From Stonewall to Homeless: The Plight of Our Elder LGBT Members

2012 saw a number of momentous victories in LGBT history. We saw another victory for the first president of the United States to campaign openly and often on the issue of LGBT equality. The first out elected U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin, was sworn into office, along with the largest-ever delegation of out Congress members. And, it's likely that President Obama will nominate the first out cabinet member, as well as introduce a landslide of equality initiatives. Throughout the nation, more openly gay state and city officials were elected than ever before. The Supreme Court agreed to hear debates on marriage equality. Pretty impressive, right?

Contrast all this with a conversation I had with Dina, a member of the greater Philadelphia LGBT community. She told me that as she and her partner of 30 years near retirement age, they face the real possibility of homelessness. Both women have worked their whole lives but never made enough to save for retirement. Both volunteered their time caring for those in shelters and hospices but, now that they are in need of the very care they provided, where do they turn?

Or Donald, who's 62, a former teacher and long-time activist in the local LGBT community. Living on Social Security disability for the past 20 years, his arthritis and neuropathy make living alone in a third-floor Philadelphia walk-up -- his only affordable option -- more difficult by the day. This is Donald's community; why shouldn't he be able to live here with dignity in his golden years?

What does the future hold for our elder community? What do you know about them? We know much about youth and bullying issues, much about our LGBT people in military uniform, much about those of you who wish to marry and have families. But what about our elders? Chances are, you know very little and that is a sign that as a community we have not had their interests and needs on our agenda.

In 1969, we changed history at the Stonewall Riots, which is often used as a defining point in our struggle for equality. Those young activists are now pushing retirement age. When I ask the LGBT members of groups I'm speaking to, "How many of you are out to members of your family and friends?", almost all proudly put their arms in the air. In 1969, only about one percent of our community would have put their arms in the air.

They were brave enough to be open and represent us in a time where there were consequences for those who were, as we'd say, in your face. One of these consequences is they, for the most part, did not have steady or well-paying jobs. Another is that many of their families in those days could or would not accept them and their fight for equality and, therefore, they don't have the same family support as other seniors might have. So, now that our pioneers are seniors with little or no money, where are they to live? Must they go back into the closet to fit into a facility they can afford? Be stuck on the streets?

I'm proud to say that help is on the way for Dina, Donald and others like them. A few months back we broke ground on the John C. Anderson Apartments in Philadelphia -- LGBT-friendly low income senior housing. Financing for the $19.5 million project came from federal, state and city funds and will give our seniors a safe, accepting place to call home. While this project helps our elders in Philadelphia and similar projects in LA, Chicago and San Francisco will help members of those communities, there's still an entire country full of LGBT seniors facing housing issues.

These are the people who grew what we now call a gay community. It was their idea to create gay community centers. It was their idea to create health centers. It was their idea to take care of our endangered youth. And now we, as their community, must take care of them. They shouldn't have to scrap for food and a place to live every single day. They should be able to live out their years with comfort, dignity and acceptance -- what they fought so hard to win for all of us.