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Gay, gray and loving every minute of life

A generation of gay men and women battles stereotypes
by: JAIME VALDEZ, Eric Marcoux (left) embraces his longtime partner of 57 years, Eugene Woodworth, at their Northwest Portland home. The two will share their knowledge at the Gay and Grey PDX Expo on Saturday, May 22.

Portlanders Eugene Woodworth and Eric Marcoux are coming up on their 57th anniversary of the day they met, and they still dearly love each other. Then again, Woodworth and Marcoux at one point addressed themselves as brothers.

Once living in an era where being gay men drew ridicule, and even engaged in a relationship considered to be illegal, the pair posed as siblings and finally came out as gay in a newspaper story in the 1970s.

'We got so used to playing brothers,' Woodworth, 81, says.

Adds Marcoux, 79: 'Now, I like being able to tell people, 'You know, I love this guy.' It used to be dangerous to say that.'

Elderly and homosexual is an emerging demographic, largely because there has been increasing public acceptance of same-sex relationships. But, it's still a difficult situation, given the entrenched attitudes of older people, the difficulty with relatives and perceptions of right and wrong in society, says Woodworth and Marcoux, who will share their stories and advice in the second annual Gay and Grey PDX Expo, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, May 22 at Friendly House, 1737 N.W. 26th Ave.

More than 250 people attended the first Gay and Grey, which addresses the social, health and housing needs of Portland's LGBTQI community. A detailed schedule is available at www.gayandgreypdx.org; admission is free, and an after-party will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Q Center.

As the LGBTQI acronym indicates, the alternative-lifestyle community has grown to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersexual; questioning refers to young conflicted people, intersexual pertains to hermaphrodites.

Marcoux, a former Catholic monk, has counseled many people over the years, relating his experiences of being gay through generations and what he considers his 'atypical' relationship with the same man since 1953 - Woodworth, a former dancer who gave up his passion to work to support the couple.

There are outlets for people caught between remaining 'in the closet,' as the saying goes, and finally expressing one's self in public. Providence ElderPlace teams with Friendly House and the Q Center on the Gay and Grey PDX Expo, and the Elders Resource Alliance directly helps LGBTQI elders.

It is said that LGBTQI seniors face challenges in financial security, health care and social supports.

In Portland, there are an estimated 10,000 LGBTQI seniors. Woodworth and Marcoux have fostered their relationship with others, and have never felt discrimination, although they worry about the day when one of them falls ill and will be at the mercy of hospital or retirement home staff.

So, too, do Sharon Messerschmidt and Jo Hamilton, Milwaukie residents, worry about the future. The two have been together for 25 years, and fell in love after each had been married with children (and each now have grandchildren) and meeting in a Christian motorcycle club.

In their case, they do not consider themselves lesbian. Each said they probably wouldn't be with other women, if not each other.

Messerschmidt and Hamilton have been part of Elders Resource Alliance, helping others deal with the reality of their sexual orientation. The two talk about discrimination that LGBTQI people face, particularly in being denied proper medical care and housing.

'I know a lesbian couple that was rejected (for housing) 30 times,' says Messerschmidt, 73.

Fear is the biggest detriment to people coming out, Messerschmidt says, as older people remember the story about murdered former San Francisco politician Harvey Milk and other tragedies.

'I encourage them to come out, through ERA, they'll get education and help,' she says. 'There is strength in numbers.

'It's important for us to make a path for people who don't have the courage to do it on their own.'

Allies of the movement

Messerschmidt and Hamilton do not pose as sisters and 'we avoid going to places where we might be scrutinized,' Hamilton adds. 'Today we go just about anywhere we want.'

They call Portland the prime place for LGBTQI people to reside because of resources available to the community

Back in the day, people didn't use the words 'gay' or 'homosexual' to describe same-sex preference. It was 'queer' or 'different' or 'fairy.' Queer meant 'odd to me,' Hamilton, 68, says.

Messerschmidt says people hear the words 'gay' and 'lesbian' and think about sex. She scoffs at the notion, and her lover adds, 'we were fortunate to find somebody to love and spend the rest of our lives with. … We don't have to have labels.'

Woodworth and Marcoux, meanwhile, talk openly about their sex lives and their intimate relationship - such a stark contrast to the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Gay was defined as being happy back then.

'We didn't have a word for it,' Marcoux says, adding facetiously, 'well-bred people didn't talk about it.' He says that he learned to be 'skillful' and 'disarming' around people who knew about him.

The two have a civil union in Multnomah County, and have enjoyed two religious weddings. Their advice to other 'gay and grey' types?

'Come out, it's so rewarding,' Woodworth says. 'Even if you lose a few people (in your life), it's worth it. You can't be a whole person and be in the closet.'

Adds Marcoux: 'There's a lot of literature out there (to help). That's one of the things feeding the movement is all the allies who have gone through the same coming out process.'