LGBT voices are included in the movement for elder justice

As America looks to the near doubling of the 65-and-older population expected to occur between 2012 and 2020, the White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) convened this weekend to discuss the next steps for our nation's elders. LGBT elders, who number approximately 2 million and are also projected to double as a population, earned a place at the table to a greater extent than they ever have before at this once-a-decade summit. The 2005 WHCOA included only one LGBT representative, but this year's conference was attended by at least four openly LGBT elder advocates, including the Executive Director of the Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE), the largest LGBT elder advocacy organization, two LGBT elders themselves, and a transgender person.

For many elders, the experience of being LGBT exacerbates certain problems already common among older Americans and requires navigating stigma and the need for care and support amongst a generation generally less accepting of LGBT individuals than Millennials or Gen X-ers. Housing options can often be inaccessible or unwelcoming environments as elder housing providers discriminate against LGBT individuals and couples seeking housing, and life within the facility can often mean experiencing discrimination and harassment from both caregivers and fellow tenants alike. Anti-LGBT housing discrimination occurs in other group housing options as well, such as homeless shelters, and disproportionately affects transgender people.

LGBT elders looking for housing can experience discrimination in the form of fewer rental options, higher fees, more extensive application requirements and less information about financial incentives. A recent study found that when a same-sex and a different-sex couple are applying for the same housing option, the same-sex couple will be discriminated against 48% of the time. Even if an LGBT senior secures a spot in a housing facility, they often experience harassment and intolerance from staff and fellow residents. One 80 year-old gay man looking to move into a retirement home was so afraid of the reactions he might receive from caregivers and peers if he openly asked about being gay at different retirement homes he was considering that he took it upon himself to discreetly ask single men about their experiences in the facilities as a way to gauge possible attitudes toward gay men at these facilities. Given the culture of intolerance that often exists around being LGBT in retirement homes, if they do not find an LGBT-affirming home, many LGBT seniors feel unsafe being out in their communities and will go back into the closet during retirement. 33% of respondents in a national study recently reported that they would hide their sexual or gender identity if they were moving into a retirement home.

LGBT-affirming senior housing is even more important because of the additional disparities they experience. Elders already commonly face social isolation, but LGBT people are uniquely affected by one of the primary risk factors for social isolation: living alone. LGBT elders are twice as likely to live alone, twice as likely to be single, 3-4 times as likely to be childless, and may also be estranged from their families. Lifetimes of employment discrimination and lower earning power also influence male and female couples to experience higher rates of poverty. Higher rates of poverty and social isolation combine to make it all the more likely that LGBT people will both need the support of financially assisted elder housing options, and will need ones that affirm their LGBT identity and provide them with social support they may be lacking in family or peer networks.

SAGE develops a comprehensive advocacy agenda for the LGBT elder population based on the variety of discriminations and struggles faced by this population. LGBT elders face a number of other barriers to receiving the affirming end of life experiences they deserve: caregivers lack cultural competency with LGBT people, transgender aging care is poorly available, and they experience higher rates of disability, mental illness, and elder abuse to name a few. Leading up to this conference SAGE highlighted the most pressing advances that would support the LGBT elder community: antidiscrimination protections for LGBT people and elders, culturally competent services and caregivers, and data collection that includes LGBT elders.

Though a wide variety of issues face LGBT elders, housing inequality began to be addressed at the WHCOA. The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a new guidance strengthening anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people seeking housing. The guidance elaborated and clarified which housing options are affected by the Equal Access Rule adopted in February of 2012, which states that all federally funded and assisted housing should be made available regardless of actual or perceived gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status. This protects HUD-assisted multifamily housing (like federally funded nursing homes, homeless shelters, or affordable housing developments) and housing supported by a Federal Housing Authority mortgage, which includes rent subsidies provided to low-income elders by Section 202: Supportive Housing for the Elderly.

This does not represent a policy change for HUD. Sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination were already in violation of the Equal Access Rule of 2012, but this puts further pressure on housing providers to comply with the rule. Jennifer Ho, senior advisor to the Secretary of HUD said, “The point that we really want to make clearly to multifamily developers is to make sure they pay attention to the rule, make sure that they know we will not tolerate discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or their gender identity. If they have a practice of doing that, we’ve got tools that we can use to say that’s not OK.”

However, this guidance only affects federally funded housing, leaving many LGBT people still unprotected from housing discrimination. State governments should pass similar legislation to protect all LGBT people from discrimination when looking for housing, as well as a number of other realms in which LGBT people still lack legal defense from discrimination, such as employment, public accommodations, credit, adoption, hate crimes, education, and healthcare. Comprehensive anti-discrimination is also set to be introduced at a federal level to both chambers of Congress.

LGBT elders won another victory at WHCOA this weekend: a partnership between SAGE and the federal Administration on Aging. This new partnership announced a convening of service providers in the aging sector for the fall to outline next steps to support LGBT elders. HHS also met SAGE's request for more data collection by agreeing to gather more data on how LGBT elders are being served.

The 2015 WHCOA marks a significant step forward for LGBT elder equality. Discrimination against LGBT people in federally funded housing is not likely to end overnight, even with a new guidance from HUD in effect. However, with proper focus on education and enforcement, this protection de jure extended to LGBT people that receive federal support for housing may soon become a de facto reality. With even more work, the legal protections and cultural competency may begin to fall into place to provide our elders the secure, communal, and affirming end of life experiences they deserve.