Intersectionality Matters: Working with LGBT Older Adult Clients

As most social work students learn, the diagnosis of “homosexuality” was removed from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973 by the board of the directors of the American Psychiatric Association. After this, strength-based, positive therapeutic frameworks such as Gay Affirmative Therapy, were introduced as ethical alternatives to conversion, reparative and aversion therapies.

Nevertheless, many LGBT older adults (sometimes referred to as TBLGQI — Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Queer and Intersex — to call attention to the unique challenges and discrimination that the transgender community faces) have painful memories of living their younger lives in fear of harassment, discrimination, family abandonment, imprisonment, involuntary medical procedures and even institutionalization. It is because of this history, and the current cultural and social isolation experienced by many older adults in the United States, that social workers must consider the intersectionality of being both TBLGQI and an older adult.

Important points to remember when working with TBLGQI older adults include the following: 

  • Current terminology reclaimed by younger generations of TBLGQI people, such as “queer,” may still be considered offensive.
  • A history of survival-based hiding and secrecy means that you may not see any outward, or visible signs of “queerness,” such as rainbow flags.

According to Simmons Professor Shari Robinson-Lynk, whose work focuses on working with older TBLGQI clients, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 that legalized marriage between two men or two women has been received with mixed emotions among many TBLGQI older adults. In her private practice, some clients have expressed pride knowing their efforts helped to pave the way for such an historic decision. Some expressed feeling “left out” of the celebration, while others expressed continuing to feel that “what they do in their bedrooms” is their business and so publicly acknowledging the relationship by marrying their partner was not an ideal or safe option for them.

All current students who are interested in working with older adults are encouraged to reach out to Professor Robinson-Lynk. If you are a prospective student interested in working with older adults, please visit the Academics page to learn more about the Health and Aging specialized course of study offered by SocialWork@Simmons.

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Image: Ted Eytan, used under CC BY / Cropped from original.