Wallace Corbett has high hopes for the upcoming White House Conference on Aging.
The 54-year-old gay D.C. resident recalled an event for local seniors hosted by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in which attendees responded to the screening of a gay-themed movie in a way that didn’t sit well with him.
“Many of the older people realized it was a gay movie and said, ‘We don’t attend things like that,'” Corbett said. “Those types of reactions from older people toward each other is just unacceptable.”
Corbett, who has worked 20 years registering people at the front desk of the radiology department at George Washington University, said the response at the event doesn’t bode well for older LGBT Americans who may be seeking housing or assisted living in a country with no federal law explicitly protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
“If you have those kinds of things going on [over] the simple thing of going to a movie and being educated, I can’t imagine what they would say if you were with your husband, or your wife, or lover, or friend, or partner to get housing as a couple,” Corbett said.
Even in places like D.C., which has a local law prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination, Corbett said employees need training so they either comply with the law when working with LGBT seniors or be removed from their posts. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, Corbett said he hopes the decision clears up any inefficiencies.
“They need to have the same rights and they don’t need to feel a fear when they walk in the door,” he said.
Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE, or Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders, said the experience that Corbett observed and other issues are among the common kinds of problems facing LGBT Americans.
“They’re aging in isolation, which creates a great need for social services and support,” Adams said. “But, unfortunately, what we find, more often than not, is that the existing aging services world is not particularly welcoming to LGBT older people, so you have isolation and greater need for services.”
Older LGBT Americans are four times less likely to be parents than straight people in their same age groups, and twice as likely to be single and living alone in a country where children and parents are the primary caregivers, Adams said.
The rate of discrimination against LGBT older Americans is markedly high. According to a 2014 SAGE report, one-in-eight LGBT adults and one-in-four transgender adults say they were the victims of discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity when searching for housing.
But Adams said other problems facing LGBT elders stem not from social institutions, but fellow elders who aren’t part of the growing tide in support for LGBT rights.
“I think the real challenge is that if you look at public opinion polls in this country, the older people are, the more likely they are to harbor bias against LGBT people,” Adams said. “So what we see for LGBT elders is that when they’re in senior centers, when they’re in nursing homes, when they’re in assisted living, they are surrounded by other older people, and that is really in a sense a big part of that problem. It’s not even so much from staff that these institutions, it’s from other seniors, other elders.”
Issues like these are among the many issues facing LGBT elders that LGBT advocates hope receive attention during an upcoming White House Conference on Aging set for Monday. The event, which has taken place each decade at the White House since the 1960s, seeks to identify and advance actions to improve the quality of life for older Americans.
In addition to recognizing the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security, the event is an opportunity to bring together older Americans, caregivers, government officials, the public and business leaders to discuss issues expected to shape the landscape for older Americans in the next decade, according to a White House announcement of the event.
Ahead of the conference, Adams said he’s seeking action on behalf of LGBT elders from the White House — and hoping for an announcement on such action from President Obama or his administration on the day of the event.
“The federal government’s the primary funder of those services and issues guidelines and mandates to local aging service providers across the country,” Adams said. “And so, fundamentally we’re asking the federal government to make clear that LGBT older adults should be a priority in federally funded aging services across the country. There’s a whole variety of things that we’re looking for, but at its core, that’s a lot of what it comes down to.”
A policy paper from SAGE on the White House conference lays out specific requests for the administration on LGBT elder issues. Among them is an executive order, specifically barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in nursing homes, long-term care settings and any entity that serves older adults and receives federal funds.
Also in the policy paper is an effort to increase cultural competency for State Units on Aging and Area Agencies on Aging on LGBT issues and data collection on the number of LGBT people reached through activities under the Older Americans Act. For housing, SAGE recommends enhanced data collection, cultural competency and inclusive affordable housing for older adults through explicit guidance to grant recipients that anti-LGBT housing discrimination is unlawful under the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s Equal Access Rule.
For HIV issues, the policy paper seeks treatment guidelines from the Department of Health & Human Services on the clinical care of older LGBT people, improved research from the National Institutes of Health on HIV and aging and improving testing rates among older adults.
Stacey Long Simmons, director of public policy and government affairs for the National LGBTQ Task Force, said the White House should address issues of concern for LGBT elders at the upcoming conference.
“As LGBTQ Baby Boomers enter the age of retirement, we need to work to ensure that service providers are educated, trained, and culturally competent on LGBTQ issues,” Long Simmons said. “Senior care agencies and providers should be aware that LGBTQ Baby Boomers will not be shy in letting providers know who they are and what they expect them to know about LGBTQ people. At the upcoming White House Conference on Aging, we look forward to working with the administration on how to effectively address the unique needs of LGBTQ older adults.”
Adams said his organization has already engaged in ongoing conversations with the White House that have been productive as well as conference staff and government agencies.
“The conversations have been very friendly in the sense that the Obama administration is strong on recognizing the right of LGBT people to be treated equally, and the right to services and support,” Adams said.
Jeff Tiller, a White House spokesperson, pointed to the administration’s previous work on issues facing LGBT elders when asked about requests from LGBT advocates.
“This administration has a lengthy track record of advancing policies to better serve older Americans — including LGBT older Americans — such as creating a national resource center on LGBT aging, protecting hospital patients’ right to choose their own visitors during a hospital stay, working to improve HIV reporting for older Americans, and ensuring that seniors with Medicare enjoy lower costs on prescription drugs and improved preventive benefits,” the official said. “The White House Conference on Aging represents a great opportunity for the president and his Cabinet to focus on issues that will shape the landscape for all older Americans, including those in the LGBT community, in the coming years.”
Advocates are looking to the administration because earlier efforts to address issues facing LGBT elders have gone nowhere during Republican control of Congress. In the previous Congress, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) introduced LGBT-inclusive legislation to reauthorize the Older Americans Act through fiscal year 2018, but neither her version, nor the Republican version of the legislation, saw any traction.
In 2012, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced the first-of-its-kind “LGBT Elder Americans Act” that provided the principles of designating LGBT older adults as a group of greatest social need, enhancing data collection and permanently establishing the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.
Adam Bozzi, a Bennet spokesperson, told the Blade his boss intends to revisit the issue this Congress, but doesn’t have a timetable yet for when that action will be.
Another measure that would help address LGBT elder issues is the upcoming comprehensive non-discrimination bill set for introduction by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The non-discrimination protections for housing and public accommodations in the bill are seen to benefit LGBT elders most directly. Like other measures, it faces an uphill battle in the Republican Congress.
For Corbett, a change in policy at the federal level would be significant because it would mean LGBT elders would be able to breathe a little easier as they deal with other issues in their remaining days.
“Gay couples will be able to say, I’m looking for a senior citizen residence for me and my husband, not me and a friend who’s going to live down the hall, or he may not live with me at all,” Corbett said. “Or I’m going to a rest home in hospice, and when I walk in there to spend time with my husband…I don’t feel awkward or have to move my hand when the nurse comes in the room.”