Where Are Our Olders?

leslieI just heard the news: Leslie Feinberg is dead. I’m sitting in the kitchen on my own, sobbing uncontrollably. The pot of pasta is boiling over and I’m glued to my computer screen, re-reading about hir life in between blowing my nose on my sleeve. Somehow I thought I’d get to meet Leslie at some point. Ze* has been one of my Olders, even though I know hir only through the tattered pages of passed on copies of Stone Butch Blues and Transgender Warriors.  With her* death, I feel a loss of history, of critical perspectives, the loss of a warrior. While the pasta starts to disintegrate on the stove, I find myself wondering: where are all of our Olders?

Of course, there are so many Should-Be-Olders who never make it that far. Racism, trans-misogyny, violence, the AIDS crisis and so many more reasons why many never get to be Olders. And countless who do make it to Olderhood, pass too soon. Leslie, for example, died at age 65 of Lyme’s disease and multiple tick-borne co-infections, attributing her health crisis to “bigotry, prejudice and lack of science”. Her access to appropriate health care was made incredibly difficult by the active discrimination she received as a transgender person.

Clearly, we need to be working to challenge all of these systemic reasons that Should-Be-Olders never make it. But what about my role in the marginalisation of those Olders who do remain? How have I participated in pushing Olders out of movements?

There are so many barriers to older people participating in creative projects, political meetings and social spaces. Younger folks like me may judge them for not having the latest lingo, or dismiss their ideas as “dated” without reflecting more deeply on the lessons we could learn from these very same ideas. We may organise our meetings too late in the evening or up flights of stairs – the able-ism of which affects so many young disabled people too. Barriers could be technological or even about the speed at which we talk. In many cases, our communities have failed to offer the nourishment needed to sustain a long creative or political life, resulting in Olders needing to hole up at home and disconnect.

My friend Roxanna just called to check in on me and reminded me that being an Older is not necessarily just related to age, saying that in fact I am an older in many ways in my community too. I’m only 37, yet there are many situations in which I’m called on to be an older. Sometimes this is because I’m an older relative to those around me, or I’ve had the privilege and commitment of years honing the skills and roles I’m passionate about. However, other times, I’m an older because of the ways we haven’t made space for those Older than me.

I’m not just talking about queer, trans*, two spirit and transexual Olders. I’ve started to realise the way I prevent connections with a broader community of Olders too, because of my incorrect assumption that older people are inherently more conservative. Earlier this year I was invited to give a trans* talk at a church. The congregation was mostly aged 60+. When I asked in activity how congregation members had felt limited by expectations of their genders, one woman said “When I was younger, I used to really worry about what others thought was appropriate for a woman. Now I really don’t care what others think, and I’ll cut my hair however I want, wear pants or skirts and be as bossy and outspoken as I like. Life’s too short for anything else”. There was fervent nodding amongst many of the others. Huh! Perhaps many older non-trans people are potential trans* allies in ways I hadn’t even imagined. And it dawned on me: what an arrogant ass I’ve been to think I’m more radical than many older folks!

Since then I started noticing many older people open to conversations about gender and politics and other juicy topics. Yes, older people can be the keeper of traditions, both liberatory and oppressive traditions, and other times they can be the creators new ones. Many may be more attuned to what’s really important with an awareness of their days growing shorter and a keenness to leave a legacy of which they’re proud.

Olders like Leslie have left profound legacies. She’s been an example of how workers movements can celebrate gender diversity. How white trans people can be active on challenging racism. In Stone Butch Blues ze celebrated the ways sex workers and queers can make community, learn from each other and have each others backs– which is especially relevant today because of the way gay rights movements have thrown sex workers under the bus, including sex workers who are queer and/or trans women, in order to present an image of queerness or transness that would appeal to the mainstream. In honour of Leslie and in this spirit of making a place at the table for everyone, I’m renewing my commitment to appreciating, celebrating and working alongside Olders who are still alive. And I’m replenishing my commitment to my own future olderhood by nourishing myself this evening with that over-due bowl of pasta, a long warm shower and the companionship of loved ones.

* Leslie used the pronouns she/her or ze/hir, so I’ve interchanged these pronouns throughout. I love the sentiment behind this which ze said: “I care which pronoun is used, but people have been respectful to me with the wrong pronoun and disrespectful with the right one. It matters whether someone is using the pronoun as a bigot, or if they are trying to demonstrate respect.”

A friend pointed out that white people’s use of the term “Elder” could be culturally appropriative of Australian Aboriginal communities and other First Nation’s & racialised communities. Thus, I’ve changed my article title and language from “Elders” to “Olders”. Even though the term “Elder” is used by some white communities e.g. many Christian communities, I haven’t been able to find out where the origins are and out of respect for the importance and sacredness of the word and role for many Indigenous and racialised communities, I’ve decided to change my language.

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