Last Thursday, Massachusetts again broke ground for LGBT rights -- this time by releasing recommendations developed by its legislatively created Commission on LGBT Aging, the first statewide commission in the country to focus on the needs of LGBT seniors. In doing so, Massachusetts is shining a light on the critical needs of the LGBT aging population, and the steps needed to ensure that we all can age with dignity and respect.
The generation that came of age during a time of intense homophobia, that fought tooth and nail to gain the most basic of rights and recognition, even in the face of violent opposition, and that survived the AIDS epidemic, are now finding that the greatest challenges may still be ahead. Less likely to have children, and more likely to be estranged from their families of origin, LGBT seniors lack the same caregiving support systems that most straight people rely upon. And for many, their peer support community is also aging and disappearing.
As one LGBT older person described as part of the series of listening sessions that the Commission conducted: "My friends died from AIDS. I'm a sole survivor... I never thought that I would have to live my life with no friends."
As a result, LGBT seniors are more likely to have to rely upon institutional services for support as they age. Yet, when they reach out to such settings, such as nursing homes, they too often confront unwelcoming and unsafe environments. Many feel forced to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity, in order to avoid discrimination and mistreatment.
These are just a few of the challenges that the Commission's report seeks to address, through comprehensive recommendations, from housing to senior centers, legal protections to health care. For example, the report highlights the need for better data collection, cultural competency training, non-discrimination protections, especially for transgender people in public accommodations, and finally the creation of an LGBT ombudsperson position within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, to respond to specific complaints and needs of LGBT elders.
One particular area of need is safe and appropriate housing, an area where LGBT elders often struggle. A 2014 Equal Rights Center report revealed that in 48% of cases, LGBT seniors seeking housing experienced discrimination, such as being given fewer options for units available to rent, being quoted higher fees, or being shown only two-bedroom units for couples when a request was made for a one-bedroom unit. When they do manage to find housing, LGBT elders face discrimination and cruelty at the hands of nursing home and assisted living facility staff.
This discrimination, combined with income disparity, a lack of familial resources, and a general increase in demand for senior housing, has resulted in a stark housing landscape for LGBT elders. They often find themselves shut out from specific communities or, in a far worse case, forced to split up from their partner in order to obtain the care they or their loved one needs.
As one person articulated as part of the report: "When an elder has been moved to a nursing home, suddenly you feel like you've lost control. But I think, for somebody who's LGBT, going into a nursing home, it's more like a panic that they will not get the care that is needed."
That's why the Commission recommends developing more LGBT-friendly housing options, making existing housing more welcoming of LGBT elders, including through cultural competency training not just of staff but non-LGBT residents, and creating a rating system that evaluates the inclusiveness of senior housing. One recommendation even proposes the creation of LGBT support groups in senior housing, similar to GSA student groups in schools.
No one should be forced back into the closet, stripped of their dignity and respect, as they age.
Many months ago, I wrote about the critical importance of ensuring that our LGBT family not lose yet another generation of young people to discrimination, violence, or worse. That same urgency applies in equal force to the generation on whose shoulders we stand. We owe it to all of us, to make sure those who paved the way for where we are today, are not left behind as they age.
Luckily, efforts are being made to bring about change, with the Commission's recommendations as the first of many steps. As the Commission report concludes, we can create a more inclusive and equitable society for all in our community, as long as we have the will and tenacity to carry on the next generation of our movement's work.