In more than 15 years of advocacy for LGBTQIA+ rights in Mauritius, there has been significant progress. Yet, are LGBTQIA+ seniors benefitting from these advances?
For any person turning 60 this year in Mauritius, they would have spent their whole life under a law criminalising consensual same-sex intimacy. For almost 50 years of their existence, it was legal to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation and they can still be discriminated against for being transgender. To this day, they would not be able to change their gender marker to live according to their gender identity. And, if we add to the equation, the stigma, pathologisation, hate and violence that LGBTQIA+ persons have been historically exposed to, it seems very obvious that LGBTQIA+ seniors have not had an easy life.
Yet, today, as we are making more progress towards the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons in Mauritius, we need to acknowledge that our LGBTQIA+ seniors have been pushed to the margins. Over the last 50 years, the Mauritian population over the age of 60 has risen from 36.26 thousand to more than 234.36 thousand last year. In an aging population, it has become even more necessary to take into account the specific needs of LGBTQIA+ seniors.
Aging is a challenging process and unfortunately, for LGBTQIA+ persons, these difficulties are often exacerbated, as demonstrated by various studies1 around the world. According to a publication by SAGE and the National Resource Centre on LGBT aging2, LGBT elders were twice as likely to be single. According to the same publication, LGBT elders were poorer and had fewer financial resources than their non-LGBT counterparts. A study carried out in Bolivia had shown that 44% of older LGBT persons earned an amount equal or less than the minimum wage. Another study carried out in the USA had shown that more than a fifth of LGB adults aged 60 to 88 years old had experienced physical, emotional, verbal, sexual and financial abuse at the hands of caregivers. Various studies have shown that LGBT+ elders had worse physical and mental health compared to their non-LGBT counterparts. Studies have also shown that, with the Covid-19 pandemic, LGBT elders faced higher health risks and stricter measures in regards to housing, freedom of movement and access to goods and services.
However, the lack of data remains a major barrier in responding effectively to the needs of LGBTQIA+ elderly, especially in the Global South. For example, most of the studies mentioned above are from the Global North. In the Mauritian context, data on LGBTQIA+ elders are almost non-existent. As such, it is difficult to have a clear picture of the situation of LGBTQIA+ elders in our society. Nonetheless, there are certain recurring issues that emerge when interacting with LGBTQIA+ seniors in Mauritius.
Having been through a lifetime of internalised homophobia and transphobia, many LGBTQIA+ seniors live a closeted life. Often, when we talk about a person’s coming-out, we imagine it as a process that happens during adolescence or early adulthood. However, coming out is a process that LGBTQIA+ persons have to go through many times in their life. And for some LGBTQIA+ elders, sometimes it also means coming out to their children or spouse much later in life. And today, unfortunately, adequate support and assistance are not available to accompany the person and their family in this process. As they reach old age, some LGBTQIA+ seniors also have to deal with the death of their same-sex partners. The lack of recognition of same-sex relationships may leave LGBTQIA+ elders without inheritance and survivor benefits. Moreover, for some LGBTQIA+ elders who have been leading a double life, the mourning process becomes even more difficult.
With old age, the sense of isolation and loneliness becomes more palpable for some. Many elderly LGBTQIA+ persons have fewer options for informal care since they are single and have no children. They may also be ostracised by their own kins and people from their age groups. In an attempt to curb the isolation, some LGBTQIA+ elders look for companionship but in certain cases, this may leave them more vulnerable to financial abuse or blackmailing because of the stigma associated with SOGIESC. Dating as an elderly LGBTQIA+ is also quite challenging in itself. Many LGBTQIA+ elders are not at ease with using dating apps and the opportunities for socialisation within the LGBTQIA+ community do not necessarily cater for their age group or interests. Thus, LGBTQIA+ elders may be doubly marginalised: by other older people because of the prejudices about SOGIESC and by the LGBTQIA+ community itself because of ageism. And, finally, when age and SOGIESC are combined with other factors such as gender, race, disability or social class, more disparities become apparent.
Unless we start collecting data on LGBTQIA+ elders, it will be difficult to effectively gauge their situation and implement adequate solutions. But, adopting an intersectional approach to SOGIESC could very well be a good starting point. A uniform queer experience does not exist. Our experiences and lives as LGBTQIA+ persons are shaped by a number of factors which include ethnic origin, gender, social class, race, religion and age. Adopting an intersectional approach would allow us to understand the specific disparities caused by the intersections of SOGIESC and age as well as other aspects of our identity. Concretely, this means that organisations working with elderly persons should be taking into account the specific challenges faced by LGBTQIA+ elders and organisations working with the LGBTQIA+ community should include LGBQIA+ elders. This intersectional approach should be reflected at all levels, including at policy levels. For example, countries such as South Africa, Croatia or Canada recognise age and SOGIESC as protected grounds but more importantly, they also recognise the notion of multiple discriminations (i.e discrimination on the basis of one or more of the protected grounds).
However, as we try to improve the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ elders, we should steer clear from the dangers of tokenistic representation. For example, a one-time video about LGBTQIA+ elders or a brief mention of LGBTQIA+ elders in a paper are not examples of inclusion. Real inclusion implies creating a space where everyone feels valued and adds value. Real inclusion implies creating spaces where LGBTQIA+ elders feel welcome and confident to voice out their concerns. Real inclusion implies systemic change to allow for marginalised voices to be heard.
Last week, while inaugurating UK’s first LGBT+ retirement community, London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, called on allies to listen to LGBT+ elders. To quote him: “ The best history is living history. People telling their own stories, their anecdotes, and their lived experiences.” So far, we have done a very poor job documenting the queer history of Mauritius and unfortunately, by marginalising the voices and experiences of elderly LGBTQIA+ persons, we are further preventing the queer history of Mauritius from being told. As we continue to strive for a Mauritian society where everyone can aspire to live their lives authentically and fully regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, let us do a better job at ensuring that noone is left behind.