LGBTQ Aging and Empathy-as-Activism

By Kimberly D. Acquaviva

As a 45-year-old lesbian with friends and family members on both sides of the aisle politically, I have the privilege of hearing a wide array of opinions about Donald Trump’s presidency and its impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender non-conforming, queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ) individuals. My liberal-leaning friends and family members lament what they see as the erosion of more than a decade of progress. My conservative-leaning friends and family members praise what they see as a restoration of the “traditional values” they felt were eroded during that same decade. I listen intently to both perspectives and try to focus on our commonalities rather than on our points of disagreement.

This isn’t easy. I often find myself struggling to keep my mouth closed and my mind open during these conversations. My inner activist yearns to argue and debate and convince the person with whom I’m speaking. My inner sociologist prevails, though, wrestling my inner activist into submission. Understanding another culture requires deep listening, and arguing and deep listening don’t go well together. So I listen, and ask probing questions, and seek to understand rather than convince. This is neither fun nor satisfying.

So why do I keep doing it? Why do I listen intently as a friend explains why they would never want a transgender person sharing a bathroom with their child in school? Why do I refrain from arguing when a relative tells me they support Donald Trump’s proposed ban on transgender individuals in the military? And what does this have to do with LGBTQ aging?

The phrase “LGBTQ aging” brings to mind LGBTQ older adults, but it also has to do with LGBTQ people of all ages growing older. As a middle-aged lesbian I’m not getting any younger, and I’m grateful for the insights I’ve gleaned with each passing year. I’ve been engaged in LGBTQ-related activism for more than 25 years—more than half my lifetime. In the early years I marched and protested and yelled. It felt satisfying, making my voice heard like that. Protests crackle with an energy that’s hard to describe. Being part of one made me feel both powerful and productive, an amalgamation of thousands of voices coming together in a single voice that couldn’t be silenced.

Over time, I started to see my involvement in protests differently. I started to worry that being part of that single voice that couldn’t be silenced was making it hard for me to hear the voices of those who disagreed with me. I began to wonder: what would happen if I practiced empathy as activism? If I stopped arguing so much and started listening more, would I be more successful in helping people see LGBTQ individuals as human beings deserving of respect and high-quality health care?

Since I made the shift to empathy-as-activism, I’ve noticed some interesting changes. When I give presentations to healthcare professionals, I always start off by letting the audience know that it’s perfectly fine if they believe that LGBTQ people (like me) are going to Hell and that I will never try to change their minds. I tell them that they may even be right. Then I ask them if they can agree that their job as healthcare professionals is to provide the best care possible to LGBTQ people while they’re on the Earth, and that what happens to an LGBTQ individual’s soul after death is outside their scope of practice. I’ve yet to encounter anyone who refuses to agree with this. Once people understand that I’m not going to attack or question their beliefs, the walls come down and learning can begin.

I’m not proposing that people stop marching or protesting for LGBTQ rights. Virtually every right I enjoy as an LGBTQ person is the result of groups of people being brave enough to take to the streets and make their voices heard. Now more than ever, America needs people willing to stand up and speak out against injustice and oppression.

What I’m proposing is that each of us finds a way to further the conversation around the health and well-being of LGBTQ individuals as they age. What that looks like is going to vary from person to person. It might involve participating in protests, writing letters to your Senators and Representatives, or starting a new program for LGBTQ older adults at your agency. It might also involve empathy-as-activism and deep listening with those with whom you disagree.

No matter your political party, sexual orientation, or gender identity, there are things you can do today to bridge the divide and catalyze social change for LGBTQ individuals as they age. Go forth and do great things….we have a lot of work to do.

Kimberly D. Acquaviva, PhD, MSW, CSE is a tenured professor at the George Washington University School of Nursing. Her book, LGBTQ-Inclusive Hospice & Palliative Care: A Practical Guide to Transforming Professional Practice, was published by Harrington Park Press and distributed by Columbia University Press. She's the host of em dash podcast, a show that explores diversity and the lived experiences of patients and healthcare professionals in the healthcare arena.