Out of the shadows

Older LGBTQ adults lived most of their lives in the closet, but a Boulder County project leads the way in helping this community come into the light

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Winter Shadows/Wikimedia Commons/The Sand Painter

Gwen Goodwin was just shy of 53 when she decided it was time to come out of the closet — born in a man’s body, she says she could no longer live “the half and half life.”

So she went to her boss at the Colorado Department of Human Services, expecting to be told to pack up and leave, but instead her confession was received with compassion.

“She hooked me up with the right people, and we got a nice plan together,” says Goodwin, who’s seated at the kitchen table of her mobile home in north Boulder. She’s tall, every inch of 6 feet, and her ashen hair nearly reaches her elbows when it falls across her broad shoulders. Despite her size, there’s nothing intimidating about Goodwin — her voice is soft, with just the slightest southern nuance, a holdover from her years growing up in Arkansas. She’s dressed in earth tones, her feet clad in white socks. To her right is her partner Marie Sutherland, who points out a hole in one of Goodwin’s socks (“You should only wear those on Sunday,” Sutherland cracks). In stark contrast, Sutherland is small in stature, 5 feet 5 inches at the most, with auburn hair that falls just above her shoulders, which are covered by a bright red cardigan. While Goodwin is quiet, Sutherland is effusive, though both are immediately and equally personable.

“They gave me a week off before my birthday — I had decided I was going to come out on my birthday,” Goodwin says. “I did all the paperwork and everything and while I was doing that they scheduled a meeting with everybody [in my project] … and [my boss] said, ‘Her name is Gwen. You will refer to her as that. She will use the women’s restroom on this floor or any floor she happens to be on. If you have a problem with her in the women’s room, then there are other women’s rooms — use them. It’s not her problem, it’s yours.’”

But not everyone at work was so accepting.

“Some of the women — and I couldn’t understand — were just so upset from 2005 when I came out, to 2007 when I decided, OK, I’ve had it, [and left my job],” Goodwin says. “I could not get those women to acknowledge I existed. I would see them in the halls and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ And they would say nothing. I was just… ” Goodwin says, sighing and shrugging her shoulders.

“Invisible,” Sutherland finishes.

“Invisible,” Goodwin repeats.

By 2007, Goodwin’s boss retired, ushering in a new administration that left Goodwin so marginalized at work — literally stuck in a corner desk and given no actual work to speak of — that she left her job.

Today at 63 years old, both Goodwin and Sutherland have lived the majority of their adult lives hiding their sexual and gender identities. Both women are transgender. Their stories are not unlike those of other LGBTQ seniors who lived for years — for decades — hiding their identities, lying to their families and friends and colleagues — even to themselves. Some of them are still hiding, unsure of how society will accept them, scarred by a lifetime of being told that any thoughts or desires that lay outside the gender and sexual binary were a sign of mental illness.

Like many other older LGBTQ adults, Marie Sutherland and Gwen Goodwin spent most of their lives hiding their sexual and gender identities from almost everyone around them. After more than 50 years in the closet, the women now often speak in Boulder about LGBTQ issues. Nancy Grimes
Like many other older LGBTQ adults, Marie Sutherland and Gwen Goodwin spent most of their lives hiding their sexual and gender identities from almost everyone around them. After more than 50 years in the closet, the women now often speak in Boulder about LGBTQ issues.

Now, as senior citizens, this subgroup of the LGBTQ community faces a unique set of issues as they seek healthcare providers, housing or even just a social community that will be open, safe and affirming of their sexual and gender identity.

In many ways, they are an invisible community.

The Boulder County Area Agency on Aging works to shine light on the needs of the elder LGBTQ community through Project Visibility. The project started back in 2004 when a lesbian in the office — after three years of focus groups with LGBTQ elders — recognized a need to train service providers about how to communicate with and better serve this community with respect.

“We were building [the program] from scratch,” says Nancy Grimes, LGBT program specialist at the Boulder County Area Agency on Aging. “There was almost no research on [LGBTQ] elders at that time because seniors were not considered a population that people want to bother with too much.”

But the focus groups had shown that many LGBTQ elders felt afraid to tell doctors or other professionals about their sexual or gender identity — they feared rejection or even hostility.

The Boulder County AAA created training materials for administrators and staff of nursing homes, assisted living residences, home care agencies and other senior service providers, as well as the friends and families of LGBTQ elders.

Grimes says the materials, a 21-minute film and a manual, have been sold in 30 states in the United States, mostly to other Area Agencies on Aging, the hope being that these agencies train staff in their senior care providing community.

“As far as we know, there’s only one other [Area Agency on Aging] in the country that even has an LGBT programs specialist and that was only a couple years ago that that position was added,” Grimes says.

In the world of aging services programing, service providers include people who run congregate living homes, like a nursing home, assisted living or independent living residence. They might be someone who provides home health care, like a hospice nurse. They might be someone who runs a hearing center or provides meals for shut-ins. Even funeral directors, lawyers, estate planners and dentists work with LGBTQ elders and, according to Grimes, can benefit from training in how to better serve so-called rainbow elders. A lot of the training involves creating a sense of inclusion by broadening terminology or excluding unnecessary questions.

“What we would say to that dentist is that the intake form should not say Mr. or Mrs. It shouldn’t say married or single, widowed or divorced.” Grimes says. “It shouldn’t even say male or female if you’re really going to push the edges. Why do you need to know those things? It shouldn’t say who is your husband or wife? It should say, ‘What is your name?’ and, ‘Who is your emergency contact and what is that person’s relationship to you?’ Those are the kinds of questions we think are inclusive questions and all doctors, all dentists, all senior living homes could go with that. Except some need to know who is the legal judiciary, that could be another question, but it doesn’t have to be couched in the terms of marital status or gender.”

At 61, Grimes has lived in Boulder for 40 years, 35 of which she has lived openly as a lesbian. She has been married to her wife for 23 years. She says that while she’s an older LGBTQ adult, she’s certainly on the young side of older, making her experiences quite different than those of LGBTQ folks in their 70s or 80s.

“The senior care providers are serving two generations of LGBT people. They are serving the baby boomers like me and then they are serving the older adults, who I’ll just say are pre-Stonewall [riots], so [coming of age] pre- 1969,” Grimes says, referring to the violent protests against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The riots are considered by many to be the keystone event in the LGBTQ rights movement in the U.S.

“Their experience is totally different than mine. I mean, they couldn’t serve in the military openly, they couldn’t teach school openly, they couldn’t go to their church openly, and there weren’t any alternatives. And of course they couldn’t marry. You can’t even bury your partner without the right piece of paper, and then of course the family comes in and they take the house and they take all the stuff and you’re stuck as the surviving spouse, but you have no spousal protections. That’s all different now if you’re married and if you’re out.”

Gwen Goodwin and Marie Sutherland where right on the cusp of that Stonewall era, both turning 18 in 1970 — and furthermore suffering from body dysmorphia. Being gay was one thing, but telling people you were the “wrong” gender was something else entirely.

“There was no way you could come out,” Sutherland says. “I used to argue and tell people that I was a girl. If you came out we were told, at least I was told that if I came out, that the men in the white coats would come and put me in a straightjacket and take me to the mental hospital, strap me to the table and give me electric shock therapy. And that I better keep my mouth shut or that was gonna happen to me. And if I still didn’t come around, they would take out the front part of my brain. I was 8, 9, 10 years old and I heard this stuff.”

Sutherland says she eventually learned to stop arguing, and because she was attracted to women, that made it some easier to play the part of a man. While her first marriage failed quickly, her second marriage was a dream come true, and Sutherland was able to tell her second wife about her gender dysphoria. The two were married for 33 years, raising three children and spoiling 12 grandchildren. While Sutherland lived as a man through those 33 years, her wife helped her explore the woman trapped inside.

“Sharon was the person who knew the most about me and over the years she helped me explore who I was and what I was,” Sutherland says. “It was a wonderful relationship. God blessed me by bringing me and Sharon together.”

But when Sharon was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in late 2004, Sutherland knew her days of hiding were numbered.

“[A couple weeks before she died, Sharon] kissed my forehead and said, ‘I’m not going to be here to help you hide anymore and hiding’s not the answer anyway and you need to be that person — not part time, not in a closet, but full time,’” Sutherland says. “‘Marie has to live.’”

In early 2005, just months after Sharon’s death, Sutherland began seeing a counselor who dealt with gender identity. The counselor suggested that Sutherland go to the Gender Identity Center in Denver.

“I was afraid just going into the building that someone would see me and the next day in the paper there’d be a picture of me with ‘weirdo, crazy, a faggot’ printed underneath,” Sutherland says. “I was sure something like that would happen. I walked in scared.”

Instead, she found acceptance — and Goodwin. It took a few years before the two became an item, but their friendship was a life raft in the storm that ravaged both their lives over those years.

In 2007, Goodwin would leave her job with the state after two years of blatant discrimination. Sutherland also lost work as she made her transition.

“After Sharon died, the income went,” Sutherland says. “I also owned my own company, Maintenance Service Company. When it went from being Maintenance Service Company to Marie’s Maintenance Service Company, a third of my customers were lost. One of them even told me I was going to hell. Another one said, ‘I accept you as a human being, but I don’t approve of the gay lifestyle so I won’t be calling you again.’”

Both Sutherland and Goodwin dealt with health problems — Goodwin losing all of her large intestine to Crohn’s disease, and Sutherland suffering from severe heart problems that led to a massive heart attack in 2011. They were running out of money quickly, and searching desperately for a place to live. Both express that thoughts of suicide were common during this time.

“We were going to go until the money runs out and then teach the car to fly,” Sutherland says. “I know some places out west of Las Vegas in the Red Rock Canyon area and it would be real easy to take any car about 60, 65, 70 miles per hour and make a hard right hand turn and the car would go… PFFT, ” Sutherland glides a flattened hand across her other hand and sends it nose-diving toward the ground. “And it’s about 15-1,600 feet down and it’s straight enough that you’re not going to bounce. You might enjoy the view on the way down, but you’re not going to survive.”

Then help came in the form of an anonymous donation from their church — $5,000 helped the two purchase their mobile home in Boulder. Things aren’t easy, they say, but they’ve got each other — and finally, after more than 50 years of hiding, they have themselves.

They’ve lived in their home together for five years now, each contributing to the education of the LGBTQ community through Speak Outs organized by Out Boulder and in other events like Trans Awareness Week.

“The two of us at our age have gotten great response,” Sutherland says. “However, over the last couple of years the response has cooled a bit. Now, I don’t know if that’s because we got older or if the attitude of the young ones is changing, but even those who are beginning to identify as different than straight, wherever it is they’re saying they are — and there’s a whole wide range they could be — we get a lot of blank stares from them. They find it difficult to relate.”

Grimes agrees that the younger LGBTQ community is disconnected from the elders.

“I think it would be nice to have more intergenerational time with the elder LGBT community,” Grimes says. “Sometimes young people go, ‘I didn’t know there were old gay people.’ But they don’t see them because their community is youth and the elders aren’t out in an organized way.’

But the Boulder County Area Agency on Aging continues to help LGBTQ older adults find help, strength and social opportunities in a world obsessed with youth and blinded by ageism.

Things might not be perfect for Sutherland and Goodwin, but they’ve found a home with each other, a home in Boulder and mental space to become the women they are after years of repression.

“God blessed me twice,” Sutherland says. “I don’t know how it is that I ended up partnered with her but I was so wonderfully blessed two times because this is a genuinely good person.”

“You’re not too bad yourself,” Goodwin says.