BUENOS AIRES — For elderly members of Argentina's LGBT community, things used to be so so different. They're the surviving witnesses of a time when sexual orientations that don't fit the establish mold were considered sickness, sins or even crimes.

Terms like 'homosexual,' 'lesbian,' or 'transvestite' were avoided or used disparagingly. LGBT people didn't have any of the rights they now enjoy, and for many that meant a certain amount hiding. People led "double lives." They had to, for the sake of survival.

The concealment affected their closest relationships and acquaintances, from family to friends and even themselves. Because if their true inclinations were revealed, they might be thrown out of their homes or work, and mocked. Some even chose to hide from themselves.

Condemnation of homosexuals was prevalent in so many spaces, from the Church to dictatorial governments, democracies, medicine, psychology, police.

Condemnation of homosexuals was prevalent in so many spaces, from the Church to dictatorial governments, democracies, medicine, psychology, police. The discrimination even had its place in socialist revolution, as the author Leonardo Padura aptly wrote. It was so entrenched — and marked LGBT people so profoundly — that many can't help being a bit skeptical about the changes now taking place. They worry that it might just be a fad, one that could eventually pass and thus re-expose the country's latent, hidden intolerance.

Generational experiences, or those instilled in us early on, can shape our conceptions of the "ever-debatable" reality. This is not just about beliefs but also daily practices that affirm and reinforce our identity, and the many ways in which we relate to others. Prejudices generated by homophobia or transphobia can be internalized by their targets — meaning he or she will absorb and finally accept them as natural beliefs.

In contrast with other groups, where the weight of hostility can be mitigated earlier by parents, this happens later with LGBT people, through peer groups. Because of this, people with nontraditional sexual orientations or gender identities can suffer chronic stress due to the different forms of violence they experience. Concealment, fear, and a weak position in society can raise stress levels and cause mental and even physical illnesses.

Looking after the elderly in Argentina — Photo: Infobae

Thus, people who suffer accumulated stress because they are given labels such as "sick," "immoral," or "criminal" carry the durable and generalized weight of social pressures. A common symptom illustrating this is the greater prevalence of depression among the older generations of LGBT people.

Fearing exposure

And yet, turning to healthcare professionals can become another source of concern for LGBT people, who worry often about how they'll be viewed and received. People have reported discrimination by medical professionals who treat gay patients differently, even before knowing their sexual orientation. Many, therefore, opt for services at home. The same goes for psychological attention, with patients reporting that they are asked certain prying questions that heterosexuals would not face.

The aging experience is also different for sexual minorities. Compared to heterosexuals, LGBT seniors are less often in couples, in part because of lingering shame and fear of being exposed, especially to family members. Being single, in turn, tends to reinforce the patterns of concealment. Some older LGBT people say that it was only after their parents died that they could finally start coming out to other family members.

It's still difficult to be visible — particularly for the elderly.

Concealment affected work relationships as well. Fearing that they'd be exposed, or knowing that they just wouldn't feel at ease, many older LGBT people shied away from seeing colleagues on the weekends or on holidays, or from socializing after work.

In those times of blatant discrimination, communities of LGBT friends were especially important as a space in which people could be themselves beyond stigmas, and build ties based on recognition, affection and appreciation. For this reason, those who managed to construct such ties, whether through friendship, community or activism, strengthened themselves and improved their levels of welfare, finding channels of resilience that positively contribute to their aging.

Lastly, when older LGBT people need services like retirement homes, again they find themselves facing the oppressive choice of either continuing to live outside the closet or going back in. Canadian and U.S. studies show that 80% of elderly LGBT don't feel safe in such environments and so choose to conceal their identities. They fear discrimination from other residents or staff, either in the form of mistreatment or insufficient care.

In Argentina we should bear in mind that while the country has made advances in legal and social terms, on an individual level, LGBT people can still have very difficult experiences. In many circumstances, it's still difficult to be visible — particularly for the elderly. We need to remember that, and consider the specific needs of older LGBT people. Above all, we need to recognize the harmful effects of prejudices and discrimination they endured.

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