In 2015, I drove nearly 12,000 miles across America to interview 100 of our oldest living citizens.
I wanted to understand how technology has changed things for our society at a time when we are becoming increasingly uncomfortable generationally with tech.
A myriad of articles and newscasts were coming out at that time, all working to understand how technology might change our country. I, too, was starting to wonder as the founder of a tech company and someone who spent most of her day in front of the computer.
The Greatest Generation
My background in Anthropology guides me to look to people for answers. The Greatest Generation, the oldest generation alive, grew up without technology (sometimes without running water or electricity).
For them, innovations like smartphones and 3D printed body parts is revelatory. Their perspective was the compare and contrast I was looking for.
I set out to interview nationwide because I felt it critical to get the widest perspective possible. I interviewed Natives, immigrants, generational Americans, and people of color. Though gay rights were mentioned by some, my initial research did not include a person identifying as LGBTQ+.
As someone who identifies as both bisexual and queer, and who works as a coach to LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, I wasn’t willing to let my book release without this perspective. I doubled back and sent out a call specifically for a LGBTQ+ elder, ironically using social media.
Penny Gardner: Playboy Bunny turned professor
It was Facebook that helped me find Penny Gardner, a recently retired professor at Michigan State University, board member of the long-running Lesbian Connection periodical, and forerunner in seemingly every women’s movement and organization for the past 40 years.
Like many in her generation, she didn’t come out until later in life. She joked that her children were the most upset, though they were already grown and out of the house.
She shocked me by saying that in her early years she worked as a Playboy Bunny at one of their bars. This affirms that so many of our Community simply ‘made do’ during the middle of the last century. They did what they had to for their comfort and survival’, even if they couldn’t tell the world who they were.
Concerns from elders around social media
Having seen so many movements during her lifetime, Penny voiced concern regarding social media, especially as it’s used by our politicians (ahem).
Many of the elders agreed that it is a distraction, and sometimes, a detriment. Yet, in the same breath, they also would marvel at its usefulness in staying in touch with family across the world. As with any tool, it’s all in how you use it.
Us young LGBTQ+ reap the benefits that our elders fought for. Sadly, it seems that some young LGBTQ+ don’t realize just how hard things used to be. As one elder put it, it was customary to avoid anyone you thought was ‘odd’, crossing the street to stay away from them, and shunning them in school.
Though bullying of our community has not ceased, organizations like GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) and It Gets Better have provided support our elders never had. So, too, does the Internet provide support for those who might otherwise be isolated, especially for our Trans allies.
The chapter I wrote on Rights, especially the section on LGBTQ+ Rights, is my favorite in my book, titled Stories of Elders: What the Greatest Generation Knows about Technology that You Don’t. Though our community was not the main focus of the book, I endeavored to advocate for the fight our elders worked on so that we might have better lives.