Often times, the face of “coming out” stories is school-age adolescents, overlooking the many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) adult and elder men and women living in silence or isolation. Research shows that elderly LGBT people are twice as likely to live alone, half as likely to have life partners or significant others, half as likely to have close relatives to call for help, and four times less likely to have children to help them. Ty Martin, 65, a Black openly gay senior in New York City, brings light to this often-marginalized community. Martin serves as the Harlem Community Liaison at SAGE, the country's largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults. He also appears in the upcoming documentary, Before You Know It, which follows three gay seniors navigating the adventures, challenges and surprises of life and love in their golden years.
EBONY: As a Black gay senior, why is it important for you to celebrate National Coming Out Day?
Ty Martin: There are so many of us that are still in the closet or have gone back into the closet as part of the aging process. There are people who are stuck in isolation. Homophobia can be very prevalent in nursing homes and many seniors don’t have the energy or desire to have conversations about sexual orientation or gender identity partly because of the stigma. Many of our seniors have spent an entire life of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” so to have to deal with that reality at a late stage of life, they wonder is it worth it when many just want to be in safe environment. Organizations like SAGE work to provide them with services and advocate for those needs.
EBONY: How has New York City and Harlem, in particular, transformed over the decades in terms of LGBT acceptance?
TM: I was born and raised in Harlem. It has changed so much. Harlem Pride Week is something that I never saw growing up. I love watching our young people literally parade around like they’re on a runway. [Laughs.] Or hug each other openly. But I also fear that that may not always be well received.
Although there has been great strides and acceptance, homophobia still exists in our communities. The recent murder of Islan Nettles, a Black transgender woman, was very scary for all of us. While brutal attacks aren’t typical, some people get harassed daily and have to fight everyday.
The Black community has gotten bad press as far as being homophobic. But Black people are not any more homophobic than anyone else.
I grew up here and for my generation, we were pretty much invisible. We knew what to and what not to do. Back then, many people in Harlem would run to the Village. Now we don’t have to.
EBONY: You appear in the upcoming documentary, Before You Know It. What can viewers expect from watching your story?
TM: You get a good perspective about what it means to be a senior, gay and Black in Harlem. The director, PJ Raval, followed me for two years. Everyone in the film is over sixty but you get to see how our lives are different. Living in New York City is a lot different from living in Florida or Texas. My life, for instance, is a lot different from Denis [Creamer, also featured in the film] who started cross-dressing at 70. That’s just not my focus. I’m more concerned with activism and human rights. I think it’s partly a race and cultural thing. It also has to do with socio-economics and region.
My story in the film is a little different. When I was a little boy, I wanted a soul mate. So when we got the marriage equality laws passed, I realized that this is what I always wanted. I wanted a long-term monogamous relationship. My current partner and I met 40 years ago. We decided 9 years ago that we would take our friendship to the next level. He’s more pragmatic. He wants to weigh the pros and cons. I’m like, shi*t, it’s marriage. We don’t need to weigh the pros and cons. [Laughs.] What we go through in the film is very universal.
EBONY: What has the response to the film been like?
TM: When I was doing the film, I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing. I was just so happy that someone was interested in the work I do. I didn’t realize it was a story that needs to be told. I’m letting the world know that I’m not any different.
I’ve been running around the country attending film festivals and screenings of the film. A lot of people, especially younger people come up to me, and thank me for representing them. My seniors see me as some sort of role model. I never saw myself that way. When I was a young person, I used to think life would end at 30 and that I wouldn’t find a relationship. I think seeing that that’s possible is empowering for everyone.
Meeting our Kickstarter campaign goal will help us bring this film to theaters across the country.
EBONY: A line in the trailer says, “If you’re not young, if you’re not pretty, you become invisible.” What kind of stigma do LGBT elders face from the LGBT community and from non-LGBT people?
TM: We live in a very youth-oriented culture. Just look at TV. Everyone is young, pretty and thin and that’s not reality. We think that those are the only happy people. And that’s part of the LGBT culture, very much a part, and I don’t know where that came from. I know that when I was a young person, those things (youth and beauty) were important to me. If you weren’t young and hot, who would want to be around you? As I get older, those things change. There’s much more to life than what someone looks like.
EBONY: What things are important to you now?
TM: Stanton, my partner, is everything I need. I wish I could say something profound about being Black, gay and a senior in Harlem but my story is pretty much the same as anyone else. We all want to be connected to somebody.
Why do you think churches are full on Sunday? People want to find some connection. Or else, why do they go? I think it’s the same reason why clubs are packed on Saturday. [Laughs.]
At the end of the day everyone wants someone to talk to and feel connected to.
Kimberley McLeod is a D.C.-based media strategist and LGBT advocate. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of ELIXHER, a resource for multidimensional representations of Black LGBT women.