Research finds discrimination, resilience among older lesbians

More than half of lesbians aged 55 and older have been married to a man at some point in their lives. More than 90% said their families knew about their lesbian relationships.

East Carolina University researchers reported these findings in their article, “Older Lesbians: Experiences of Aging, Discrimination and Resilience,” published in the Journal of Women and Aging. The work was the largest and most comprehensive research done on this demographic since 1984.


Social work professors Paige Averette, Intae Yoon and Carol L. Jenkins surveyed 456 lesbians 55 years of age or older regarding socio-demographics, social activity, health, sexual identity, family relations, romantic relationships, use of service/help programs, mental health, end of life care, and experience with discrimination.

The research uncovered persistent discrimination and hostility toward lesbians despite improvements in public attitudes since the last national study. Compared to the earlier study, the group reported slightly higher levels of perceived discrimination in their employment settings due to their sexual orientation.

The researchers said that older lesbians contend with ageism in their work and social settings, just as many older individuals do. However, members of the study group face additional intolerance and discrimination from family and from the public, while walking down the street and going about their daily lives.

“More older lesbians have reported being married to men than twenty-five years ago,” said Averett, “which points to the continued pressure that lesbians feel to hide and to the power of heterosexism that continues within our culture.”

Averett said, “Older lesbians struggle with federal and state policies that disregard their lifetime romantic partnerships, denying them end-of-life decision making as well as access to partners’ Social Security and retirement benefits.” This forces them into legal battles with partners’ families, hospitals and employers, she said.

Despite the ongoing challenges, study participants showed an increase in positive thinking about their sexual orientation and about aging. While more than 80% reported participation in therapy at some point, the researchers said, they consider themselves overall to be in good mental health. More than 90% said they were “out” to their family members, and a majority reported having positive relationships with family members who know about their sexual orientation.

The study also showed an increase from the prior study in the duration of lesbian relationships. That number is now similar to the duration of heterosexual marriages.

For additional information about the study, contact Paige Averett, assistant professor in the ECU School of Social Work, at 252-328-4193 or


Full text of the article is available at:



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