Pride Month: The power of intergenerational friendships for LGBT+ people

For LGBT+ people, intergenerational friendships can be a major source of support, love and solidarity. Joanna Whitehead finds out more about the transformative and radical nature of such relationships

Wednesday 22 June 2022 08:14 BST
Friendship has no age limit
Friendship has no age limit (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Siobhan, a queer femme woman from the Channel Islands, was 27 when she met a 60-year-old man named Davy at a poetry event. “He did this glorious poem about the shameless state of affairs in David Cameron’s government and I went up to him afterwards to tell him how much I loved it,” she recalls. “We got chatting and it transpired that we had mutual friends, and we started going to the pub together.”

Davy’s extremely colourful life included time spent in the army, a stint performing in a jazz band in Amsterdam, time spent in a Japanese prison, periods of homelessness and, eventually, finding Buddhism. When Siobhan met him, he was undertaking a creative writing degree. “Our favourite thing to do was talk: about writing, poetry, politics,” she says.

Davy died soon after he and Siobhan met, but he had a “huge” impact on her life. “We had this really tight little community and when he finally let us know that he had cancer, we did what we could,” she remembers. “Elder care and end-of-life care in this country relies so much on informal networks, and if you haven’t got something like a family, then you are basically trusting the goodwill of the people around you. I think the queer community is really good at that and I hope we came through in the way that he needed.

“He wasn’t alone when he died — me and a couple of other people were with him. I’ve never seen anyone die before and it was a privilege to be there,” she adds.

Intergenerational friendships have long been a source of joy and support, particularly during times of personal and political turmoil. This June marks 50 years since the first Pride event in the UK — a time of celebration for many — but it’s also a sobering reminder of the challenges that remain for LGBT+ people, both at home and abroad, and of the progress that needs to be made.

Intergenerational friendships are another way queer people are offering each other solidarity and friendship

In the UK, the government’s U-turn on its previous pledge to ban so-called “conversion therapy” against trans people, coupled with a spike in the number of reported LGBT+ hate crimes, and a cost of living crisis that disproportionately impacts LGBT+ people — who are more likely to live in poverty than their heterosexual counterparts — are just a handful of the issues currently faced by LGBT+ people. Gay bars, long a vital space for LGBT+ people to find community and belonging, have been closing in earnest since the 2008 financial crash. News that London’s iconic G-A-Y and Heaven venues could also shut their doors has sent shockwaves through the LGBT+ communities.

Despite this, many LGBT+ people are actively organising and connecting with others in the community in the face of such hostilities. LGBT+ people have long found innovative and creative solutions to problems, and intergenerational friendships are another way queer people are offering each other solidarity and friendship.

Lois, 27, from North London, cites her involvement in bi and queer activism as instrumental in fostering the intergenerational friendships in her life. “The people I’m closest to, I met about five years ago. They’re actually the people who got me into bi activism, and they’ve since become friends and mentors,” she says. In addition, she also knows a lot of people from older generations “who have become — almost in the chosen family sense — like distant aunties or uncles or cousins to me”.

Since time immemorial, LGBT+ friends have often stepped-in and taken on the duties historically undertaken by traditional family members

Older LGBT+ people often have experience and knowledge of navigating aspects of life unique to queer communities, something Lois touches on: “A person coming out might be the first person in their family to do so. At that crucial time, you’re facing a lot of things that your family may not know much about, but having friendships with older queer people can be invaluable.”

Since time immemorial, LGBT+ friends have often stepped-in and taken on the duties historically undertaken by traditional family members, from whom LGBT+ people may be disconnected. When Davy died, it fell to the community to step up and give him the send-off he deserved. “Davy’s funeral was delayed because he had nothing and no family around him and we had to fundraise for it,” reveals Siobhan. “As a community, we did all of that awful death admin. That was such an eye-opener — there’s so much paperwork around death.”

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Liam, 28, met his good friend, Dave, 52 on Grindr, an online dating app for men to meet other men. The pair are based in the West Midlands and live just 10 minutes away from each other. “He’s into Dr Who, sci-fi and nerdy sort of things, so we clicked straight away,” Liam says. Liam and Dave meet up frequently and enjoy a regular games night together. As well as shared interests, Liam values the different perspective he gets from his friendship with Dave.

“When gay people are young, they can be quite immature, so it’s nice to have someone who’s very grounded and down-to-earth,” he says. “It’s also good to have a balance between my younger gay friends and having someone a bit older to chat with and have serious conversations that you might not have with younger friends.”

I think it’s really important to get that perspective of how much the LGBT+ landscape has evolved and to understand where we came from to see where we might be going

Friendships with different generations also help Lois feel connected to queer history. “I’m 27, and I came out when I was 14, and when I speak to younger queer people, things have already changed so much — and it’s the same speaking with people are 10 or 15 years older than me,” she says.

“I think it’s really important to get that perspective of how much the LGBT+ landscape has evolved and to understand where we came from to see where we might be going,” she adds. “I think that’s really important at the moment given that LGBT+ hate crime is on the rise. Having connections to people who have lived through this kind of environment before is really important.”

This sentiment is shared by the team at Opening Doors, a not-for-profit organisation offering services and support to LGBT+ people aged 50 and older. The charity runs a befriending service which matches lonely and isolated LGBT+ people with volunteers for regular visits or phone calls. Mark Reeves, the charity’s befriending support officer, says: “A large number of our volunteers are considerably younger than the person they are matched with. This has a great benefit of bringing to life some lovely intergenerational friendships, which end up benefiting the volunteer as well as the member.”

Sharing stories about the current and historical state of queer life can be advantageous for both parties, he adds. “Our younger volunteers appreciate getting to learn about what life was like for other queer people who may have grown up in a very different social, historical and political climate. From the partial legalisation of homosexuality in the 1960s, the AIDs crisis, Section 28 and changing views on queerness, a lot of our members have such varied and important stories to share.

If intergenerational friendships were more common in the queer community, we might have less in-fighting and more solidarity

“On the flipside, we also see benefits to our members who are chatting with someone from a different generation,” he continues. “Many of our members are no longer able to do the things they once enjoyed, so they often find solace in hearing about the lives of their befriender. It also gives them a wonderful chance to learn about the progress made in the acceptance and celebration of queer people over the past 50 years.”

As well as offering companionship, Lois believes that intergenerational friendship can be powerful. “At this time of year, we see a lot of the same old discourse and arguing and in-fighting within the LGBT+ community,” she says.

“If intergenerational friendships were more common in the queer community, we would maybe have a bit less of this. Once you start talking to older queer people, you realise that we’ve been having these same arguments over and over again for decades and maybe they’re just not as worth our time and energy as solidarity and fighting together.”

For Siobhan, the impact of her friend, Davy, is still felt today: “Davy was a community, and people coalesced around him,” she says. “He was so loved. I feel so blessed to have had that friendship.”

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