Advocates gathered in Washington this week to push for greater protections and better services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors, who face higher rates of poverty and social isolation than other older adults.
A day of lobbying on Capitol Hill Wednesday brought more than 120 LGBT seniors and their supporters together from 20 states and Puerto Rico. It was organized by SAGE, a New York-based organization that serves LGBT seniors and kicks off a series of events timed with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City that sparked the modern gay-rights movement.
“Our LGBT elders were on the front lines at the Stonewall Inn. They have lived through witch hunts and violence, criminalization, conversion therapy, and the AIDS crisis,” says a corresponding letter from SAGE that more than 300 people have signed as part of an online advocacy campaign.
“Now more than ever, we must stand with our LGBT elder pioneers, and those living with HIV/AIDS, so that they can get the protection and services they deserve in order to age with dignity and respect,” the letter says.
LGBT seniors experience a range of specific challenges when it comes to aging and caregiving. Research shows they are twice as likely to be single and live alone than other older adults, and they are four times less likely to have children, SAGE reports. That means they often have a smaller support network to call upon in times of need, and they are at much greater risk for social isolation.
LGBT seniors are more likely to be poor than other adults, and they are also less likely to seek out health care services, due to fear of discrimination. LGBT older adults also fear discrimination in senior housing, with more than a third reporting in a survey by AARP that they fear they will have to hide their identity in order to find suitable housing as they age.
On Wednesday, the seniors met with lawmakers to urge them to include LGBT older adults and those living with HIV as target populations in the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. First approved in 1965, the law oversees a $2 billion program to support social and nutritional needs, through programs such as Meals on Wheels, that help people age in their homes.
The Ruthie and Connie LGBT Elder Americans Act, which was re-introduced by U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) on Thursday, would give LGBT seniors this designation.
Advocates also cheered the reintroduction on Wednesday of federal civil rights legislation to protect LGBT people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Federal non-discrimination laws already apply to race and religion.
Marie Spivey traveled from the Bronx to Capitol Hill this week. She said it’s difficult to find care settings where people can feel comfortable living openly as gay. Some people “go back into the closet” rather than coming out to their caregivers, she said.
She said she has a strained relationship with her own family and she worries about the future. “I am concerned about who is going to care for me,” she said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor the Equality Act, addressed the LGBT seniors in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Wednesday. He told them the bill ensures that every LGBT person can live their lives free from the fear of discrimination.
“That is what we are here to fight for: Freedom,” he said.
Rebecca Howell is an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park studying History. She is also an intern with Memorywell.