LGBTQ elders have faced a lifetime of uncertainty. A lifetime of fear. A lifetime of hiding. They work hard to fight for the same rights as everyone else and deserve to retire with dignity and respect.
However, 28 states (including Pennsylvania) still do not adequately protect LGBTQ elders from experiencing discrimination and have no laws on the books that do so. As a result, LGBTQ older people have been legally turned away from vital programs or government-funded services. In fact, a study from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the LGBTQ Task Force found that nearly 19% of respondents were refused care outright because they were transgender or gender-nonconforming.
This discrimination is all too common when LGBTQ elders seek care and essential aging services, due to a lack of LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections at the federal level. When elders go into a nursing home or assisted living facility, they have to consider whether or not to disclose their identity, fearing it will affect the care they receive. According to one survey, nearly half of the LGBTQ people who had entered long-term care or had a loved one in long-term care reported experiencing mistreatment in a care facility.
Much is lost when dignity and respect aren’t afforded to all elders across the country. LGBTQ elders should not have to live in a country where they may be vulnerable to prejudice from their caregivers.
What’s more, not having these basic laws in place doesn’t just harm these individual communities — it hurts our society as a whole. Without a clear, lasting law across the country, businesses and organizations that operate across town lines and state borders are forced to adapt to the different ordinances in municipalities, counties, and states.
But we have the opportunity to change that, both for LGBTQ elders today and our future generations. We can voice our opinions and share our experiences so lawmakers can understand that they need to act. Our legislators must recognize the importance of ensuring that older LGBTQ Pennsylvanians and all LGBTQ elders across the country receive these protections by passing a comprehensive federal law that would finally make discrimination against LGBTQ people illegal. LGBTQ elders and allies will not be silent on this issue — you will hear from us.
We can also do more to ensure safe places for LGBTQ elders, like the Senior Adult Activities Center of Montgomery County. The center is a place for aging adults and their families to find support, guidance, and educational and social programs to help navigate life transitions and continue being active, creative, healthy, and engaged in the community.
At the center, we strive to provide an atmosphere where anyone who walks through our doors can feel comfortable disclosing who they are. Nothing symbolizes this more than the great big Pride flag hanging up at the entrance of our senior center. Without spaces like the center, a lack of welcoming resources and a respectful community can stunt the ability of older LGBTQ people to thrive as they age. We should be working to give all individuals the opportunity to flourish and live to their fullest potential, not just exist.
Through Meals on Wheels distributions, two senior centers, and an intergenerational art program, the Montgomery County center operates with essential core values such as community building, program excellence, and diversity and inclusion. This mission has led the center to participate in several programs and advocacy efforts for LGBTQ elders in the aging community.
It is a constant battle and one that’s made more challenging because Pennsylvania, with such a rich and influential history, does not have LGBTQ protections in place. It’s a shame. We call on our elected officials to enact lasting, comprehensive nondiscrimination protections at the federal level and support a future where LGBTQ elders do not have to live with uncertainty and fear, no matter where they live.
Michele Ross is the Norristown program coordinator at the Senior Adult Activities Center of Montgomery County. Donna Byrne is the Ambler site manager at the Senior Adult Activities Center of Montgomery County.