It was more or less an open secret but iconic singer-songwriter Barry Manilow has officially come out as gay at the age of 73 in a People exclusive, nearly two years after news broke that he had married his longtime partner and manager Gary Keiff in a private ceremony.
But just because it was widely known that Manilow was gay doesn’t make his coming out any less significant. For LGBT people in the Silent Generation—and older LGBT adults more generally—speaking out about their sexual or gender identity comes with a unique set of challenges.
“I thought I would be disappointing [my fans] if they knew I was gay,” the “Copacabana” singer explained to People. “So I never did anything.”
It might seem strange that Manilow so badly miscalculated how his adoring fans might react to news of his wedding. But LGBT experts say that there are other factors to take into consideration when judging an older adult’s timing in coming out. A generational predilection for privacy combined with a lifetime of witnessing—and in many cases, experiencing—rampant anti-LGBT discrimination can make many older LGBT adults reluctant to come out. Yes, even wealthy pop legends.
“It’s been a very different life experience [for them],” Hilary Meyer, chief enterprise and innovation officer for the LGBT elders organization SAGE, said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “If you think about the vast majority of LGBT older folks—say people 65 and older—they have lived through really pervasive discrimination, stigma, and prejudice throughout their lives.”
Manilow was born in 1943. Someone born in that year has witnessed the McCarthy-era Lavender scare, police raids on gay bars, the Stonewall riots, the HIV/AIDS crisis and its accompanying stigma, the strong anti-gay currents of the 1990s, the heyday of anti-LGBT conversion therapy, and much, much more. So no matter how accepting 2017 might be—and even that clause has to come with qualifiers about lingering cultural homophobia—they might still be extremely reticent to come out.
As Patricia Davies, a 90-year-old World War II veteran who came out as transgender last month, told Cater News Agency, she waited until now because “the atmosphere [around being transgender] was not safe. People did not understand what transgender was.”
And for every Barry Manilow or Patricia Davies who does come out late in life, there are many LGBT elders who are still choosing to remain in the closet for their own privacy and, often, their own protection.
According to the latest Gallup numbers, prepared by demographer Gary Gates, only 1.4 percent of people born between 1913 and 1945 identify as LGBT. That figure rises dramatically with each subsequent generation: 2.4 percent for baby boomers, 3.2 percent for Gen X, and a whopping 7.3 percent for millennials. What those numbers reveal, Gates suspected, is in part that younger people “are more comfortable than their older counterparts with the idea of sharing what some might consider private information on surveys.”
Tellingly, Manilow told People, “I’m so private. I always have been.”
But differences in social climate are another possible contributor to the huge disparities in LGBT identification across generations. As Gates wrote for Gallup, “It’s likely that millennials are the first generation in the U.S. to grow up in an environment where social acceptance of the LGBT community markedly increased.” If you came of age in the 1950s, by contrast, you might not feel as confident about coming out.
“Yesterday’s news that Barry Manilow decided to come out at age 73 does provide some evidence that the process can be very difficult for that generation,” wrote Gates in an email to The Daily Beast, citing additional research showing that older LGBT people tend to be “more guarded” about their identity as they age for fear of discrimination in senior care services.
And although lack of acceptance in senior care facilities may be less of a concern for a wealthy pop star residing in Palm Springs, it helps explain why so many LGBT people of Manilow’s generation stay close to the closet.
Meyer told The Daily Beast that as SAGE conducts trainings with senior care facilities, they sometimes encounter the attitude that, of course, they wouldn’t mind if a resident came out as gay.
“What they don’t realize is that LGBT older adults carry this heavy stigma with them that has created this wall of staying closeted unless they are otherwise explicitly told that this is a safe and comfortable environment,” she said.
And for LGBT seniors, who are already at increased risk for social isolation and depression, caretaking situations can be fraught with risk, whether real or justifiably perceived.
“These are very vulnerable situations,” Meyer explained. “Most people don’t necessarily want strangers to be taking care of them but for people who are particularly concerned that they’re going to be mistreated because they’ve lived through so much mistreatment in the course of their lives, there’s a much greater sense of concern.”
That makes it all the more important, Meyer said, for the media to continue highlighting older LGBT adults. Manilow might not have shocked anyone with his announcement to People. Indeed, many in the LGBT community might have perceived him as dragging his feet across the finish line. But his coming out matters as a model for other LGBT adults with the privilege to do so—and undoubtedly, to him personally.
When Meyers hears people wonder what difference it makes for someone to come out so late in life, she asks them to imagine what it would be like “if you had to go through life and not talk at all about anything related to your family or your significant other.”
“You can’t mention them,” she continues. “You can’t acknowledge that they exist. You can’t share the joy.”
Indeed, joy seems to be exactly what both Manilow and the transgender World War II veteran have found in the past week after coming out.
“It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” Davies told Caters. “I was living a lie.”
And Manilow is finally being openly, fully, and completely embraced by the same fans whose reactions he once feared.