We Are Who We Are

As the rights of the LGBT community are being confirmed (21 states recognize or soon will recognize some form of same-sex partnership or marriage) and youth are openly celebrating their diversity, gender identities, and sexual orientations, another door remains closed.

The aging LGBT community has either not come out or is now afraid to come out as who they are as people. According to the Pew Research Center, as many as 10,000 people turn 65 in the United States every day! The Administration on Aging estimates that there are between 1.75 million and 4 million Americans over the age of 60 who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Although many are satisfied with their lives and how they live, they are of a generation with many members who never truly came out of the closet. They had a "roommate" or a friend and shared a residence and made it appear as if they were straight. These aging members of our society are facing significant issues as they age.

Older LGBT adults are less likely to have children to assist them, and are less likely to have someone to call upon in time of need. Many are socially isolated and rely upon a partner or friend. When social agencies or private health-care providers, such as aides or home nurses, are needed, the prospect can be frightening. They do not want to be outed. Many LGBT seniors are returning to the closet, if they ever came out, in fear of discrimination and reprisal by the very people who are supposed to assist them in times of need.

This situation is dramatically chronicled in the award-winning documentary Gen Silent. It tells the story of several members of the LBGT community and how they face aging and illness. The film displays the fortitude that those depicted had to develop to secure proper care without discrimination. Of course, a short documentary gives only a glimpse of this group, whose numbers seem to increase exponentially with each passing day.

The first White House Conference on LGBT Aging was presented in Miami this past spring in collaboration with the University of Miami Center on Aging. The consensus among participants was remarkably clear: "We are being discriminated against, and we need help!" According to "The Aging and Health Report: Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults," the aging LGBT population has a greater rate of disability, depression, and loneliness than the population in general. The unique needs of the aging LGBT population require special medical care and conversations with medical providers with sensitivity and openness.

In a time when openness was unheard of, Stonewall marked the coming of age for the Baby Boomer LGBT generation as it demanded equal protection from discrimination and debasement. Some members of that generation have echoed the courage of Stonewall over the decades in announcing who they are and how they live their lives without fear of reprisal. As the torch is passed to the coming generation, it remains to be seen whether the LGBT Baby Boomers have inspired the heirs to their legacy to fight to protect the aging vanguard that laid the groundwork for the acceptance and tolerance they now enjoy.

Some find hope in President Obama, who, even before he supported marriage equality, mandated that all entities receiving Medicare or Medicaid funding were not to discriminate or deny the rights of members of the LGBT community to visit and participate in the medical decision making for their loved ones. As a result, same-sex spouses and domestic partners are not barred and can be given the same privileges as the heterosexual community.

Self-determination is the key. Everyone can prepare. Working with an attorney can help assure accuracy and ward off challenges through the execution of advance directives that state who is to make medical decisions if one is not capable of doing so, who is to manage finances through a power of attorney, who is to make decisions regarding living arrangements, and who is to determine whether life support is appropriate or not. A last will and testament or a trust can clearly define who is to receive assets; otherwise, they may not go to a life partner or spouse (maybe not recognized in a particular state). Documents such as a trust or will implement one's own self-determination under the law of every jurisdiction.

However, unless one speaks up and self-identifies, there is no protection. Unfortunately, in many instances, the aging generation is not eager to speak up or report discrimination or maltreatment for fear of further reprisals. The majority of the LGBT community would rather live in LGBT-specific housing rather than be part of the population in general, all for the fear of mistreatment by medical providers or case workers.

But the fearful are soon strengthened by a show of solidarity. To start community-based protections for the graying members of the LGBT community, those interested can find resources online, including on the websites of the White House, the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, SAGE, and other local organizations. By proactively banding together in the creation of informal support groups, today's generation of LGBT leaders can advocate for and assist members of their community. By borrowing the courage of past generations of LGBT leaders, they can further a tradition of compassion and humanity that will ease the inevitable transition into their own senior years.