In a new exhibit, LGBTQ elders share what it was like to spend most of their lives in the closet.
In the 1950s, when Ray Cunningham was just 19, he served in the Navy as secretary to the personnel officer aboard the USS Ranger. He was responsible for preparing discharge and reassignment paperwork, and sometimes he would have to dishonorably discharge men for being gay.
“It was difficult,” Cunningham, now 82, told NBC News. “At that time I realized that I was gay, and it was just difficult to know that people were being discharged for the same thing that I was in my life.”
“What bothered me the most was having to talk to the guys that were being discharged, and they were not in a good state of wellness anyway, because at that time, it was illegal or considered mental problems to be gay,” he said.
Cunningham spent the next four decades in the closet until he and his partner of 30 years, Richard Prescott, 78, came out after retiring in their 50s.
The two men, who are now married, shared their stories as part of “Not Another Second,” a new multimedia art exhibit in Brooklyn, New York, that features 12 LGBTQ elders, many of whom spent most of their lives in the proverbial closet. Through video interviews and interactive augmented-reality technology, visitors can experience their stories.
The other elders featured in the exhibit include the Rev. Goddess Magora Kennedy, who participated in the Stonewall uprising, and Paul Barby, who ran for Congress as an openly gay man in 1996 and 1998. Alongside each portrait is the number of years the elder was closeted.
“Not Another Second” is a joint project between SAGE, a national advocacy group for LGBTQ elders, and Watermark Retirement Communities. The exhibit debuted Tuesday at The Watermark in Brooklyn Heights, where it will remain until March. After that, it will tour the country and make stops in Los Angeles; Napa, California; and Tucson, Arizona; among other cities.
Ines Newby, senior marketing and creative director at Watermark, found the elders first by reaching out to dozens of the company’s properties to ask if they had LGBTQ residents who would like to share their story, but she said it wasn’t easy.
“I got a lot of responses from executive directors who said, ‘We do have someone living here, but they’re actually not out in the community,’” she said. “And in some cases, they were out, but they just didn’t feel comfortable sharing their story.”
Eventually, she found seven Watermark residents who were willing to participate and then partnered with SAGE to find five more. The fact that some people still weren’t ready to share their stories during Newby’s initial search speaks to “that compulsion to stay in the closet” that older LGBTQ people still feel, according to Christina DaCosta, director of communications for SAGE.
“That’s really what the campaign has tried to highlight — these hours, these minutes, these years lost to being in the closet,” DaCosta said. “It’s my hope that this campaign gives people a little hope and a little bit more freedom, maybe, to feel like they can share their authentic selves and stories, and if not, just give them a little bit of a sense of community that they’re not alone.”
Living a ‘double life’
Cunningham said he realized he was gay as a teenager, but he didn’t know the word “gay” at the time — he just knew he was different. After joining the Navy, he said he realized he was “more than different.”
“I had a label at that time,” he said of the realization, “and I didn’t like it.” He said he “felt trapped” and feared he, too, would be discharged. Feeling like he had no other options, he lived a “double life.”
As for Prescott, he said he knew he was different by the time he was 5 or so.
“I had two older brothers and a very strict father, and they used the word ‘sissy’ and ‘queer’ quite a bit,” he recalled.
He joined the Navy Reserve in 1959. On his first trip to Japan, he refused to visit the brothels with the men he worked with, and as a result, one of them began physically and verbally harassing him, he said.
“He was constantly making innuendos, evenly physically towards me,” he said. “It just infuriated me that he would violate my space like that.”
Even after they both got out of the Navy, they stayed in the closet. Beginning in the late 1960s, many states criminalized homosexuality through sodomy laws. The American Psychiatric Association also classified homosexuality as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973, when that classification was replaced with “sexual orientation disturbance.” Homosexuality was completely removed from the manual in 1987, but many states still had sodomy laws on their books until 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional.
“I can remember going on many dates with lesbian friends, because they felt they had to stay in the closet at that time, and we’re still friends with a few of them today,” Prescott said. “That’s what we did back then. You go to somebody’s parents’ house … you’d have a lesbian friend with you, or they would have a gay man on their arm or something, and it was a way of hiding.”
Cunningham and Prescott met in the mid-’90s while working for a bus company, but they still didn’t come out because, according to Cunningham, “If you were gay, you were not promoted.” So they waited until they had both retired in 2001. Even after coming out, they struggle to enjoy LGBTQ pride parades.
“We’re from a generation that you dare not hold your partner’s hand in public, and we kind of still have remnants of that,” Cunningham said. “It’s difficult for us, because so much of the time in our life was hiding. And then when you get older you see the gay pride going on and people totally enjoying themselves. … It’s hard for us to do, not because we don’t want to — it’s because we almost can’t, because of being in the closet so long.”
Honoring those who ‘paved the way’
Sharing the stories of LGBTQ elders is especially important now, DaCosta said, as the Covid-19 pandemic highlights disparities faced by older people and marginalized communities.
“A lifetime of discrimination leads you to these disparities with your health, with your socioeconomic status, with how you can live your life across the board,” she said.
Research published in the journal The Gerontologist last fall found that lesbian, gay and bisexual people have a higher risk of dementia and cognitive decline than heterosexual people as they grow older. The study’s authors found that the increased risk was partially due to higher rates of depression that older LGBTQ people experience due to workplace discrimination, shame and other stigma associated with their sexuality.
That stigma still persists, but the elders and producers behind “Not Another Second” hope their project can help, even if just in a small way.
One of the elders featured in the exhibit, Lujira Cooper, 72, lived nearly her whole life as an openly gay woman. In a video trailer for the exhibit, she said, “Things have become more accepting. However, I think part of the problem for elder seniors is because of all the discrimination they felt earlier they’re still not coming out.”
DaCosta said she hopes LGBTQ people who are not out — whether they’re young or old — will be inspired by hearing and seeing the stories of these elders.
“The more these folks come out and share their stories, the more change could happen,” she said. “I like to say this community has so much to offer, and they’ve offered so much already — Stonewall, civil rights, everything — it’s because of these elders who really paved the way.”
As for Cunningham and Prescott, they hope that by sharing their story, people will have more of an understanding of LGBTQ people.
“I am hoping that some people that could be in the closet or know people that are in the closet would be more understanding and not feel threatened by us,” Prescott said.
They encourage LGBTQ people who aren’t out to seek out friends and community at local LGBTQ organizations and to let go of relationships with people who won’t accept them.
“They need to believe down and deep in themselves, believe in themselves, that they can get through this and make a good life for themselves,” Prescott said.