Wedding-cake toppers of same-sex couples
Precarious housing situations and decades of constrained earnings hurt LGBT couples in their later years. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

A lifetime of discrimination puts this generation at higher risk for social isolation, health problems, and economic insecurity. What can be done?  

Marsha Wetzel moved into a suburban Chicago low-income senior living facility in 2014 after her partner of 30 years died. Wetzel began to suffer abuse when she disclosed to fellow residents that her partner had been a woman. Some residents used homophobic slurs, and others physically assaulted or spat on her. When staff did nothing to help despite her pleas for assistance, Wetzel sued the facility for failing to protect her from harassment, discrimination, and violence.

“I feel invisible, like I’m a ghost, but I’m a human being and I’m scared,” Wetzel told Lambda Legal, the organization that filed the lawsuit on her behalf. “There are places I won’t go [in the facility] because I’m afraid of being called names or getting hit. I’m tired, this is not what I imagined my ‘golden years’ to be.”

Wetzel’s case is now under appeal. Her experience is not necessarily uncommon for the 2.7 million LGBT people over 50 in the U.S., but her decision to sue is. Serena Worthington, Director of National Field Initiatives at Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), says that most LGBT people in nursing facilities choose not to speak up when they experience harassment. “They’re afraid the abuse will get worse or they’ll lose their place to live,” she says. And LGBT elders aging in place—staying in their own homes—are less likely to seek out services such as visiting nurses, meal programs, or senior center events for fear that caregivers or staff will treat them poorly.

Perhaps even more sobering: Around 80 percent of LGBT older adults hide their orientation when they move to long-term care, where they feel particularly vulnerable. “We see transgender people transitioning backward,” says Worthington. “They won’t take their hormone medication, they’ll resurrect the name that was dead to them, they'll dress to conform with their gender assigned at birth.”

SAGE and the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) recently issued a report, “Understanding Issues Facing LGBT Older Adults,” that details this isolation. Compounding the problem is the fact that in their youth many LGBT people were shunned by their families, were barred from adopting, and found it difficult to have children. They formed their own chosen families, often comprised of friends around the same age. While these chosen families sustained each other, peers in their older years are often not as easily able to act as caregivers as a child or grandchild might. They also generally do not have the legal recognition necessary to make medical decisions for each other.

Such social isolation has a negative effect: As the report notes, “access to support networks is one of the strongest predictors of better mental and physical health among LGBT older adults.”

Access to health care itself is another challenge. For instance, while the Social Security Administration ruled in 2013 that same-sex partners may apply for Medicare as married couples, and considers some non-marital legal relationships, such as domestic partnerships, for eligibility, not all long-term couples are covered—and if a partner died before 2013, the other partner cannot access their survivor benefits.

LGBT elders are also more likely to live in poverty. In a National Health, Aging, and Sexuality/Gender Study, 27 percent of respondents reported not being hired, 26 percent not being promoted, and 18 percent being fired due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Such employment discrimination creates decades of lower earning power, contributing to financial insecurity. Other economic challenges include a dearth of affordable housing—especially buildings or communities where LGBT older adults feel welcome—and a lack of Social Security survivor benefits, retirement funds, and pensions from partners who died before 2015, when freedom to marry was established.

A lifetime of discrimination adds up. While America’s aging as a whole are facing myriad social, health, and economic challenges, these are magnified for LGBT elders—especially those who are transgender and are people of color. LGBT older adults who live in more rural areas are also particularly affected. “These are places that are less likely to have individuals who make it their business to be welcoming,” says Worthington. “LGBT elders often experience increased poverty and isolation in less-urban communities.”

Charles Martinez (L) and Eliseo Natal pose for a photograph after their wedding in San Juan, Puerto Rico, August 16, 2015. (Alvin Baez/Reuters)

What can be done? On a broad scale, the SAGE/MAP report recommends comprehensive protections against discrimination on the local, state, and federal levels to safeguard LGBT people’s rights in securing and keeping employment and housing. As of today, no federal law explicitly prohibits workers from being fired or passed over for a promotion because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Only 20 states have such a law on the books, and two states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation alone.

The report also advises that federal and state programs recognize marriages and partnerships cemented prior to the marriage equality law, so that older adults who lost their partners prior to the legislation can still receive their partners’ health and retirement benefits.

The harassment Marsha Wetzel has endured illustrates the need for LGBT-friendly housing. A number of affordable housing communities for LGBT elders are found across the country, such as Town Hall Apartments in Chicago and Openhouse in San Francisco. But the majority of LGBT older adults live or will live in facilities that aren’t geared specifically for them. The report’s authors stress the importance of training all nursing home and senior center staff so that they provide a welcoming and supportive environment to LGBT residents or visitors.

Because social isolation is so prevalent among this generation, SAGE runs a national LGBT elder hotline. People can dial in for information, but also to connect with others who are experiencing similar issues. “About half the people who call just want to talk,” says Worthington. In Maine, the SAGE affiliate SAGE Maine hosts a virtual drop-in center where a facilitator encourages callers to speak about LGBT issues in the state. The call is now available three times a month, and the affiliate in Alaska plans to adopt a similar program soon. “Some of these calls result in live meet-ups,” says Worthington. “People get to know each other on the phone and then get together for a meal in real life.”

Worthington stresses that LGBT elders are active participants in the enduring quest to secure rights and services, just as they have been for decades. As Barry Yeoman chronicled in his recent article on LGBTQ Baby Boomers, this older group was on the front lines of activism, of the AIDS crisis, and of the fight for marriage equality. “This generation worked for civil rights and is now in a position where they need more protection,” says Worthington. “It’s unbelievably important that we pay attention.”

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