“Tragically, some traditional religions have often been part of the problem of discrimination toward people from the LGBTQ community,” says Randy Block of Royal Oak, Michigan. Block works as the Director of Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network (MUUSJN), a statewide faith-based social justice network through which he organizes efforts to protect LGBTQ people from unfair treatment.
“[Traditional religious institutions] have often supported Religious Freedom Restoration Act laws, which sanction discrimination toward women and people from the LGBTQ community in the name of religion. In my more progressive religious tradition, we affirm that all people, regardless of age, sex or gender identity, should be valued and treated with dignity,” says Block.
“Religion can be a big part of the problem in terms of discrimination against the LGBTQ community,” he says. “So we work in interfaith alliances to send a stronger voice that works for justice with and on behalf of the LGBTQ community. We want to counteract the far-right, discriminatory religious groups. They're claiming religious freedom, but freedom to discriminate is different from having the freedom of religion,” Block explains. “I don't believe in the freedom to hurt or discriminate. If people really followed religious teachings and loved our neighbor as ourselves, they would not want to hurt gay people or deny them the rights that anyone else has.”
Much of Randy’s activism for the LGBT community stems from his 30 years of experience in the aging field as a services manager and planner in Michigan, positions he worked in from 1978 until 2008. “I didn't have a close friend from the LGBT community or a family member who was gay or transgender, so I was sort of sheltered in terms of my own childhood. But embracing the values of respecting the worth and dignity of every human being, I became acquainted with people who are part of the LGBT community.”
For a time, Block worked in a nursing home and saw firsthand how older people can still maintain their joy for life and enthusiasm, despite oftentimes stereotyped as withdrawn and sad. “Things are not easy if you're an older person. People tend to discount you as ‘less than.’ For people to assume that you don't know something just because you're older, that's ageism—a negative assumption about aging, just as there are negative assumptions about the LGBT community.”
Randy’s goal through his work is to not only advocate for older LGBT adults but also to build a strong community of allies that will stand up the rights of all people.
“We have a moral commitment to address discrimination toward LGBTQ people as well as other people who are unfairly treated based on their color of their skin, their gender or their income. As we work to make our society more just, we need to recommit ourselves to creating a world that allows all people to reach their highest potential. People should not be held back simply for being who they are,” he says.
As she approaches the age of 75, Marsha Bond is committed to staying engaged in her community. She volunteers in multiple ways near her home in Clarkston, Georgia. For many years now, she has served as a caregiver for a lesbian woman with Alzheimer’s, and she also volunteers with a refugee family, a growing population in the Atlanta metro area.
But Bond is beginning to look toward her own future—and she's worried about whether the community to which she's been supportive and welcoming will return the favor. This is the fear facing many LGBT older adults: that retirement communities, facilities for older adults, and assisted living homes will be at best unwelcoming and at worst outright discriminatory.
Recentreports demonstrate the challenging realities for LGBT elders, who disproportionately face discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 32 states, LGBT people don’t have sufficient protections from anti-LGBT discrimination.
“We all dream of a place where we can age with people who understand us and who know us better than straight people. I worry about being able to afford a place to live and have the good fortune to live with people who are like me.”
But the lack of protections hits older adults in a different way than it hurts young people. Consider visits to the doctor’s office, the search for an affirming place to live in retirement, or the ability to rely on the social networks and supports of community centers.
Georgia, where Bond lives, is one of the states without sufficient protections.
“I want to seek retirement housing that is affordable and consists of more LGBT elders than straight elders,” she said. “We all dream of a place where we can age with people who understand us and who know us better than straight people. I worry about being able to afford a place to live and have the good fortune to live with people who are like me.”
Bond misses, in some ways, her time in New Orleans when she was a younger woman. “There is not a lesbian community here in Clarkston like there was when I was young in New Orleans. It was wonderful,” she said. “It was right after I came out, and I lived in a women’s collective, and I just loved it. It felt like a protective, interesting community.”
Finding affordable housing more generally is also a concern for Bond. There simply aren’t many options for older adults in the Clarkston area, and without many options, the explicitly LGBT-affirming options are even fewer. She says this fruitless search in some ways has made her feel isolated, dreading the future, and feeling frustrated about a lack of community.
For years, Bond worked as an ombudsman. Her primary duty was to check in on long-term care residents in health care facilities and follow up with those who had submitted complaints of discrimination to the state. Through this role, she was able to build relationships with residents and understand firsthand if someone was being treated improperly. Having legal protection from discrimination and a structure to report cases of neglect, abuse, or discrimination is an important way for people in residential care settings to thrive.
Now, just as she acted as a sentinel for residents who required additional assistance, Bond is speaking out and calling out anti-LGBT discrimination more broadly. She’s teaming up with SAGE and Freedom for All Americans to advance the call for LGBT equal treatment nationwide.
Bond knows how frequently state lawmakers in Georgia have debated the merits of discriminatory legislation targeting LGBT Georgians. “It would be devastating” if an anti-LGBT “license to discriminate” passed, she said, remembering the near passage of Georgia's so-called First Amendment Defense Act in 2016, which was blocked at the last minute by Republican Governor Nathan Deal’s veto.
Even in 2018, Georgians lack basic state-level nondiscrimination protections, including protections from discrimination based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
It’s time for that to change, Bond says. It’s time for fully inclusive nondiscrimination protections across Georgia. And it’s time for legislators to stop proposing damaging, discriminatory laws.
Bond has a basic plea and simple advice for decision-makers in Georgia: “Don’t make any laws that create problems for us, because we are going to come out and demonstrate,” she says. “Treat us like you treat any other human being—with fairness, respect, and dignity.”
April 11, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of Fair Housing Act, a pivotal piece of legislation that laid the groundwork for housing protections for marginalized populations in the United States. They say those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so it's worth a look back at how things have and have not changed in terms of fair housing since 1968—and just how the legislation was passed in the first place.
In 1968, America was an extremely segregated society with distinct white and black neighborhoods. Racial and socioeconomic inequality were pervasive, creating a divide that prevented mobility for many. Martin Luther King Jr. led nonviolent protests and advocated for social-justice policies to combat these issues, among others. Then, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated. This led to a catastrophic outcry in communities across the country, resulting in riots and social upheaval. The federal government scrambled to find an appropriate response to honor the legacy of King and to stabilize communities rocked by anger, frustration, and deeply rooted inequality.
In the week following King's murder, President Lyndon Johnson rallied Americans and Congress to come together to support the passage of effective fair-housing legislation. After significant debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, the bill was passed and signed into law by President Johnson on April 11, 1968, exactly a week after King's assassination.
The Fair Housing Act as signed protected individuals from discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Protections based on a person's sex were added through amendment in 1974; disability and familial status were added in 1988.
Although America has taken great strides in the past 50 years to provide housing protections and ensure that those who break the law are held accountable, LGBT people remain vulnerable to housing discrimination. Despite attempts to introduce federal legislation that would amend fair housing and civil rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, no bill amending the Fair Housing Act has made it out of committee to be voted on by Congress.
Though 21 states and various localities offer fair-housing protections for LGBT people, many areas of the country still have pervasive, unreported, or even accepted discrimination. Reports released by the Equal Justice Center (2014) and the Urban Institute (2017) corroborate that exclusionary and discriminatory housing practices still nag the LGBT community. But federal fair-housing protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity are only one area in which the U.S. faces continued and pervasive injustice.
A 2017 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that the black-white homeownership gap is the widest it's been since World War II. Cities across the country continue to be challenged by issues of rent stabilization, gentrification and displacement, exclusionary zoning practices, and a general lack of affordable-housing creation.
We have come a long way since April 11, 1968, but our country still faces serious obstacles to realizing its true potential for equal opportunity to all. In the tradition of great social-justice advocates like Martin Luther King Jr., we must extend fair-housing protections to all Americans by adding federal fair-housing protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
Southfield, Michigan's Faith Robinson-Renner has made it a priority to look out for LGBT elders in her community and make sure they have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. As a married lesbian woman, she has decided to fight for fair treatment in employment, having experienced discrimination herself.
After discovering a love for the electrical repair trade, Robinson-Renner decided to forego the education degree she had earned in college and dive into learning how to be an electrician. She was eventually hired by telephone utility company Michigan Bell.
As a woman working in this industry, Robinson-Renner was unfortunately on the receiving end of harassment, discrimination, and sometimes the threat of outright physical harm.
“They almost killed me,” she says. “They swung a sledgehammer at my head. They called me names. They were pretty rough with me, so I walked off the job.” After she went to the Detroit Free Press to tell her story, Michigan Bell pleaded with her to allow them to fix the situation. Not only did they solve the problem, they promoted her to the position of splicer. During her 27 years of work, Robinson-Renner helped develop guidelines on how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and how not to discriminate against women, even though she knows there is still work to be done.
“They haven't dealt with all of that stuff, especially among blue-collar women and women in lower-income areas,” she says.
When it comes to non-discrimination protections for LGBT people, “There are just so many people who lose their housing, lose children. It would be wonderful to see the state of Michigan adopt those protections,” Robinson-Renner says.
“There are so many of my LGBT friends who do not have the ability to live their twilight years in dignity,” she says. “I am one of the few lesbians who has been more fortunate than most. Because of discrimination, we are not always able to have a good and healthy retirement.”
After being married to a man and having two daughters with him, Robinson-Renner (right) came out as a lesbian in the late ’70s. In 1979, she met her partner Deb Renner, and they have been together ever since. In 2014, they were legally married. Now, in addition to helping raise and look after her grandchildren, Robinson-Renner has begun a new mission: giving back to the LGBT community who embraced her from the beginning. She has also resumed her volunteer efforts and serves as chair of the Jewish Gay Network. She hopes to help open a PFLAG West Bloomfield, Michigan, soon.
The work Robinson-Renner is doing to increase visibility and community among LGBT older adults is invaluable. Recent reports indicate that LGBT elders are disproportionately vulnerable to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, especially when compounded with discrimination based on age, race, and economic status. Discrimination haunts LGBT older adults in many different areas of life—in places of employment, but also at the doctor’s office, in communities designed for older adults, and in community centers that provide access to social networks and supports.
A first-ever survey in 2013 of LGBT San Francisco residents aged 60 to 92 found something startling: 15 percent of the 612 respondents had “seriously considered” committing suicide within the last 12 months. Commissioned by the city’s LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, the study found high degrees of disability as well as poor physical and mental health—both of which are associated with depression. The researchers were understandably concerned by the high percentage of LGBT seniors who had considered suicide.
But look at the numbers in a different way: 85 percent of the respondents did not consider suicide. What’s up with them? Are these folks healthier in general? How are they coping with being “old” and the changes and challenges that go along with it? Could it be that aging means something different to them?
In 2000, New York psychotherapist Harold Kooden and his coauthor Charles Flowers published a book that for many gay men, including me, was revolutionary in its candor and wisdom about growing older. Golden Men: The Power of Gay Midlife not only dared to say, loud and proud, there is life after 30. And not only are a whole lot of gay men living it with great gusto, but you (young and not-as-young gay man) can, too.
In an interview for my new book Stonewall Strong, Kooden told me the impetus for Golden Men “was to write a book for gay men to celebrate aging.” Gay men have a “wealth of experience where it comes to thriving and development,” he said. “Successful aging means looking at one’s history—pain, successes—and removing the false perceptions, the clouds, to look at the reality of our lives. It’s about becoming conscious and aware. Unless you become aware of the negatives, you don’t become aware of the positives.”
Hard-Earned Wisdom from AIDS
Ken South was the president of Prime Timers of Washington, D.C., for 15 years before moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2016 (he continues to be involved with the group). In an interview for Stonewall Strong, South reflected on his experience of aging as one of the men whose generation was hardest hit in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. He has worked professionally on HIV/AIDS since the darkest years of the epidemic in the early 1980s. “I never thought in my thirties, forties, and fifties I’d be looking at the obits in the paper,” he said. “That’s something that old people do, looking to see if their friends have passed away. Now that the epidemic has changed, people are dying of other things besides AIDS. I’m now in the senior cohort. In some ways it has helped me to be more self-reliant. It certainly has helped me appreciate the meaning of life, that life is very precious.”
Coming Out Gave Us the Tools We Need to Age Well
Coming out as gay men provides us with powerful weapons we can use in slaying the demon of what UCLA researcher Richard Wight calls “internalized gay ageism.” Throwing off the shame and stigma we were expected to feel for being “different” prepared us to do the same in rejecting stigmatizing attitudes about aging. We are survivors in so many ways—living with HIV or not.
Naming it and claiming our power as survivors is up to each of us.
“In the stories we tell of our lives,” said Brian de Vries, professor of gerontology at San Francisco State University in an interview for Stonewall Strong, “as gay men, as survivors, the victims story is one of discontinuity, how we’re not what we ‘should’ be because of all these things. The victory story is one that sees the ways we can grow from them. It provides hope, direction, and allows you to learn from the experiences.”
Hear more from John-Manuel Andriote when he speaks at the Edie Windsor SAGE Center on Monday, March 26, 2018, at 6:45 pm, on the topic of Defining “Old” for Ourselves.
This week is Long-Term Care Administrators Week. In my capacity leading the day-to-day activities of SAGECare—which provides training and consulting on LGBT aging issues to service providers—and as a trainer myself, I have had the pleasure of working with administrators across the country.
After years spent leading our training efforts, I am certain that creating an inclusive environment for LGBT older adults requires instruction, partnership, and—importantly—support from administrators.
SAGECare's goal is to make sure that LGBT older adults and their loved ones are treated with respect no matter where they live. One way we accomplish this is by training every staff person working in a long-term care community. This training is essential, but it's also just the first step. It is the leadership of ally administrators (and their teams) that takes the training and bakes it into the culture of a community and of its staff.
That is why I am thankful for administrators who go above and beyond to put in the time, energy, and effort it takes to make sure that their staffs have the skills and knowledge to affirm LGBT elders.
As a division of SAGE, SAGECare is part of the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults. Visit sageusa.care for more information on SAGECare's LGBT aging training.
By U.S. Senator Bob Casey (PA), Ranking Member of the Special Committee on Aging
Older LGBT Americans continue to pave the way for equality. They display perseverance and courage, and regardless of the obstacles, they fight against discrimination and stand up to bigotry—and they have done so for their entire lives. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is attempting to roll back many of the hard-fought gains made by the LGBT community over the years.
It is for that reason that I have been using the resources available to me as Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging to fight on behalf of the millions of LGBT Americans age 65 and older.
Faced with prejudicial social stigma, this population experiences unique challenges that are often overlooked, including higher poverty rates, difficulty accessing health care, and social isolation. Older LGBT Americans may be less willing than younger generations to discuss their sexual orientation or gender identify, either out of generational norms or a life experience of discrimination. This can be particularly prevalent for older LGBT Americans entering senior living facilities.
When the Trump administration attempted to undermine the rights of LGBT elders by removing them from key survey questions concerning the LGBT community, I took action, alongside SAGE and Human Rights Campaign, among others. In June, the administration heeded my calls and announced it would continue surveying the needs of older lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans who receive services through key programs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Recently, I hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill with SAGE to educate congressional staff about the unique issues facing older LGBT adults. During the briefing, representatives from SAGE, Movement Advancement Project, Human Rights Campaign and Mary’s House for Older Adults highlighted issues that included visitation rights for unmarried partners in medical facilities, health care for older Americans with HIV/AIDS, and a lack of resources and cultural understanding of the needs of rural LGBT seniors.
Our work to secure equality for LGBT Americans is not done. The gains achieved by the LGBT community through years of hard work and perseverance are not set in stone. And with the number of LGBT Americans age 65+ expected to double by 2030, new challenges will continue to emerge. That’s why I will continue fighting to ensure that this administration recognizes and supports the rights of LGBT Americans of all ages.
As we shine a spotlight to honor them, we recognize that the legacies of these individuals live on in many ways. We see their work carrying on at places like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project—a legal aid organization that serves LGBT people of color—and the Audre Lorde Project, an LGBT community organizing center in New York.
By showcasing stories from SAGE constituents of color all month, we hope to provide some insight into what it’s like to live at the intersection of African-American, LGBT, and older adult identities.
Organizations that wish to publicly affirm their commitment to maintaining or increasing the age-friendliness of their events are encouraged to sign the Age-Friendly Pride Pledge. Want to be one of the first 100 organizations to sign on? Just sign the Age-Friendly Pride Pledge! You'll be listed on our website and in our Welcome to Pride Guide.
We would also be grateful if you took a few minutes to complete a brief survey, the results of which will help us develop age-friendly Pride materials that we hope to use to increase the age-friendliness of Prides across the country. Thank you in advance for taking the time to give us your feedback!