Community Of One
Over the past year or so, for articles in this magazine and others, have interviewed many people within the LGBTI+ communities. Time and again, during these interviews, the question of loneliness has arisen, and how it can affect LGBTI+ people with such particular acuteness. It makes me wonder, what is it that leaves queer people so vulnerable to loneliness?
“ There was no one I could talk to, and no one whom I felt would even understand me...
Loneliness has been defined as perceived social isolation and the experience of being cut off from others, along with the emotional weight that comes hand in hand with it - the sadness, the nostalgia, the feeling of being trapped within yourself. This is compounded for queer people, for whom acceptance does not always come easily. As Dr Keith Swanick, Chairperson of the Loneliness Taskforce, pointed out: “Loneliness is the most unrecognised crisis of [the older] generation.”
It is indeed an epidemic among older people, but loneliness does not restrict itself to age. It can happen to any of us at any time. Eddie Parsons, a gay man in his early 70’s, defies all of those harmful stereotypes around older people becoming more withdrawn and somehow less engaged. On the contrary, when meet Eddie for a coffee in Outhouse, he is vivacious, curious, talkative. He runs a group for older queer men and is actively involved in local community groups and the LGBTI+ scene. He tells me of his long-distance relationship with a man in Argentina, which, as he says, is “a fairly open relationship, and he’s a lovely fellow. Things are very open and honest.”
But Eddie has had ample experience of hardship, growing up in an Ireland where being gay was systemically vilified. Reflecting on loneliness within the LGBTI+ community, Eddie shares that “the feeling of loneliness is horrible. lived with it for years. Being gay was my big secret and dreaded other people finding out.” He explained that he “had a few furtive sexual outings into the gay world, but made no friends there.”
But Eddie takes stock of the fact that he’s at peace with his sexuality, recognising the unique circumstances of being older and LGBTI+. As he recounted, “I feel that being lonely, ageing and gay has a special flavour. People of my own era grew up in an age when homosexuality was not acceptable. If people suspected you were gay they treated you as a sick abnormality or a figure of fun.”
The sense of isolation Eddie felt on the gay scene was something also mirrored by Susan - 45, who grew up in a small town in Roscommon. According to Susan: “When went to secondary school, those feelings of same-sex attraction remained with me but never ever dared speak to anyone about it. buried those feelings of shame, fear, self hatred and loneliness inside of me and they slowly festered over time. It was my secret. There were times wished was dead as all of these feelings were smothering me and was alone and isolated. There was no one could talk to, and no one whom felt would even understand me. was terrified of being judged or shunned from society.”
Susan also felt desperately lonely when she started to come out on the gay scene in Dublin. She recalls experiences of cliques and subsections of some lesbian groups which only compounded her sense of isolation. As she recalled: “At this point was very green when it came to the gay scene in Dublin, and hence was extremely vulnerable. remember being at a house party and having someone who barely knew look at me and say, wish you would die.’ Looking back, was a threat as refused to conform to society’s typical lesbian stereotype. As a result of this, some women on the scene started spreading rumors that they didn’t think was gay.”
Susan’s experience of loneliness and isolation led to a place so dark that she began to fill the void with other things. In her own words, “Loneliness most of my life was a void desperately tried to fill with the wrong partners who turned out to be controlling. This in turn fed my addiction. Loneliness is addiction’s worst enemy, as know from the past, anesthetized myself with alcohol and painkillers or whatever would stop me from feeling lonely, depressed, and isolated.”
Susan is in a much more comfortable position now and is actively engaged in her community. But she mirrors the fears felt among some queer people across the board: “I would love to have had children with the right partner but that wasn’t to be for me. see my brothers now who are married with kids and have that family life always longed for, this is what evokes loneliness within me at times.
One of the reasons why the sense of pervasive loneliness, and fear around being alone, is compounded for queer people is because they are often operating, working and assimilating in a heteronormative society. This can be even more acutely internalised for those who are battling for medical rights, as in the trans and intersex communities. Take Georgia, for example, a 25 year-old spokesperson for intersex rights and an intersex individual herself.
As Georgia explained, “For a lot of intersex people, loneliness stems out of a conversation with doctors who will in some instances tell patients that ‘You’re not going to meet someone else’ like them[selves], or they will withhold information from them.”
Georgia was vocal about the aftermath of the trauma of being given an intersex diagnosis and how it changes the way you view yourself: “People are left thinking, ‘What do do here? Do just continue this journey holding this new reality about myself in silence. Or do talk about it?’ So you’re internalising every reality under the sun about how society is going to perceive me. And when you have a team of medical professionals, as in my personal experience, directly telling me not to talk about it, it builds shame. And that shame leads to loneliness. And when you feel shameful, you don’t want to talk to someone else about what’s going on in your head.”
One of the mistakes that can sometimes be made is that the trans community is a single organism when it is in fact complex and manifests in very different ways. spoke with Finn, a 19 year-old homeless trans man. He recounted ways in which being trans can affect one’s social isolation and loneliness. “For most young trans people, you’re kind of on your own unless you live in a community where you know other trans people. So if you’re living in rural areas or smaller counties you might not know any other trans people.”
Things weren’t easy for Finn at school; “For trans people stuck in same-sex schools - it can be very lonely there too. In school it was horrible. Everybody knew was trans, but it was largely ignored. wasn’t bullied, but was shunned out. And it wasn’t acknowledged. was deadnamed and people would refer to me as she.”
Finn went on to describe an experience which highlights the complete lack of education around certain school staff on LGBTI+ matters. “Once my principal asked me - ‘Are you sure you’re trans? Are you sure you’re not just a masculine lesbian? And haven’t you had a boyfriend?’”
This multitude of experiences of loneliness within communities on the queer spectrum serves as a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities of LGBTI+ individuals. But there is another, more promising pattern have noticed in interviews, which is that loneliness can drastically diminish if people can make a connection to their community, opening up lines of communication in a safe space. As Georgia so eloquently put it, “I think another thing to consider is the connection to peer support. met a lot of people in America who had had an intersex diagnosis for ten years and had never met another person who was intersex. There’s a feeling of isolation, [but] seeing those people walking into a space with 100 other intersex people, that loneliness can suddenly just diminish in a moment. ”
This was echoed by Eddie: “Every time put myself out there take a risk but the risk pays off. have not cured my loneliness – keep it at bay. It is something know have to work at continually but in doing so have found so many lovely people. And so feel happy and enjoy my life.”
The concept of peer support is not at all alien. It is implemented in institutions across the board to foster a sense of belonging, trust, and open communication. As much as in any marginalised society, the queer community deserves that sense of belonging, and, as my journey into loneliness has taught me, this often comes with acceptance and peer support networks. Through the process of communicating with people from your own community it can serve as a method to bridge the gap between loneliness and belonging.