Aging, Gay And Coming Out — In A German Retirement Home

After suffering a stroke seven years ago, Egon had to move to an assisted living facility. And for the second time in his life, he finally mustered the courage to be his true self.

Egon in his Kiel retirement home
Egon in his Kiel retirement home
Sonja Hartwig

KIEL â€" Egon, 78, has been living in a retirement home in Kiel, Germany, since he suffered a stroke seven years ago. The night before his stroke, he had been out with friends, partying with young people at the Dream Factory, which hosts a "gay and friends" night every fourth Friday. The stroke left him needing help with everyday tasks, so he moved into the retirement home.

On his first day he told Mrs. Weber, the facility director, that he was gay. He very firmly said that he didn't want anyone else to know, given that many among his generation aren't comfortable with homosexuality.

Weber says Egon was scarred and scared of rejection after having been beaten up when he was a young man. She says he was the first of the residents to tell her that he was gay. "But we do have a few single ladies here who are probably aged lesbians but who would never admit to being homosexual, as that is a big taboo for their generation," she adds.

The fear of being called out, that others might talk behind his back is overpowering for Egon, who says it took him years to start living his life as an openly gay man. And now he's growing old among people who still believe it's a crime (it wasn't until 1994 that it was decriminalized in Germany).

Egon's younger friends know he's gay and sometimes feel they have to rescue him from the retirement home as often as possible so he can be himself.

A good boy

Conceived out of wedlock and born in 1937, Egon grew up with his grandparents in a small town in Schleswig-Holstein. Everyone regarded him as a good boy. When he was 10, he started noticing boys but didn't think much of it, not yet understanding what it meant to be gay. But his grandfather eventually called him "queer." Egon always thought of it as a stigma, but he knows now that he was traumatized, paralyzed with fear that people would notice.

That was the reason he couldn't live the way he wanted to, that he didn't stand up for himself. He had to hide his true self for years. "Who could ever truly be himself in that kind of situation?" he reflects now.

In his late twenties, he moved to the big city and was finally free to do whatever he wanted for the first time in his life. He found out where the gay bar was, went there one night and ordered a beer. But he spoke to no one. He did not want to be like them, because that was a stigma. They were queers.

Egon anesthetized himself every night from then onwards. He drank beer, more and more of it, and started turning up late to work. He moved back to Schleswig-Holstein, back to the small town, where he started drinking schnapps, brandy, preferably Campari, and still making a poor showing at work.

He was in his mid-forties the first time he told his therapist that he was gay, Egon recalls, and the psychologist reacted as if he'd just made a remark about the weather. Egon had been afraid that he would be kicked out as soon as he mentioned it.

But thanks to his therapy, he moved to Kiel, away from small town life. His sister says that no one believed him to be capable of change. Egon had never had friends, obviously hadn't married, was a bit overweight, was shy and insecure and never defended himself.

A new man

But when he arrived in Kiel, he stopped drinking. He heard of an association for gay people and got in touch. When they invited him to join them, he was finally able to speak openly with other gay men, gaining confidence and a knowledge that he wasn't alone. He even began advising men on their coming out, organized seminars, went to night clubs, danced and talked about himself, his friends say.

He was no longer afraid.

Egon met his best friend Björn when he was 55 and Björn was 19. They didn't care what other people said about them. Björn says Egon is a father figure, and Egon likewise describes Björn as being like a son to him.

Coming out

Weber says that "Egon's young friends carry him on their shoulders," and Björn adds that "the gay community keeps him alive. Through us he is able to look back on what he has achieved." His friend Alexander adds that it would be a lonely life for Egon without his gay friends because he connects to his gay self through them. "If he didn't have us, he would lose his identity."

Together with Weber, Egon arranged a recent get-together at the retirement home to discuss different lifestyles. It was part of Egon's strategy to familiarize elderly people with homosexual and transgender lives. He used the opportunity to come out to his fellow residents. He was afraid that they would be distant, but one of the ladies asked why he hadn't told them sooner. "You can't just simply leave that part of your life out," she said. "We can't get to know the real you without knowing."

Egon describes it as a great feeling. "I had completely suppressed it all these years," he says. "But I realized that when you suppress a part of yourself, you degrade yourself. And I don't want to do that anymore."

Unfortunately, the get-together represented the end of the discussion because many of the residents didn't want to talk about it anymore, viewing it as "not normal." Egon says he no longer has the strength to make it an issue, to broaden people's minds. But Björn believes Egon needs someone his age who has gone through a similar experience, someone to understand each other. Besides, Egon has stayed young at heart and doesn't just want to limit discussions to illnesses, the loss of social contacts, children, grandchildren and the like, as many other old people do. "I love to talk about anything," he says. "I'm still very interested in what's going on in the world."

Still, Egon doesn't define himself through his sexuality. Which is why he reverts back to his old pattern of hiding his homosexuality when talking to other residents. "They don’t understand me," he says. "It's like it used to be when I was young. I'm protecting myself, although from what is the question?"

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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