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SPECIAL REPORT: ‘You can’t let adversity get you down’

Many LGBT elders struggling with economic insecurity

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Cedric Burgess, poverty, gay news, Washington Blade
Cedric Burgess, poverty, gay news, Washington Blade

Cedric Burgess says he lives ‘check to check’ while relying on government assistance to pay bills. Despite his struggles, he works to give back to the LGBT community. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part look at how poverty affects elder members of the LGBT community and part of a yearlong Blade focus on poverty. To share your ideas or personal story, visit us on Facebook or email [email protected]. Click here to read previous installments.

 

“I did my dirt,” said Cedric Burgess, a black gay man and longtime Washington, D.C. resident who grew up in the District. “I was young and full of fun!”

Today, Burgess, 61, is a recovering alcoholic who suffers from depression. He’s been HIV positive for more than 30 years. “I live from check to check,” said Burgess, who receives Social Security disability benefits.

Before undergoing a hip replacement four years ago, he struggled to walk up to his second-story apartment.

“It is a wonder to be able to walk without my cane,” Burgess said. “No matter what pain pills I took, I couldn’t get to sleep. You don’t realize how much pain you’re in. You adapt. I couldn’t cross my legs. Steps weren’t an option.”

At 19, Burgess came out to his family.

“I was accepted by my family. I was taken in,” he said, “that was a blessing!”

For some years, he worked in a series of clerical jobs. In 1982, Burgess, then living and working as an administrative assistant in Atlanta, was hit by a drunk driver. The accident left him with back pain, nerve damage and sciatica. For two years, unable to work, he did physical therapy. In 1984, Burgess returned to work. After returning to D.C., he went back to doing clerical work.

During the AIDS epidemic, his family confronted Burgess.

“They said ‘you gotta get tested,’” he said. “In 1991, after I found out I was positive, I took a two-week vacation. I got HIV through a blood transfusion I received when I had my accident.  They weren’t screening transfusions for HIV then.”

In 2006, his back pain became so severe that Burgess left the workforce. He said he retired from the Green Door, a D.C. organization that helps people with mental challenges, where he worked as a program assistant.

“You can’t let adversity get you down, you have to have a positive attitude,” Burgess added.  Fortunately, he said, social safety net programs help him to make ends meet. In addition to his monthly disability check, Burgess receives food stamps. His health care is covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

“I receive energy assistance from Pepco and two-thirds of my rent, with funding from the Ryan White Act, is subsidized by the Washington, D.C. Housing Coalition,” Burgess said.

These programs are a lifeline for him. “Without the rental assistance and the Medicare and Medicaid, I wouldn’t be able to afford housing and health care,” Burgess said. “I couldn’t pay for my HIV medications and I couldn’t have had my hip replacement.”

Cedric Burgess, poverty, gay news, Washington Blade

Cedric Burgess says many elders don’t know their legal rights when it comes to housing and other issues. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Despite living with economic hardship, Burgess leads an active and full life. Committed to helping others, he has volunteered for groups serving everyone from homeless youth to elders.  “I’m a goodwill ambassador for the DC Center for the LGBT Community and for AARP,” Burgess said. “I help seniors learn about their rights in housing and in nursing homes. Many seniors don’t know their rights.”

“I believe in God’s healing,” he went on, “I go to church. I have no prejudice against any other religion. I’m a spiritually free person.”

Burgess’s situation is far from unique. Many LGBT older adults (aging Baby Boomers over 50) live with economic insecurity.

“Media and marketing stereotypes view the LGBT community as an affluent niche group filled with couples with double incomes,” said Matthew J. Corso, chief communications officer and board member of the DC Center for the LGBT Community. “The poverty rate among LGBT older adults is much higher than people would think from the marketing view. Older adults can often feel isolated.”

The DC Center’s Coffee and Conversation is a safe space where older adults can connect with others in the community and discuss issues related to living with economic insecurity, Corso said.

People rarely look at economic insecurity and aging, said Robert Espinoza, senior director of public policy and communications for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), “People studying poverty don’t look often enough at poverty among LGBT and older people.  On the other side, people studying LGBT issues aren’t looking often enough at aging and poverty.”

But studies that have been done show that poverty is high among elders and even higher among LGBT older adults, Espinoza said. Among the findings:

• One in six Americans aged 65 and older lives in poverty, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report.

• The poverty rate is as high or higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual people than for heterosexual people, and lesbian couples, 65 and older, are twice as likely to be poor as straight married couples, according to a 2009 Williams Institute Report.

• There are an estimated 1.5 million gay, lesbian and bisexual elders in the United States today. The number is expected to increase to nearly 3 million by 2030, according to “Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults” from SAGE, the Movement Advancement Program (MAP) and Center for American Progress.

• Because historically LGBT people have not been able to marry, many LGBT older adults face the economic insecurity and health issues that come with aging without the support from families that heterosexual older adults often receive. LGBT elders are twice as likely to be single and three to four times more likely to be without children as their straight peers, according to the MAP report.

• Transgender adults encounter profound discrimination, according to a SAGE and National Center for Transgender Equality 2012 report. They experience “striking disparities in … health care access … employment and more,” the report states, “with a growing older transgender population, there is an urgent need to understand the challenges that can threaten financial security, health and overall well-being.”

Several factors contribute to poverty among LGBT elders. “In the past, many faced employment discrimination because they were LGBT. LGBT people of color and lesbians faced even more severe discrimination,” Espinoza said. “Too many LGBT older adults have little, if any, retirement savings.”

• LGBT older adults face health disparities and 47 percent of LGBT people over 50 have a disability, said Imani Woody, Ph.D., chair of SAGE Metro D.C. “More than one in 10 LGBT people aged 50-plus have been denied health care or provided with inferior health care,” she said. “This can lead to economic insecurity, which can translate to poverty. If you don’t have access to health care, what do you have?”

Even older LGBT adults with moderate incomes, who wouldn’t think of themselves as facing poverty, can become impoverished if they become disabled or need long-term care, Espinoza said. “If you only have savings of, say, $60,000, it will go quickly.”

Lack of affordable housing and housing discrimination are key reasons why many LGBT older adults live in or near poverty. Same-sex older couples encounter discrimination when seeking housing in senior living facilities, according to a report, “Opening Doors: An Investigation of Barriers to Senior Housing for Same-Sex couples,” released last month by the Equal Rights Center, a civil rights organization in partnership with SAGE.

“We saw a number of adverse treatments with a high economic impact,” said Don Kahl, executive director, Equal Rights Center. “Sometimes they were charged for having an ‘extra person.’ At other times, they were told they’d have to take a more expensive two-bedroom apartment when they wanted a one-bedroom,” he said, “In other cases, they were treated in such a manner, that they wouldn’t accept the housing even if it was offered.”

It’s a misperception to think that as people age, they accumulate wealth and live out their days in comfort, said Peter Johnson, director of public relations for the Center on Halsted in Chicago. “It’s even more true for LGBT older adults. Before we began to experience marriage equality, LGBT seniors might have shared finances unevenly with their partners,” he said. “Without marriage, if one partner dies or the relationship ends, a huge financial burden is placed on the remaining partner.”

The Center on Halsted is working with the Heartland Alliance to provide LGBT older adults with affordable housing in the LakeView neighborhood of Chicago. “While not exclusively LGBT it will be LGBT focused and friendly,” Johnson said. “It will be 79 units of subsidized housing with the rent being no more than one-third of residents’ income.”

LGBT elders live in or near poverty nationwide — from rural to metropolitan areas, Johnson said. “We are fortunate to have Heartland [Alliance] dealing with us on these issues.”

      Next week: Meet elder members of the LGBT community coping with unemployment and economic insecurity.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Rob

    March 21, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    “LGBT older adults (aging Baby Boomers over 50)…” does the Blade employ an editor anymore? This is the worst written thing I’ve read in a loooong time.

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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