When Imani Woody’s father had a stroke in 2005, he came home from the hospital in a wheelchair. Woody, the eldest daughter, stepped in to help. She visited every weekend, paid bills, went grocery shopping and organized prescriptions for him and her stepmother.
After he moved to assisted living, Woody worried about the staffing levels and the quality of his care. So she brought him back home again and helped nurse him back to better health.
As months of caregiving turned into years, a thought lingered in Woody’s mind: Who will care for me when I need help? Who will care for my wife and my friends?
She reasoned: “If this is so hard for my father, a middle-class man, a respected preacher in his community and father of five, what will it be like for people who are out and gay?”
Woody is among the 1.1 million adults over the age of 65 who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In her lifetime she’s seen the legalization of gay marriage and the election of the first openly transgender political candidate to state office. Still, she worries about what it’s like to be an LGBT older adult today.
Fifty years after rioting outside the Stonewall Inn sparked the modern gay rights movement, the first generation of “out” Americans are in their 70s and 80s and encountering a host of challenges, including higher rates of chronic illness, higher poverty rates and discrimination at the hands of care providers.
Social isolation is a concern for LGBT older adults, who are twice as likely to be single or live alone than other older adults, research shows, and four times less likely to have children, meaning they often have a smaller support network to call upon in times of need.
“There is a great deal of anxiety out there, said Nii-Quartelai Quartey, a senior advisor and LGBTQ liaison at AARP. “Do I have to go into the closet at a certain age? Do I have to worry about being discriminated against?”
The search for safe housing
Older LGBT adults in particular fear discrimination in senior housing. In a 2018 survey by AARP, more than a third of respondents said they were at least “somewhat worried” that they would have to hide their sexual identity in order to find new housing as they age.
Charges of discrimination in retirement communities are winding through the courts. One prominent lawsuit involves Marsha Wetzel, a woman in Niles, Ill., who moved into a senior-living facility after her lesbian partner of 30 years died. After she shared stories about her late partner and the son they raised together, she said she was verbally harassed and physically assaulted on multiple occasions by other residents, and that staff did not help when she reported the incidents, according to court records.
The case was initially dismissed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in August reversed the decision, ruling that landlords can be held liable under the sex discrimination prohibitions in the federal Fair Housing Act, for failing to protect residents from anti-LGBT abuse from other residents.
LGBT people are not explicitly protected from housing discrimination under federal law, but courts have interpreted existing law differently as to whether sexual orientation can be considered a form of sex discrimination. More than 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed specific protections for LGBTQ people.
Missouri is not one of them. In a different case, a district court there ruled in January that a continuing care retirement home called Friendship Village was within its rights to deny admission to a lesbian couple since sexual orientation is not detailed the federal law. The cohabitation policy at the senior living community said that gay marriage did not meet the definition of how “marriage is understood in the Bible.”
This ruling – and the Trump administration’s broader efforts to promote so-called ‘religious freedom’ exemptions for service providers who deny care based on religious or moral beliefs — have caused deep concern for many LGBT people, particularly in light of the preponderance of religiously affiliated services upon which older adults rely for housing, health care, community programming and meals.
“It’s like all this stuff trickles down and you become fearful because, except by Grace, it could happen to you,” Woody said.
In response to reports of discrimination, two prominent advocacy groups —The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and SAGE — announced a “Long-Term Care Equality Index” this spring that would educate communities on what it means to be inclusive and welcoming for LGBT older adults and to promote communities that meet their standards of LGBT-friendly.
Another growing response is the development of senior housing designed for and marketed to LGBT residents. Such gay-friendly developments exist in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Minneapolis. SAGE, the nation’s oldest and largest LGBT advocacy organization, is preparing to open a 145-unit development later this summer in Brooklyn. New Yorkers over 62 years old can enter a affordable housing lottery to win a spot in one of the buildings.
Sydney Kopp-Richardson, director of SAGE’s national LGBT Elder Housing Initiative, said there are many reasons why LGBT elders need affordable housing that is culturally sensitive.
“We have seen the many ways that legacies of discrimination have impacted this generation, starting with rejection from their biological families,” she said.
When Woody’s father died in 2010, he left the gray-and-white clapboard house near near the Anacostia River in Washington to her. It was the house where she grew up, where she helped to raise her four younger siblings.
Rather than moving in, or selling the property in the gentrifying neighborhood, she invited her “kitchen cabinet of women friends” over for a conversation on what she should do. She recalled that the meeting took place not long after she learned that a gay friend had died in a retirement community, and his body was not found for five days.
That sealed the decision to turn the house into an independent living community for LGBT older adults. She plans to call it Mary’s house, named for her mother who died when she was 11.
Nine years later she is still hosting fundraisers to make her dream a reality. With help from a $1.2 million grant from the DC government, she plans to break ground in 2020. The blueprints were fresh in her mind as she walked around the now-empty home on a recent afternoon. She imagined the four-bedroom house stretching into 15 units. The backyard, once a childhood haven with a creek, and grape vines and blueberry bushes, will feature a small “Stonewall Garden” to honor friends that have died. A vegetable garden and walking path will be on the roof.
The house will have a shared kitchen and dining room as well as hydrotherapy tubs, a fitness center and computer room. Apartments will be reserved for people who qualify as low- or moderate-income, and new residents will be expected to complete cultural competency training that Woody is designing. The front porch will have rocking chairs where she and her wife can visit with the residents.
Already, she counts friends on a waiting list of interested applicants.
Cecilia Hayden Smith, 75, said she hopes to move in one day soon with her partner of 33 years. The couple recently lost the house they’d lived in for decades and then struggled to find a new place to live in a city where rents have soared. They want a welcoming community they can afford.
“It’s a place we can be safe. And even if we lose one another, there will be someone to look in after us,” she said.
Michael Alison Chandler is managing editor at MemoryWell. Previously, she was a staff writer at the Washington Post for 13 years.