there's still a lot of homophobic approach by employers to men who tend to be more obvious...I think gay men have a lose by coming out...I've seen it myself, as an employer.' (RM10, 64)
'The fact ...of queer bashing...then, it's obviously, you're asking for trouble if you're out, and I've never been involved with gay issues.' (RM12, 60)

Others emphasised that the risks vary according to geographical location:
'You may, in your own mind, be, you know, assured of your sexuality...but if you're in a village, however large that village is, you're not going to come out, and therefore you have this perennial problem of the rural living, as opposed to the small town or large town living.' (RM11, 71)

For some participants, strong ties to family and community of origin meant that the risk of rejection was one they were unwilling to take. While some participants' narratives conjure up a world of new social and personal possibilities, others recount narratives of being 'stuck in another world': 'I mean my mother, who I was a carer for many years, I don't think the word ever passed her lips'.... They can't even spell the word gay where I live...may as well be early Christians' (RM3, 59). Also, while some individuals have embraced the transformative possibilities offered by politicised categories of self-identification associated with the post 1960s liberation movements, for others the adoption of such categories was, and is, a personally and politically risky strategy:
'[The terms 'dyke' and 'queer']... that really turns me off.' (RM10, 64)
'That's quite derogatory in a way.' (RM11, 71)

'I mean, in a wider issue, we're part of society, and I think to use words society finds offensive is very retrograde.' (RM10, 64)

'We're part of society, so why [the need for such labels]?' (RM11, 71)

While significant opportunities for non-heterosexual 're-invention' and 'self-creation' have emerged over the past forty years, the degree to which these are, or can be, taken up by older men and women are uneven. While some individuals were able and willing - or had no choice but - to challenge the stories and models for living that they have grown up with, this is not the case for others. Some of this latter group have internalised the sanctions that existed against non- heterosexuality that shored up heterosexuality as the valued basis for identity and way of living. Some participants simply could never imagine living their lives differently to the one's they have lived, and felt that they had little choice but to manage the sexual desires, identities, families and communities they were allocated. On the one hand, this could lead to 'forced' freedoms, where families and communities were 'escaped' from in an effort to manage shame and stigma. On the other hand, it could lead to a 'forced' public acceptance of their assumed allocated sexualities or identities. Both appear as survival strategies born out of necessity, not out of choice.

* Negotiating Relationships

Relational life is another area in which non-heterosexuals have been viewed as 'arch' experimenters in contemporary ways of living. In terms of couple relationships, it is argued that without the models, supports and guidelines available for heterosexual couple relationships, same-sex couples are free to fashion their own modes of relating to each other (Dunne, 1997; Heaphy et al., 1999a; Peplau et al., 1996; Weeks et al., 2001). Some research has suggested that it is the lack of the structural foundation of heterosexuality (grounded, as it is, in gender difference and resulting in inequality) that can be identified by lesbians (Dunne, 1997; Heaphy et al., 1999a; Weston, 1991) and gay men (Heaphy et al., 1999a; Weston, 1991) as a key factor in allowing same-sex relationships to be more equal than heterosexual ones. In the same vein, Giddens (1992) argues that as same sex relationships operate on the 'basis of equality', they are indicators of experience that is becoming increasingly common for heterosexuals.

Giddens' analysis of the democratisation of intimate relationships has been widely challenged. Jamieson (1998), for instance, has argued that the research on 'equality' in same sex relationships is inconclusive. The work of Weeks et al. (2001) does suggest, however, that there is a considerable self-consciousness in same sex relationships with regard to the issue of 'negotiating' traditionally gendered roles - and often a self-conscious challenging of traditional models for 'doing' relationships. Dunne (1999) also suggests that an emphasis on 'sameness' in lesbian relationships undermines traditional inequalities associated with heterosexual couple relationships. While these are convincing accounts, to different degrees, we would emphasise the uneven possibilities that exist for such creative relationships, and that these need to be understood in terms of the biographical, historical and social factors that shape and limit individuals' notions, and access to alternative models for how relationships are 'done'. In the following exchange, for example, it is clear that some non-heterosexuals do bring dominant (gendered/heterosexual) frameworks for understanding relationships, to their own same sex relationships:
RM7, 58: 'Someone once said to me: "Well, you're a leader because you've been a father and a husband, so you will always take that role", and I think I do. You know, assertive, because I had to be when we were married. I had to take responsibility for the finances and that, and I had to take mutual responsibility for the children and so I've just took that on in any relationship I've had, you know, I've sort of been....'

RM9, 72: 'The trouser wearer.'

RM7, 58: 'Yes, the trouser wearer, yes.'

Another area of relational life where researchers have noted a particular creativity amongst some lesbians and gay men, is the extent to which couple relationships are often not prioritised above other relationships - and the extent to which friendships are evaluated as being of equal value to, and sometimes of more importance than, couple partnerships (Weeks et al., 2001; Weston, 1991). However, while many of our research participants place a high value on friendships, it is also the case that couple relationships are, or have been, the primary relationship for some, and in some cases appear as the only relationships 'that count'. This can have serious implications in terms of isolation and sources of support when a relationship breaks up or a partner dies, as was the case with some of our participants:
'[As you get older] you don't make relationships quite, you don't make friends so easily.... After Tony died we had very few friends, we led a very enclosed life.' (RM9, 72)
'I haven't any family, and my partner didn't like other people particularly. Now I've got a few, not real friends...people who you call or ring.' (RM6, 79)

The quotation above touches on another key theme where non-heterosexuals' creativity in relationships has been espoused - the relationships that support non-heterosexual ways of living, be they family or friendships. In this regard, several studies have explored lesbians and gay 'created' or 'chosen' families (Nardi, 1992; Weeks et al., 2001; Weston, 1991). In short, these have been understood as: 'flexible but often strong and supportive networks of friends, lovers, and even members of family or origin which provide the framework for the development of mutual care, responsibility and commitment for many lesbians and gay men' (Weeks et al., 1999: 44). These family forms have many of the qualities associated with the ideology of traditional forms: continuity over time; mutual support; a focus for identity; and a basis for loving and caring relationships. They provide a context in which individuals can 'be themselves' and be supported and valued (Heaphy et al., 1999b). Rather than 'surrogate' family forms, they can be viewed as something else: the more 'radical' end of developments noted by researchers such as Finch (1989) and Finch and Mason (1993), who have chronicled a new contingency in broader family life, where obligations are no longer viewed to flow automatically from 'given' (adult) family and kin relationships, but where responsibilities are negotiated on the basis of commitments that are evaluated in terms of the 'quality' of relationships, and worked out over time.

For many older lesbians and gay men, relationships with family of origin continue to be important. So much so that being closeted is employed as a strategy to maintain the kin relationship. For others, it is only with accepting kin that significant relationships are maintained. For the latter, and for those who do not have close family bonds, friends can be spoken of as family:
'My family, in the classic gay phrase, are my friends, I have good friends of just about every I do have a network on which I rely because it's [unclear].' (RF5, 51)

Friendship is crucially important for many of our participants:
'I'm somebody who doesn't have a partner, and haven't had for a long time. My support networks come from people who I count as friends, but I've primarily met through the groups that we were talking about.... So, yes, I would go to my lesbian friends before my birth family, my straight family. That would be my first port of call, I think, and then my family would be last on the list.' (RF1, 50)

Even for those individuals whose primary source of support is a couple relationship, friendships serve as a broader network of support for many. Friends are important sources, not only for emotional support but also for practical and economic support at times of crisis (Weeks et al., 2001; Weston, 1991):
'I have a friend who's gay and he had a stroke a few years ago.... but a group of us who know him [help him], like I take him to church every Sunday, and somebody else goes out with him.... I mean, there's a group of us to help him and we all do different a sense [he is] lucky I suppose. He has a group of people who can help him, and who he knows. I suppose that would be nice, if one had friends, again I think it's back to having a circle of people that you know.' (RM5, 68)

It is clear that for those older non- heterosexuals who have had the opportunities and abilities to form strong bonds through friendships, or through their chosen families, creative possibilities exist for dealing with and managing the critical moments in their lives. In terms of the crises that come with ageing, this is most evident when friendship groups work to provide very real support and assistance when it is needed. The importance and resilience of friendship networks and families of choice are particularly evident where groups come together to plan for their mutual care in old age, as is the case with some of our participants. Yet for others, like those who were estranged from family of origin and had not formed strong friendship bonds and those who had prioritised their couple relationships at the expense of others and were now bereaved, or those whose commitment to family of origin had prevented them developing networks 'of their own', the prospects could be bleak:
RM5, 68: 'When one reaches most of our age, and if you're by yourself in that wide world out there, who is there for anybody? Never mind whether you're gay or straight or otherwise... if you're by yourself, you're by yourself, full stop.'

RM4, 60: 'There's not much you can do about it.'

RM5, 68: 'I often lie in bed and think: well, one of my friends lives next door, but if he doesn't see me for two days he might wonder what has happened. But I mean, who do elderly people turn to if they need help?'

RM3, 59: 'In my family ...there's not many.... I mean they would help if I was ill, but there isn't one to whom [I could really turn]. I may as well have been a monk, I think it would be better if I had been a monk, they look after them.'

RM2, 56: 'Hope you don't fall ill, and you don't need that care, because I'm not sure where it would come from.'

* Creating Community

Sexuality theorists, including Blasius (1994), Plummer (1995) and Weeks (1995), have placed significant emphasis on the role of sexual communities as the context for fully understanding the possibilities that have opened up for non-heterosexuals in the past 30 years. Communities provide the context for the generation of resources - or social capital - that individuals and groups can access. Weeks conceptualises them as 'an invented tradition which enables and empowers. It provides the context for the articulation of identity, the vocabulary of values through which ways of life can be developed, the accumulated skills by which new possibilities can be explored and hazards negotiated, and the context for the emergence of social movements and political campaigns which seek to challenge the existing social order' (Weeks, 1996: 83-84).

In contrast to the pessimistic interpretations of the break-up and decline of community in contemporary society, lesbian and gay communities can be viewed as indices of other possibilities. They bear many of the characteristics identified by Lash (1994) in his analysis of new and emergent reflexive communities which are, first and foremost, 'a matter of shared meanings', but also about shared core concerns - including the generation of resources for creating and living certain ways of life.

In the same vein, Plummer (1995) has conceptualised sexual communities as 'communities of story tellers', and has pointed out the transformative potential of both the stories told and the communities that tell them. Central to Plummer's work is an analysis of social change and reflexive transformation, where the power of personal narratives (such as coming out narratives) are bound up with the making of identities and communities. The reflexive nature of story telling means that these narratives are influenced by, and influence, the localities they come from and are told to. Indeed, communities themselves are built through such story telling.

As noted earlier, for most of our respondents, accessing stories of non-heterosexual life was an impossibility when growing up. Feminism and lesbian and gay liberation provided a significant opportunity for new stories to be told, and new communities to be built. Access to these stories represented a 'lifeline' for many, and access to the material communities that emerged - through groups and spaces and scenes - has clearly transformed the lives of many. Indeed, some participants have moved to (or near) towns and cities where they can more easily play an active part in these communities (see Cant, 1997). Over time, they have witnessed the development of their communities in very visible ways, and the stories they tell are of connected, active and 'well provided for' lives, as illustrated in the following exchange.
RF1, 50: 'My feeling, for our age group, is pretty good, by comparison...and I think that's because we're from the, sort of feminist band, if you like, who have a history of organising and networking and getting together.... I have to say, actually [there are] lots of things, there's a women's walking group, I could go to clubs, but I choose not to, don't like it anymore, but then there's the lesbian line social. There's lesbian link, all the activities involved with that. I could go to [group for older lesbians] if I wanted to, and I actually think there's an awful lot, there's the [group for older lesbians and gay men].'

RF2, 68: 'There was OWLS...Older, Wiser, Wicked and Wackier lesbians.'

RF1, 50: 'If you choose, there is actually quite a lot, by comparison to younger people, who I think get stuck in clubs meeting people through clubs...I think we're really lucky, but we've also made it ourselves.'

'Making it ourselves' suggests both an active engagement in community building, and self-consciously possessing the abilities and skills required for doing so. Likewise, some older gay men, like the participant quoted below, have a similar confidence in their own skills, and some of our gay male participants told stories of being active in, or are planning, the formation of support groups for older gay men:
'I mean, we're very spoiled these days, aren't we, for gay groups? I mean there's a gay group for every conceivable activity, it seems to me, whereas...going back to the 80s we were just sort of peeping round the corner of the closet, weren't we really and it was sort of a kick.... But these days there's a gay group for almost everything.' (RM9, 72)

It has been argued that such groups and the communities they are perceived to make up provide the potential for very radical possibilities. The area in which this has been most evident is in lesbian and gay community responses to AIDS (Heaphy, 1999a; Heaphy et al., 1999b). Lesbian and gay community responses to AIDS/HIV is a prime example of how created communities can form the basis for the provision and generation of resources (material, economic, social and cultural) required to support its members in times of crisis. In turn, this allowed for the facilitation of the moment of 'equality' of citizenship that is currently being witnessed in many Western states (see Donovan et al., 1999). However, such powerful stories of community do not tell the whole tale.

* Weaker Stories

While some participants provided powerful narratives of connected lives, others had stories that are often harder to access in research, thus less represented in the contemporary literature on lesbian and gay lives. The tellers of these tales were often less connected, experienced, skilled and confident in relation to lesbian and gay community life. For some of those who had lived outside cities and large towns, or who had concerns about visibility, the notion of community as presented in the previous section was not a story with which they could easily identify. While a significant number of participants indicated that sexuality had played a part in their decisions to move to their current location, the notion had never occurred to others. Also, factors to do with caring commitments, financial constraints, and the demands of work limited the mobility of others:
'But, surely, very few people would make a decision on moving somewhere because of a gay scene? Do they?' (RM3, 59)
'I came here because I took a job. But, being gay, moving in my life and being gay has never gone together.' (RM5, 68)

Amongst participants who equated community with the 'scene' (bars and clubs), 'community' could be perceived as exclusionary:
'My impression is that is a very brittle environment ...Whilst it has its place, to be in a place like that all evening and to have this certainly not for me...there's a big gap there...crying to be filled out.' (RM10, 64)
RF5, 51: 'If you're trying to meet new people...and you don't particularly want to consume huge quantities of high priced is tough. So it partly depends on what your interests are.... I know there's a walking organisation, locally, but it's for women born lesbians only. It is very hard to break into a network that you don't know exists, and I also have a suspicion that ...because I tend to wear bright coloured skirts and have long hair, and people say this to me...[but] I am not turning into a dyke clone. If you can't take me as I am, then I possibly don't want to know you anyway.... But I have found it hard, over the past years, very hard to find any friends through lesbian circles.'

For many gay men in particular, their age was a major factor that they believed excluded them from the existing gay scenes, groups and communities (with the exception of the few support groups that exist for older men specifically):
RM9, 72: 'I mean, gay people, we have to stay young don't we, we daren't get old. Do you not find that so?'

RM8, 55: 'Well, I'm personally not very bothered about that, but I see around me, within the gay sort of thing, a great thing about age and the search for youth, if you like.'

RM9, 72: 'There is a lot of ageism.'

RM8, 55: 'Oh, absolutely.'

Some viewed this as the inevitable consequence of commercialisation and, in some cases, there was a sense of outrage that even those who could afford it did not have the opportunity to consume:
RM13, 56: 'I think, really, we have ourselves to blame for this commercialisation of the gay scene. [Scene providers] are going straight where the money is.'

RM10, 64: 'But the thing is, there is also money to be made from catering for the older members of the gay community...we have money. I don't have a lot but I would happily spend it in a gay bar or club.'

Whether the consequences of a youth orientated community and scene, overt ageism or commercialism, many older gay men felt uncomfortable or unwelcome in gay bars and clubs. Given that, for many, these places were all that was available, exclusion from them represented almost 'total' exclusion from a sense of community. At the heart of the matter was a belief that their ageing bodies marked them as unwelcome.

The degree to which the ageing process presents different problems for gay men and lesbians has been the subject of some studies. Isensee (1999) suggests that a major challenge for gay men in mid-life (37-50) is to manage distress over physical signs of ageing. Kimmel & Sang (1995) suggest that mid-life is most likely to be experienced as a crisis for gay men (more so than heterosexual men) - a time when fear of mortality, physical illness and loss of sexual attractiveness combine to potentially undermine a positive sense of self. Kehoe (1988) suggests that ageing also presents an important challenge for lesbians in their sixties. They are, however, also likely to report old age to be 'the best period of their lives'.

In short, it is widely suggested that the ageing body may present very particular problems for gay men (see Heaphy et al., forthcoming). Some researchers have even suggested that gay men may suffer 'accelerated ageing' (perceiving themselves to be old at a younger age than heterosexuals and lesbians) (ibid). The notion of accelerated ageing is in tension with accounts that suggest that gay men and lesbians 'stay younger for longer' told in the present research. This is tied to the notion that lack of parental ties and family responsibilities mean that many lesbians and gay men can live 'young' lives longer. Irrespective of how one might perceive oneself, however, the pervasive story amongst older gay men is that the visible signs of ageing can mark one as undesirable/unwelcome in gay culture.

The degree to which gay cultures are particularly youth orientated has yet to be established as an empirical truth. The ageing body is, however, becoming an increasing problem for individuals, generally, in contemporary cultures. This can be understood in terms of the degree to which the youthful body is valued in late modern societies, and the centrality of the body to self-identity in this era. It has been argued that ageing presents late modern individuals with a very particular set of problems in relation to self-identity. A host of authors suggest that late modern self-identities are increasingly rooted in the body (Giddens, 1991; Mellor & Shilling, 1993), and signs of bodily demise (as come with ageing) can cause particular problems for self-identity.

While these are dynamics that can help to explain how ageing and old age might present problems for individuals, they also shape social interactions, and have implications for the social isolation and social exclusion of the old (see Elias, 1985). In terms of social perception, ageing can present the possibility for non-identity. As one participant put it: 'I think the older you are, the more faceless people think you are' (RM3, 59). Further, while older gay men may be critical of how they are perceived by younger gay men, it is clear that they themselves can attach a particular value to youth:
'I think it's difficult [if his partner was to die] making relationships, definitely at that age because, who would you want as your partner, you would tend to want someone who was maybe younger, because that's the way life is.' (RM7, 58)

For some men, this could raise particular problems:
'I want a relationship, but I'm not really trusting myself, to look too hard, because of the experiences of the past. You tend, with age, I think to be a little bit wary about people getting to close, because there's a lot of...I mean I like youngish guys like, but, that's a difficulty in itself.... There are a lot of guys who like older men, and so many of them are a bit dubious, they want an easier life rather than a sharing sort of life.' (RM2, 56)

The distrust of younger gay men expressed in this quotation, resonates with the other narratives of unease and distrust expressed in relation to other aspects of lesbian and gay communities throughout this section of the paper. These are in stark contrast to the narratives of community considered in the previous section and to the theoretical narratives of the possibilities offered by non- heterosexual communities. While non-heterosexual communities undoubtedly offer significant possibilities for some, in terms of resources for identity and developing creative strategies for living, membership of these does not automatically come with non-heterosexual identity. As with critical and reflexive communities more generally, we might ask the following questions: What dynamics facilitate, enable or limit participation in such communities? What resource and skills are a pre-requisite to membership and participation in these communities? What factors limit access to the resources that these communities might generate?

* Conclusion

In understanding the issue of non- heterosexual ageing, attention needs to be paid, both to the implications that non-heterosexuality has for patterns of living, and to the broader social and cultural developments that influence contemporary living and ageing more generally. In this article we have highlighted some of the ways in which identifying as lesbian or gay can have a profound impact on how individuals make sense of who they are, and how they live their lives. We have, however, highlighted the dangers of overemphasising the freedoms that individuals have in creating their non-heterosexual selves, relationships or communities. This oversimplifies non-heterosexual experience, and presents it as a more uniform experience than it actually is. Age, as we have demonstrated, is one important factor that can make a difference to an individuals' sense of the possibilities for their non-heterosexual identity, relationships and the access they have to community supports. In short, while the investigation of non-heterosexual ageing needs to acknowledge the creative possibilities offered by non-heterosexual identities and cultures for new ways of living, regard should also be paid to the range of factors that might limit these.

The article has similar insights to provide into the ways in which some theories of social change overemphasise the freedoms and opportunities opened up in the contemporary era generally. Do-it-yourself biographies, contingent relationships, and the loosening of community ties have allowed some people to acquire previously unheard of freedoms. However, as Bauman suggests, others are 'increasingly tied to the ground'. Bauman (2000: 213-214) cautions that while detraditionalisation means empowerment for some, it also implies disempowerment for others:
The ability to deal with this deeply uncomfortable sense of the brittleness... rebounds in two sharply distinct experiences. For those who can move at will the experience is joyful and exhilarating.... But for those who are bound in a place, the experience is threatening and terrifying.

Further, he notes that contemporary social hierarchies stretch from those with abundant choices at the top (and the resources to guide the best choices) to those 'with no choices at the bottom'. In short, rebuking celebratory narratives of the opportunities and possibilities for living in late modernity, he points out that these are, in fact, uneven. It is a sense of this unevenness that we have attempted to provide in sketching out the conceptual framework for our study.


1 Participants are identified by a code beginning with RM or RF. M denotes that the participant is male, and F, female. The number attached to the RM/RF code indicates the sequence of participation, and the two-digit number after this indicates the age of the respondent. Some of the focus group data were generated collaboratively with Liz Bassett.


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