From outcast to citizen: the time travels of LGBTQI+ elders

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In Episode 5 of Series 3 of the DIAL Podcast, Ana Cristina Santos from the CILIA project talks about her research looking at the life experiences of LGBTQI+ people in Portugal. Ana Cristina  from the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra has has been speaking with older people about what it was like for them growing up and living in times when gender and sexual diversity was prohibited.

From outcast to citizen: the time travels of LGBTQI+ elders

In Episode 5 of Series 3 of the DIAL Podcast, Ana Cristina Santos from the CILIA project talks about her research looking at the life experiences of LGBTQI+ people in Portugal. Ana Cristina  from the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra has has been speaking with older people about what it was like for them growing up and living in times when gender and sexual diversity was prohibited.

Christine Garrington  0:00 

Welcome to DIAL, a podcast where we tune into evidence on inequality over the life course. In this series we discus emerging findings from DIAL research. My guest today is Ana Cristina Santos from the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimb. She’s a member of the DIAL CILIA project which is investigating and comparing intersectional life inequalities, amongst LGBTQI plus citizens in England, Scotland, Portugal, and Germany. Ana Christina has led the work in Portugal. I started by asking her about the social and political backdrop to the research.

Ana Cristina Santos  0:34  

First of all, Portugal had the longest dictatorship in southern Europe. This was 48 years, longer than Spain, longer than Italy. And during that time, our homosexuality was a crime punished with up to two years in prison. Of course, then came democracy in 1974, but it took eight long years already in democracy, before the legal ban on homosexuality was revoked. And another 19 years for the first LGBT right to be approved in Parliament. That referred to same sex unions already in 2001. So, this overwhelming reluctance in making legal changes during almost two decades, illustrates the power of heteronormativity and cisgender normativity as well. These tacit norms, carry on informing social practices and cultural values today, even when Portugal is currently perceived to be at the forefront of LGBTQI rights recognition on a global scale. We’ve got same sex parenting rights fully protected. We’ve got a gender identity law based on self-determination, and also the ban of binary surgeries on intersex new-borns. So, this is the context in which we have conducted our research.

Christine Garrington  1:53  

So wonder if you can tell us a bit now then about what you actually did? Specifically who you spoke to for this research and why?

Ana Cristina Santos  2:00  

The work we did in Portugal was developed by a team of two research fellows and myself, and together we spoke to almost 60 participants from a range of generations from 18 year olds onwards, and we were focusing on on transitions into adulthood, and the challenges of midlife career. The so called rush hour of life. In my case I was interested in the intersections of ageing and sexuality. More specifically, I wanted to explore the impacts today on later life, of having been raised as a child, and as a young person in a time when sexual and gender diversity was prohibited. In order to do that I spoke to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, gays in Portugal, who were between 60 and 75 year old at the time of the interview. Many of them have never given an interview before which made it absolutely fascinating for me as a researcher, and the questions, aimed at covering three transition points in life. School to work transitions, employment progression into midlife and the transition into retirement and indications for end of life.

Christine Garrington  3:14  

So how did the people you spoke with describe their early lives as school children or students?

Ana Cristina Santos  3:19  

Most were in the most absolute closet at least until they left the parental home and got their first jobs. You see, the legal ban on homosexuality until 1982 was endorsed by the dominant socio-cultural context. Which offered a double mechanism of vigilance against sexual and gender diversity, even if the fear of being arrested was not part of the daily concerns, the power of social control could not be ignored. Many felt isolated and thought there was nobody else in the world who felt the way they did and experienced the same type of emotions and desires. They knew it had to remain a secret well kept. During that time, most people I spoke to were students. They were engaging for the first time in practices and behaviours, that often contrasted with their peers. Blurring the rigid boundaries of gender roles and gender-based expectations. Some of them received verbal and physical abuse from parents, from older siblings, based on being perceived as different, but not necessarily at school where they seem to have found space for discovery and same sex, intimacy, especially in a highly gendered setting.

Christine Garrington  4:34  

Now you were particularly struck by their strategies for earning the respect of peers, tell us a bit about that.

Ana Cristina Santos  4:39  

Yes, a striking finding was what I’m calling an “outdoing strategy”, or a narrative of excellency. To which interviewees proactively invested in performing better than average at school or the workplace later on. So, one of my interviewees, Adolfo, a cisgender gay man, between 70 and 74 years old, he said, “I had always this thing of making an effort studying, being an intellectual, the best student. It comes from there, from the fact that I was an outsider. I had to be the best” end of quote. So, this is just one example amongst many of the super queer narratives, a self-imposed pressure to excel in school and in their jobs is a form of protection against potential backlash, including discrimination and violence. This idea that I had to be the best of the having itself as a student worker, I earned my spot under the sun, they could not attack me. I earned their respects through intelligence, hard work, bravery, or by becoming the boss, this is the general line of of arguing. Throughout the interviews, there were plenty of descriptions of such out student’s strategies.

Christine Garrington  5:59  

So what did you learn then about your participants working lives, you know, set against the backdrop of the 1974 Revolution, a new constitution deemed at the time to be one of the most gender equal in Europe.

Ana Cristina Santos  6:11  

First of all, during the late 80s, during the 90s, early 2000s Most participants had a full-time job, And were engaged in securing their posts and investing in their career development. Most remained in the closet in relation to their co-workers or line managers. Some reported that they were outed or suffered indirect discrimination, by being perceived as lesbian, bisexual or gay. This is also a time when the world was struggling with the AIDS crisis and stigma and backlash, but also a time when many of us witnessed profound changes in the law and policy regarding equality indifference towards a rights-based approach. Note for instance that in the 2000s, banning homophobic laws including different ages of consent, became a fundamental criteria for joining the EU. And this added pressure to already member states to comply with the equality policies. It was during this period that Portugal became the first European country. And the fourth worldwide, to include sexual orientation in its constitution in the non-discrimination clause. However, that’s time despite this, striking legal progress, the social context, remain hostile to diversity, encouraged the closets, particularly with sphere of employment. In some of the stories we gathered there was this ongoing normalising threat, what I’m currently exploring as an undoing strategy in sharp contrast with the outdoing strategy found in other trajectories, especially in relation to school years. So, this undoing strategy consists of keeping your head down, avoiding attentions becoming sort of invisible. This idea that I was never discriminated against because I wouldn’t talk about it in the workplace. I was always very discreet, it was my personal life. I wouldn’t want to mix things. So one of the participants, Manuel, as cisgender, gay men in his 60s, he says, “I always tried to be respected at the workplace and do my job and get along with colleagues, participate in everything. I was never very extravagant or scandalous, and people in a way, even liked to me, because I still have colleagues who, even today, like me” end of quote. So, the idea of being respected because one is well behaved, was part of the, of the stories I gathered.

Christine Garrington  8:53  

Now it was in 2010 that numerous LGBT rights were enshrined in law, which of course will have benefited the younger generations and society more broadly, but what about your participants who by that time were either retired or approaching retirement?

Ana Cristina Santos  9:07  

Well, legal change came about in Portugal, in the early 21st century, and you’re right set to mention 2010 because it was the year when, same sex marriage was finally approved. And in the years immediately after that, rights regarding same sex parenthood, self-determining gender recognition, and the ban of surgeries on intersex new-borns were enacted. The amounts and speeds of fundamental changes, offer a sharp contrast with the lives, LGBTQ elders lead. And I’ll give you two quotes from two different interviewees. The first is from Annabella, a cisgender lesbian in her 60s, and she says, “I wish I could move in a community, so to speak with like-minded people, because as you get older, what are you left with? Friendship, tenderness, cuddles, to find a like-minded partner would be like winning the lottery”, and another interview, Manuel, cisgender gay man also in his 60s. He says, “the future, the future I mean, what can you expect right, it will get worse and worse each day. People look at you and think. Look at those filthy men, look at them, they’re old and haven’t figured out the cure for themselves. When you’re young, you’re forgiven, but when your old”. And he doesn’t even finish the sentence. So, these are the stories of those who within the span of 50 years have been fast forward from the past of criminalisation, to the future of same sex marriage and parenthood. So in other words, they were growing up, when being queer was a crime, and they’re getting older, when marriage is here for all. The idea that it is already too late to come out. Why would you? I don’t need it anymore? Is very present. When formal a recognition of LGBTQI rights seems to have arrived too late to trigger significant impacts on the daily management of life of these people.

Christine Garrington  11:18  

What would you say then Ana Christina are the key things to emerge from your research so far? What do we learn?

Ana Cristina Santos  11:23  

Okay, first of all, from, from the interviews, it was possible to really see the gendered impact of the process in later life. The impact of having been invisible for such a long time. So you see that men, self-identify as gay, whereas most women have been previously married to a man. And hence, self-identify as bisexual, even when that relationship was long time ago was their only relationship to a man, and all of their significant relationships throughout life have been with women. You see also that half of the sample was partnered, but the only woman who was amongst the partnered group was a transgender woman who transitioned recently and remained married to her long-life partner. In addition most partnered male elders are married, lesbian and bisexual women over 60 remain very vulnerable in old age. Since these are aspects associated with the gender impact of deposits in later life, but you could also see from the research the importance and fragility of informal networks of care, as many are either dependent on their younger partner, when there is one or relying on themselves only hoping for the best but expecting the worse. There are no end-of-life plans for the majority of people I spoke with. On a more positive note from the research also emerged the idea that now I am much freer to do whatever no expectations to meet. I’m untouchable because at the end of the day I cannot be fired – so a certain freedom from stress, anxiety or peer pressure, from or to out-do, had happened to them in the past. Having remained in a closet that was too large to be undone, and being deprived from socio-cultural conditions to build an autonomous network of kinship and care beyond the family of origin. This research informs the urgency of adequate legal and policy measures to counter the vulnerability that is already present.

Christine Garrington  13:40  

I was interested to know that you followed up your participants in light of what’s been happening with the COVID 19 pandemic what’s emerged there?

Ana Cristina Santos  13:46  

We know that discrimination and inequalities are commulative. And that is why LGBTQI elders are twice as vulnerable compared to their straight or cisgender peers. We’ve also learned that vulnerability is aggravated in times of crisis, especially in terms of isolation, loneliness, the lack of extended networks of care. But you see the daily management of life before the pandemic was not so different after all from their current experience of confinement. Many LGBTQI elders were locked down, way before lockdown became a fashionable hashtag. That said, from the follow up, I did with about 1/3 of the interviewees, I noticed that many made an immediate link to what they had lived in the 80s with the AIDS crisis. And so this feeling of experiencing a pandemic for the second time when the first had devastating, personal and political consequences, has an impact on mental health and emotional well-being, bringing to the surface memories associated with fear and loss since the 80s. Digital illiteracy and poor health conditions also contributes to the difficulties in overcoming the current situation. 

Christine Garrington  15:10 

Finally, although we’ve talked mainly about Portugal today, the research is part of a wider project looking at other countries can you tell us something about that and where the project is going from here?

Ana Cristina Santos  15:20  

Sure. So, the CILIA LGBTQI plus project investigates potential inequalities experienced by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex people in four European countries, England, Germany, Portugal, and Scotland. Our aim is to provide original cross cultural evidence concerning life personal inequalities experienced by LGBTQI plus people with a particular focus on issues of employment and retirement. And in order to do so, we did an extended literature and survey review. We mapped and analysed social and political changes in all four contexts, and we conducted two hundred in depth qualitative interviews that amounts to almost 20,000 minutes of audio recording centred on the life course of self-identified LGBTQI plus people. And what we found is that despite progressive laws and social policies discrimination based on homo, bi, transphobia persists, especially in school and employments were being sexually and or gender diverse is perceived as potentially harmful for personal well being and for career development. Discrimination may no longer be found in books, but it is certainly to be found in action to change from direct to more subtle or tacit forms of prejudice, feeds this idea that discrimination and violence are ongoing. As a presence, regardless of legal protection, which can trigger disbelief and a sense of worthlessness. At the workplace, we found that coming out remains a challenge, and it is mostly done in relation to co-workers and not line managers as participants do not feel that their posts are secured, especially regarding the possibility of enjoying the pregnancy and parental leave. Across all age groups, there were consistent narratives of precariousness, absence of a sense of belonging to a political community and mental health issues.

Christine Garrington  17:34  

Ana Cristina Santos from DIAL’s CILIA LGBTQI plus project was talking to me, Chris Garrington for this episode of the DIAL podcast. You can find out more about the DIAL research programme at And don’t forget to subscribe to the DIAL podcast, to access earlier and forthcoming episodes.