Elders Largely Missing from Online LGBT Portraiture Project

By Holly Deni

Love them or hate them, you have to admit that participation in online social sites can sometimes take you on tangents, catching you off-guard. My particular experience involved jumping from planning a knitting project to pondering the ways in which LGBT elders self-identify, and how the media can affect that identity.

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I belong to a large and diverse online fiber arts social network called Ravelry. It’s mostly used as an organizational tool for knitters and crocheters who want to keep track of their stash of yarns, needles and patterns. There’s also a surprising number of active interest group forums on the site, however. Some of these are focused on the work of certain designers, or are used to teach or explain techniques and products, but there are many groups centered on social issues and causes.

I was checking in with the Queer Ravelry group one day when this thread caught my eye: “Tell me what queer looks like.” The poster was asking members to take a look at an online site called “The Identity Project” and to let her know what our thoughts were about what we found there. She mentioned a lack of images of older queers on the site.

This was all it took for me to temporarily abandon my primary reason for visiting Ravelry that day and type my way over to the homepage for “The Identity Project.” What I saw there was surprising and thought-provoking.

“The Identity Project” is the brainchild of Sarah Deragon, a San Francisco–based portrait photographer. In 2014, she posted a portrait of herself on Facebook, along with the label “Queer Femme,” and asked others to sign up to be photographed. She envisioned this as a tool to help people explore the labels they assign to themselves when exploring their sexuality or gender.

The photos currently included on the Project’s site show a certain diversity of race and identity, but participant age is definitely skewed toward youth. The portraits and labels accompanying them show a group of LGBT individuals who are out, proud and self-aware. These folks have given a lot of thought to the nuances of their gender and sexuality.

I spoke with Deragon about how she selected the people she photographed. I wondered if she had deliberately chosen younger subjects. The fact is, as she explained, these are simply the people who responded to her posts on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Many are people she knows, friends of friends and professional colleagues from the Bay Area. She also traveled in 2014 to Portland, New York and Chicago to shoot pictures, and this year she plans to travel to Austin and Columbus to complete her work. With the growing notoriety that comes from media coverage of her project, she hopes to add images of more elders to her gallery.

Will older LGBT individuals be comfortable having their pictures taken and describing themselves in three words or less? Several generational attributes may cause Deragon to encounter some resistance in finding older participants.

Some members of the pre-Stonewall generation used public denial of their sexuality as a coping mechanism to help them survive in a hostile environment. That denial became a life-long habit unlikely to change in older age. Most in this age group grew up at a time when people reserved picture-taking for significant events and occasions, and, as a result, are not naturally comfortable in front of a camera. Finally, the Silent Generation earned that name partly by refraining from revealing much of their interior dialog. The value of the self-awareness that some younger people display can be lost on a cohort that typically kept their heads down and soldiered on, through traumas and triumphs alike.

Images of LGBT elders are rare in the media and online. Ageism and our cultural obsession with youthful beauty conspire to deprive older people in general of positive examples in print and the visual media, but this is especially true for LGBT elders. These factors could also make it difficult to identify exactly where one fits in along the spectrum of others like oneself. And while self-selected labels can be helpful in understanding one’s identity, they might well become less important in later life as other aspect of personal development take precedence.

I hope that if I were to check back in on “The Identity Project” in a year’s time, I would find a few more people who looked like me—a little wrinkled, a bit gray, showing signs of wear-and-tear, but still displaying lots of verve and spark.  Revealing ourselves for who we are may turn out to be just one more of the many acts of courage it took to get us this far in a long life.

Holly Deni just turned 60, and is making good use of her newly activated senior discounts in various establishments around her home in Little Falls, NJ. She is an avid knitter and hopes to alleviate minor aches and pains with many warm, hand-produced clothing layers this winter.  

This article was brought to you by ASA’s LGBT Aging Issues Network

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