In my twenties, I did not give much thought to what my life would look like as I approach 70. Now that I am in my late sixties, I wonder what I would have thought of my life now, from my accomplishments to my disappointments, from my love life to my family. Sometimes what I think of it now depends on the day.
My birthday is in January, so right after the reviews, countdowns, and lists ranking this and that of the previous year, I find myself thinking about being a year older and all the time that has passed. Growing older is full of challenges. For me, this included hip problems that caused me to go from having a limp to walking with a cane. This lasted for almost five years until I finally underwent hip replacement surgery, something I never anticipated doing in my late fifties. But it was worth it because, as you know if you’ve seen me live or in GIF form, I can now high-kick with the best of them!
Growing older in the LGBTQ community is a peculiar experience, particularly for someone such as me, who is regarded by some as an icon and a legend. I’ve received a number of awards; a few of them have been for “Lifetime Achievement” which sometimes makes me wonder if they (a) realize that there is much more that I plan to accomplish and (b) expect me to drop dead soon. I really do appreciate all of the accolades, but it is interesting how groups and organizations which didn’t want to give me the time of day a decade or two ago now want to sing my praises. But people and leadership changes over time, and if I had to pay my dues to achieve mainstream appeal, so be it. I know that I never sold out and, to paraphrase the song lyric, I always did it my way.
The honors I receive are very much in contrast to how many elders in the LGBTQ community are treated. Elders are often left out and feel invisible. Almost everything in the media is marketed towards the young and nubile population. Many organizations are dedicated to LGBTQ youth. While the plight of youth is important, our agenda needs to include the aging members of our communities.
I think about my peers who are alone and lack support systems. Many older LGBTQ people are estranged from families who rejected them long ago. There are scant spaces for them to socialize, even in major cities. Dating isn’t easy for anyone, but in a culture of apps, it can be particularly difficult for older people who have lost their partners or spouses and are looking to love again. Then there are those people who, after decades of partying and promiscuity, decide they want to settle down, but their well-earned reputations precede them. Some of them have issues due to addiction, trauma, or mental health which have never been addressed. These are the ones who often live out their twilight years being bitter, mean, and alone, culminating in sparsely attended funerals where those of us in attendance struggle to find anything nice to say.
Attending funerals at my age almost feels like a part-time job. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. When my friends and acquaintances began dying from AIDS in the 1980s, I stopped counting at 1,200. Decades later, I frequently learn about my peers passing away, now often due to complications from diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. I can’t think of any who passed away who lived a healthy lifestyle. Most had unhealthy habits and some did not get regular medical check ups. I think the latter is often due to the embarrassment they feel about the prospect of telling healthcare providers details about their sexual activities. I truly think that stigma is killing us.
There are people who are looking out for LGBTQ seniors, and Dr. Imani Woody is one of them. For several years, she has been working on bringing to fruition Mary’s House, a home for LGBTQ seniors in Washington, DC. But projects like this need a great deal of support, financial and otherwise.
I try to do my part to reach out to seniors, and this past year I was afforded several opportunities by the DC Office on Aging. In the summer, I was honored to host the entertainment portion of the Mayor’s Sixth Annual Senior Symposium and facilitate a workshop where I answered questions and dispelled myths about LGBTQ-related topics. In the autumn, I hosted six special events produced by Team Rayceen, one at each of DC’s Senior Wellness Centers, which included performances, trivia, and dance-offs. We were well-received everywhere that we went. It was wonderful meeting elders in all of DC’s wards, but I was particularly touched when LGBTQ seniors, some whom I knew and some who I had never met before, came up to me to express their gratitude.
Not all LGBTQ elders have the opportunities to interact with as many LGBTQ youth as I do. Many performers and Team Rayceen volunteers are young enough to be my grandchildren. Being around them gives me an opportunity to share some of my wisdom and insight, and I can only hope that I inspire them to see themselves as having futures and to live their best lives. I want them to understand that loneliness, depression, incarceration, and HIV are not inevitable, and even if they face these challenges, they can prevail. I want them to see life as an amazing journey, with much more to come.
I’m proud that The Ask Rayceen Show, my free monthly event on first Wednesdays at HRC Equality Center, continues to have a diverse audience whose ages range from high school seniors to senior citizens. I get to show all of them that someone over 60 can still be vibrant and vivacious. If they didn’t know that before, they knew after last year’s “Sexy AF Season Finalé” when I had an opening number, directed and choreographed by Zar, which included an homage Katy Perry’s “Bon Appetite” video with Pretty Boi Drag as my chefs and concluded with me feeding cherry pie to a porn star. I am not ready for Shady Pines – and they certainly are not ready for me!
After all of the events I host, I go home to be one of the caretakers of my elderly mother, who has Alzheimer’s and dementia. I never imagined myself doing all of the things for a parent that I do for her. In many ways, our roles have been reversed. She does have times when she is lucid, and I treasure those. There are funny moments, like when she asked me about the nice gray haired woman who helped her the previous day, and after I told her that was me, she replied, “It sure was,” and we had a good laugh.
My mother, who imparted wisdom and was able to love me enough to let me be me, continues to inspire me. As much as I hope to look as good as she does when I’m her age, what I hope for much more is to have people around me who are willing to care for me. That is my hope for all of my LGBTQ peers and the LGBTQ elders of generations to come. I hope that we can love each other, love ourselves, and allow ourselves to be loved. We all deserve it.
A personal note from Rayceen:
I thank EFNIKS for allowing me to share this article in its extended word count. As I mentioned, I stopped counting how many loved ones I lost to AIDS at 1,200. That number is almost the same as the word count in the article above. Imagine each one of the words you read as representing one of those people I knew who were taken from us much too soon. That’s why I became an activist in the fight against HIV and AIDS. That’s why I encourage people to protect themselves and take care of their health. That’s why I strive to be the living proof that if people take care of themselves, there can be so much more to come.
Rayceen Pendarvis is an emcee, social media personality, and host of The Ask Rayceen Show, which begins its seventh season on March 7, 2018, at HRC Equality Center in Washington, DC. For more information, about Rayceen Pendarvis, Team Rayceen, and The Ask Rayceen Show, please visit www.AskRayceen.com.
You've been part of the work so far, and you can be part of so much more in the coming year. So, let's build.