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Sen. Toomey’s historic opportunity to protect LGBTQ elders | Opinion

To feel safe, LGBTQ elders shouldn’t have to wait for our representatives to have an incremental change of heart.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.).
Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.).Read moreJ. Scott Applewhite / AP

It’s the job of Congress to pass legislation that protects all of us. Sen. Pat Toomey has a historic opportunity to protect millions of Americans, including millions of older LGBTQ Americans, by supporting the Equality Act.

LGBTQ people in our golden years have spent decades calling for and waiting on the kinds of protections the Equality Act will provide. This commonsense bipartisan legislation would finally update our federal civil rights laws to explicitly protect us from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, health care, employment, public accommodations, credit, federally funded programs, and more.

Without federal protections like the Equality Act, many LGBTQ seniors are without recourse when we are mistreated, excluded, and discriminated against as we age.

Nearly one-quarter of the nation’s LGBTQ population are over 50. Most of us have lived a life marked by consistent discrimination. At the age where many Americans retire, we are more likely to live alone and struggle financially, face housing insecurity, and may continue working in our later years — all experiences that make us vulnerable to more discrimination. Far too many of us are evicted from our homes or residential communities, turned away from stores and businesses, denied health care, or excluded from government services simply because of who we are.

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Here in Pennsylvania and across the country, all of us should be able to participate in all aspects of daily life with dignity and respect, and without fear of discrimination. No one should be at risk of being denied housing or refused service simply because of who we are or who we love. As the leader of the LGBTQ Elder Initiative and cochair of the Aging Committee on the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, my work and life has been dedicated to expanding freedom for all Pennsylvanians — and I know from experience that the vast majority of us want to see each other treated fairly.

Seventy-six percent of Americans say they favor LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, including 62% of Republicans and a majority in every state in the country. Momentum for LGBTQ equality is building and America is ready for Congress to pass clear, comprehensive, and secure nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans in all 50 states.

Our elected leaders need to follow the lead of their constituents on this issue. Currently, 50% of LGBTQ people live in the 29 states that lack comprehensive statewide laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people. We shouldn’t have to wait for our representatives to have an incremental change of heart.

According to an issue brief released this month by SAGE and the Movement Advancement Project, LGBTQ older people report experiences of discrimination across many areas of life — at work, at the doctor’s office, within residential communities, and when seeking housing, and when accessing social supports like senior centers. Too many are financially insecure and need access to credit. And many rely on senior living providers who subject them to discrimination and harassment. LGBTQ older people cite fears about moving out of their own homes and into residential communities because of the discrimination they may experience. Indeed, nearly half of LGBTQ people who had entered long-term care or had a loved one in long-term care experienced mistreatment in a care facility.

The LGBTQ Elder Initiative tracks data on the experiences of older LGBTQ people from across the country, and our work supports these findings.

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We have found that LGBTQ elders report an almost universal fear and anxiety of care provision by strangers in assisted living and nursing care settings. Living in isolation, and fearful of the discrimination they could encounter in mainstream aging settings, many marginalized elders are at higher risk for elder abuse, neglect, and various forms of exploitation.

Facing a lifetime of employment discrimination has meant that LGBTQ elders are poorer and less financially secure than American elders as a whole. Due to unequal access and lack of partner recognition, LGBTQ seniors have lower rates of health insurance coverage and are often excluded from accessing a partner’s federal family leave benefits, equivalent Medicaid spend-downs, Social Security benefits, bereavement leave, or automatic inheritance of jointly owned real estate and personal property.

It’s time for Sen. Toomey to listen to his constituents, show leadership, and do everything possible to pass the Equality Act.

Heshie Zinman is a cofounder of the LGBTQ Elder Initiative and cochair of the Aging Committee on the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.