The Integration of Aging Issues into LGBT Studies Courses

By Mary McCall

This commentary addresses the approach to LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Intersex) aging studies from the perspective of integrating aging into LGBT studies, rather than thinking about how to integrate LGBTQI issues into gerontology courses.

About this blog series

Presented by ASA's LGBT Aging Issues Network and guest edited by Michael Dentato, Ph.D., M.S.W., this series of blog posts will focus on higher education and the integration of LGBTQ aging issues in curriculum.

LGBTQ Aging Issues in Higher Education: What’s Happening on Campus?
By Michael P. Dentato & Holly Deni

The Interdisciplinary Challenge of Integrating LGBTQ Aging into the Curriculum
By Jeanne Sokolec

The Art of Weaving LGBTQ Aging Issues Throughout Higher Education
By Nikki DiGregorio and Jennifer Zorotovich

Netflix Binging for a Grade? Sign Me Up!
By James R. Carter

LGBTQ Aging Issues: A Journey to Understanding
By Mandy Weirich

Safe Space Collaboration Fosters Ally-Ship Behind the Pine Curtain
By Ann C. Wilder

LGBTQ Aging: What a New Lawyer Needs to Know
By Deirdre M.W. Lok and Malya Kurzweil Levin

Based on the author’s experience as a gerontologist, it’s a reflection of teaching the first introduction to transgender studies course at a small Catholic college in California. The course was offered through the Department of Women and Gender Studies as an upper division special topics course. And while many faculty contributed resources and connections, they were largely from the Sociology, Communication and Critical Social Science and Cultural Studies disciplines. None suggested integrating issues of aging into the course.

This three and a half–month course covered typical topics related to transgender studies, using an intersectional analytic framework: Where is the place of the “T” in LGBT studies? Basic topics of gender vs. sex vs. sexuality were covered, transgender histories and current events and issues (political, legal, etc.), media-related topics such as the portrayal of transgender people (especially by non-transgender actors) in movies (e.g., The Danish Girl) and the expression of trans experiences through various media (art, video, dance), religion and spirituality, and issues related to healthcare. Issues related to aging transgender individuals (and LGBQI individuals) were introduced during the healthcare segment.

In this section related to health and healthcare for transgender people, the frame of intersectionality was particularly useful. Understanding the various healthcare issues for low-income people, people of color, those who live in various areas of the United States (e.g., rural, deep South, etc.) in conjunction with being transgender was particularly powerful for this group of students. Showing the film Southern Comfort, gave them a moving example of how economic class, family dynamics, bias and ignorance among healthcare providers resulted in the death from ovarian cancer of the film’s central character.

Having students watch Gen Silent, a film documenting the lives of older LGBT individuals and the dilemmas facing them around care situations in late life, brought home to every student the potential for abuse and neglect in care facilities and the challenges facing them as they strive to provide the best care possible for themselves or their loved ones. Some comments from students after watching the film:

“It was really hard for me to keep watching the film … it was so sad …”

“I had to stop watching … . it made me think about if that was my grandfather, how would I feel … I couldn’t stand it.”

“It makes me think about how I have to have those conversations with my parents … not just about their own care, but how they might react to other people in the housing where they live.”

“Why don’t we have a healthcare system that can take care of people across their life time and into old age? Who will take care of these people when their own families have abandoned them?”

“While this was really hard, I’m so glad you had this section of this course. In the general Women’s Studies courses, we don’t really talk about aging, but it’s important to understand both today’s older people, but then also how I have to think about my own aging and my parents and grandparents as well. We don’t talk about aging in really, any of our classes here … this is really important.”

At this small Catholic liberal arts college, across almost all the social sciences (Sociology, Anthropology, Women and Gender Studies, Communication, Economics, History), the only discipline that directly and consistently addresses adulthood and aging issues is the Psychology department, which has a dedicated course to the topic, as part of a developmental concentration. Rarely, in more than 20 years, have I seen courses related to aging, other than the ones I taught. Gladly, issues related to LGBTQI studies are more consistently integrated into courses across various departments. But the intersection of sexual and gender identities and age have rarely, if really ever, been an intentional part of a course.

This speaks to the growing awareness of sexual and gender identities as important topics of consideration in college curricula, but reflects our general societal attitude of the avoidance of aging and related disability, as well as the relative distance of aging issues from traditional undergraduate students.

Understandably, much national attention has recently been focused on LGBTQI youth, given the extremely high rates of bullying, self-harm, suicide and homelessness (and its attendant problems) among that group. The 2010 “It Gets Better” campaign was designed to instill hope in LGBTQI youth and to create a sense of community into which young people can become integrated and accepted. While this is critically important and to be lauded and supported, we must not forget that for many older LGBTQI individuals, and especially transgender people, lives are still being lived, health issues are still being grappled with, and exhaustion from a lifetime of fear, discrimination, neglect and harassment has taken its toll.

So while I certainly support the integration of LGBT issues into gerontology courses, I also want to challenge those of us who teach LGBTQI courses, to integrate issues of aging. In this way, we can foster an intersectional approach to understanding human development—at all stages and in all aspects—to create families, organizations, communities and societies that acknowledge and support all individuals with the dignity and respect we deserve.

Mary McCall, Ph.D., taught for more than 25 years in the Psychology, Ethnic Studies and Women and Gender Studies departments at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. She is currently a visiting professor at Jönköping University in Jönköping, Sweden, and coordinator of Faculty Development in the School of Nursing at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif.

LGBT Movement Advancement Project (MAP) & Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE). (2010). Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults. 

Image via Caleb Roenigk on Flickr