When two Philadelphia nonprofits that serve LGBTQ people in the city started discussing a merger three years ago to better serve the elderly, they had no idea what the population would be facing in 2020.
Today, the organizers say, the need for consolidating support for LGBTQ elders has come into full view as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life for older Americans. The need is especially great for LGBTQ seniors, who already face higher rates of social isolation and chronic health conditions compared with their straight and cisgender counterparts.
This week, the William Way LGBT Community Center, one of Philadelphia’s best-known LGBTQ advocacy organizations, announced it had merged with the LGBT Elder Initiative, a 10-year-old Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides and advocates for services for LGBTQ seniors. In many cases, the organizations serve people who were pioneers of the movement for LGBTQ equality and now, later in life, face both the impacts of a global pandemic and enduring discrimination at some mainstream senior service centers.
Out of the merger, the Elder Initiative at the William Way Community Center was born and is providing services, education, and advocacy for LGBTQ seniors. Those include managing access to housing and health care, facilitating support groups and cross-generational mentorship programming, and organizing safe social gatherings, said Chris Bartlett, executive director of William Way.
The merger — which was in part funded by the Nonprofit Repositioning Fund that supports strategic alliances between organizations — means William Way will absorb the LGBT Elder Initiative’s employee and volunteers, and the initiative will be represented on William Way’s board. The groups will share administrative resources and space at William Way’s Center City headquarters, Bartlett said.
Heshie Zinman, cofounder and chair of the LGBT Elder Initiative, said most older LGBTQ adults aren’t married, and many don’t have children, “and so that fact alone means that as we grow older, we will have a greater reliance on formal systems of care and support.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of disconnectedness,” he said, “and COVID only makes it more difficult.”
Bartlett said older LGBTQ Philadelphians are today facing “twin” crises that a larger nonprofit can help to tackle. There’s the pandemic, which studies show disproportionately impacts LGBTQ people, who experience higher rates of cardiovascular conditions, obesity, and cancer. All are shown to increase the risks associated with contracting COVID-19, as does being HIV-positive.
In addition, Bartlett said, LGBTQ seniors’ rights are “under attack” by President Donald Trump’s administration, which has aimed to chip away at health-care protections for transgender people by removing Obama-era Affordable Care Act nondiscrimination regulations. (Though, just this week, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction and blocked the administration from doing so.)
He also noted the administration removed questions about sexual orientation and gender identity from a survey of older Americans that informs decisions on services for the elderly and federally backed resources, thereby making them “invisible.”
“These are the men and women who created LGBT liberation,” Bartlett said, “and I feel it’s incumbent upon us to provide them not just services, but the best services, as minimal gratitude for the world they created.”