For the past seven years, Derick de Kock has been working as a handyman at Cape Town’s Pride Shelter. In exchange for the “bit of everything” he does at the shelter for the city’s destitute queer people, he gets to rest his head every night on the lower bed of a double bunk in a room he shares with “three other guys”.
Things weren’t always this way for the 73-year-old. He’d shared a “beautiful home” with his partner of 25 years. “It had one, two, three, four rooms. A pool, a garden. It was nice.”
But when his partner died, he found himself without a home because his partner’s family inherited everything. De Kock, with nothing more than a blue plastic refuse bag filled with his clothes, ended up knocking at the shelter’s doors.
“I have got nothing, nothing, nothing,” he says, adding that, even if he had the money to live in an old-age home, it would be a difficult choice.
“It’s all straight people, you know. We as gay people can’t live our lives as gay people there. You have got to make sure that you look straight. Nobody could know what my background is. I would have to live a lie.”
Triangle Project’s Matthew Clayton sees the lack of care facilities for queer people as “a concern”.
“Just like everyone else, older queer people enter a stage in their life where they need more support and care. Those who have families and friends who will pitch in could be fine. However, others, especially those who do not have good relations with their family and who cannot afford private care, face needing to live in old-age homes which do not accept or affirm their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Clayton says.
Because many older queer people find themselves still dealing with family rejection, “this may mean that they are reliant on living in old-age homes rather than being able to live with family”.
He adds that this situation is compounded for poorer queer senior citizens who face the added challenge of having to find an affordable home “which is going to treat them fairly”.
“Some older queer people have referred to a fear of having to ‘get back in the closet’ when they move into an old-age home. They do this out of fear of repercussions from staff or other residents,” he adds.
Christer Fällman is the founder of Regnbågen, the world’s first old-age home for queer people. Fällman says he established the Stockholm-based home, now in its 10th year, after identifying this as a need.
Because queer people “were seen as criminal and sick, there was a need for [the] security such a home could provide”, he says.
“Those who live here have a common history and to share that story together means a lot. It is the security that one seeks when moving in [here]. The security of, if necessary, receiving support from like-minded people. A kind of support where you do not have to explain to someone who has no knowledge of [what it means to be] LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual or queer].”
Neil Henderson, a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, is concluding a three-year research project into LGBTQ ageing and care. His research is focused largely on the experiences of township- and Cape Flats-based older queer people.
“A lot of them did not want to go into old-age homes because they feared they would not be accepted,” Henderson says. “Some were living with families, but quite a few were living on their own. And those that were living on their own felt isolated.”
Ricardo Rossouw is a social worker who is conducting research into the mental health needs of older transgender people. He says this feeling of isolation is common.
“Many are often quite lonely because their families have distanced themselves from them. That is when depression kicks in. So, many stay closeted and eventually pass on without having lived as their real gender. A lot of the poorer ones end up homeless, especially those who have had family and friends reject them. We pick up a lot of that.”
Ronald Addinall is a clinical social worker and sexologist at the University of Cape Town who facilitates a transgender support group at the Triangle Project.
“If we think about the older generation of trans people now, if they have done any hormone or surgical care, they have accessed it much later in life, maybe in their 30s or 40s,” says Addinall.
“When I started out about 15 years ago, most of my trans clients were adults in their late 20s, early 30s and hadn’t yet accessed hormones. So, for these older persons, they don’t ‘pass’. So particularly elderly trans women are the ones that don’t pass. They often still have masculine features about them, so they would have more of a challenge because they are going to stand out and be identified. There are going to be tell-tale signs.”
These signs increase the likelihood of discrimination at old-age homes.
Addinall believes that the solution is broader than providing homes.
“What is needed is general societal awareness that there is an older generation of trans and queer persons and what their needs are. It is not just about the creation of these services but also education and sensitisation of services providers, professional and nonprofessionals,” he says.
Queer rights activist Bev Ditsie says: “As black people, we don’t really go to frail-care facilities. But when you are queer and haven’t made a family in terms of having offspring, then who is going to take care of you when you get old?”
Because of this, she and her friends “have started having this conversation” about the need for creating such a place themselves.
“Instead of wishing for such a facility, we are thinking about creating one ourselves because it’s not only lonely but also dangerous for older people to be living by themselves. So the idea is to figure out a way to do a property-type stokvel — to have a safe space for us when we are at our most vulnerable,” says Ditsie.
Addinall adds that the queer community should also shoulder some of the blame for the lack of options for queer seniors.
“I think it’s disgusting how we treat our elderly. Why aren’t we coming together and raising money to establish support services for our elders? Why aren’t they front and centre in our marches, as in these are the elders that went before us? We’re doing to our elders what the rest of society does. We just dump them, forget them and move on,” he says.
Pride Shelter’s Rushine February says: “If you are rich, you can afford your own flat and have somebody working for you. But if you are poor, then … ” she trails off. “Even at this shelter, you can’t stay here for life. Derick, he can’t stay here for life. Somehow he needs to move out. But where will he go to, you know?”
All too aware of this, De Kock says having nowhere to go is “terrible … terrible. I get nightmares at night, worrying. I’m concerned. Anxious all the time, you know. I have got nothing to fall back on … ja, I’m alone.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian