We need to address lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender inequality and implement change to ensure that, "we will all be able to live out our final years surrounded by the people we love in exactly the way we choose," Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) told attendees at a CAP Action event yesterday.
Baldwin was joined at the event, "Understanding and Meeting the Needs of LGBT Elders," by a panel of experts that included Michael Adams, executive director of Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders; Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project; and Percil Stanford, chief diversity officer at the American Association of Retired Persons. Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at CAP Action Jessica Arons gave introductory remarks and CAP Action Senior Vice President for External Affairs Winnie Stachelberg gave introductory remarks and moderated.
The event centered around research and recommendations detailed in a new report, "Improving the Lives of LGBT Older Adults," which was released in March 2010 by SAGE and MAP in partnership with the American Society on Aging, the Center for American Progress, and the National Senior Citizens Law Center.
"The LGBT movement today is focused on our headline issues" such as repealing "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," working toward marriage equality, and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Stachelberg said. But there are many more important issues that need urgent attention, such as LGBT elders. A "lack of full LGBT equality has real impact on real people’s lives" and LGBT elders in particular face "challenges and obstacles that their straight peers do not" due to a lack of relationship recognition and employment benefits, she said.
All older adults face challenges as they age, but LGBT elders’ lives are made even more difficult due to legal inequalities, as well as "homophobia and a hostile health care system" that amounts to institutional discrimination, Baldwin said.
To paint a clearer picture of "inequality in the eyes of the law," she cited the example of Harold and Clay, an older gay couple who lived in Sonoma County, California together for more than 25 years. They outlined their relationship in their wills and powers of attorney, but when Harold was injured and admitted to a nursing home, Clay was not allowed to visit him or take control of his partner’s estate. Local authorities referred to them as roommates instead of partners, auctioned off their belongings, and Clay spent the next four months unable to visit his dying partner.
"The cruelty of these cases is unconscionable…but we can and we must take steps to make sure" this type of injustice does not continue, Baldwin said. The way to bring public attention to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender elders is by "putting a face on the issues we talk about…these are real people," she said. It is important for policymakers to hear these stories and know it is a human injustice.
But real stories are not enough. "We need a voice, and we need visibility to tell our stories. But we also need data," Baldwin said. If you cannot prove inequality or discrimination through statistical data, it is impossible to successfully argue that change is needed and pinpoint the specific fixes that would help the most. Questions about sexual orientation and gender identity must be added to general government health surveys to overcome this problem.
Repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, also known as DOMA, will give equal access to federally provided health and income benefits, Baldwin said. She also wants reforms that will put these Americans on an equal footing with their heterosexual counterparts, stressing that "discrimination will not be tolerated."
Patients in the healthcare system must be treated with dignity and respect. Staff at nursing homes, hospitals, and other health care facilities need to be educated about LGBT issues and trained to provide this population with the same level of care afforded to others.
Short of fully repealing DOMA and enacting marriage rights for gay couples, federal programs such as Medicaid and Social Security could be amended to include same-sex couples. These couples currently receive 24 percent less in annual Social Security benefits than their heterosexual married counterparts, despite the fact that gay couples pay into the system at the same rate as straight couples.
"The time to address these issues is now," Adams said. The Baby Boomer generation is starting to enter their senior years and this is the first generation to have lived openly LGBT lives. They are also two times as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to be single and four times less likely to have children, which reduces the chance that they have someone who can help care for them in their later years. Those who do have close family members are also in a bind, because their families are often not legally recognized. Our current laws do not provide any protections to these families of choice, and are instead based upon the presumption of heterosexual marriage.
Cumulatively, these challenges negatively impact LGBT seniors’ financial security, health and wellbeing, and social and community connections.
The report offers a host of recommendations to minimize or eliminate these negative outcomes, Adams said. One approach is to create a legislative model that includes "permanent partner" benefits in Social Security, Medicaid, family medical leave, hospital visitation, inheritance laws and estate taxes, and other policies. Congress should also pass nondiscrimination laws that include public accommodations—which include nursing homes and hospitals—and should work with health care providers on nondiscriminatory policies and cultural competency training.
Making sure that LGBT elders have healthy, secure, and rewarding lives requires reaching out to the mainstream aging community. The AARP has taken in a lead in this area, as Stanford described in his remarks. "What we do, we do for all," he said. He further said that, "as an organization, we’re certainly committed to social change" and we "cannot afford to segregate based on color, sexual orientation, gender identity" or anything else.