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New law to support LGBTQ seniors: ‘We all deserve to age as our authentic selves’

Chicago Sun Times

Monday, September 9, 2019  |  Article  |  Jake Wittich

Homosexuality/Civil Unions/Gay Marriage (96)

When Don Bell, a South Side native and gay man in the first generation of “out” LGBTQ older adults, was searching for senior housing at the age of 65, one of his biggest concerns was having to go back into the closet.

 

The retired college administrator, now 70, said he couldn’t be his authentic self in the senior living facility where he and his mother spent the last three years of her life. He worried about having to go back into the closet to be welcomed and receive aging services.

 

“I couldn’t be my authentic self where we lived, so I would have had no one,” Bell said. “That takes away your spirit.”

 

Fortunately, Bell was selected as one of the first residents of Town Hall Apartments, Chicago’s first LGBTQ-inclusive senior living facility that opened in 2014. Town Hall Apartments is a partnership among the Center on Halsted, the Chicago Housing Authority and Heartland Alliance.

 

The 79-unit facility, which occupies the former 19th District police station where gay men were once arrested and taken from bar raids, is now home to a mostly LGBTQ community of adults. Through the Center on Addison, the Center on Halsted’s facility serving LGBTQ seniors at 806 W. Addison St., it also offers a variety of services to older LGBTQ people.

 

“It’s wonderful here, but we also have a little bit of survivor’s guilt,” Bell said. “We got what everybody should have. We all deserve to age as our authentic selves.”

 

Not all LGBTQ older people have access to LGBTQ-inclusive aging services, and like Bell, many worry about having to hide their identity as they age. According to AARP’s 2018 survey of LGBTQ adults age 45 or older:

 

34% of LGBTQ older adults worry they’ll have to hide their identity to access suitable housing;

At least 60% are concerned about neglect, abuse or verbal or physical harassment;

61% worry about being refused or having limited access to services;

52% worry about being forced to hide or deny their authentic selves.

“These are the same people who over the past several decades made great achievements for LGBTQ civil rights and HIV care that we have today. It’s incumbent on us to ensure they have adequate, affirming spaces and care while aging,” said Mike Ziri, public policy director at Equality Illinois, which worked on a new law aiming to ensure aging services are more inclusive of older adults who are LGBTQ or living with HIV.

 

 

The law, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Aug. 9, functions by amending two state laws to better serve the two populations.

 

First, it updates the Illinois Act on Aging to include gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and HIV status in its definition of populations of “greatest social need.” This makes them target populations in aging programs funded by the federal Older Americans Act, Ziri said.

 

The Older Americans Act, which passed in 1965, supports a variety of home- and community-based services for senior adults, including nutrition programs like meals-on-wheels, in-home services, transportation, legal support, elder abuse prevention and caregiver support.

 

Illinois is the first state to make this distinction for older adults living with HIV and the third state to make this distinction for LGBTQ seniors, following California and Massachusetts.

 

The new law also updates the Illinois Assisted Living and Shared Housing Act with a nondiscrimination clause protecting all categories outlined in the Illinois Human Rights Act, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, who co-sponsored the bill with state Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, said the bill was partially influenced by a major federal court case about anti-LGBTQ discrimination at a long-term facility within his district.

 

The case involved Marsha Wetzel, who sued Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles for allegedly doing nothing to stop other residents from bullying her for being lesbian. The case was closed in August 2018 when the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that landlords are obligated to protect LGBTQ tenants from harassment by other tenants.

Stefanie Clark, a 76-year-old transgender “renaissance” woman and activist in Edgewater, said she also worried about discrimination while seeking a roommate through the Center on Halsted’s senior home-sharing program. The Center first introduced Clark to two men, who each decided not to move in.

 

“I wasn’t sure whether they just didn’t want to do the program or if it was because they didn’t want to be associated with a trans person,” Clark said.

 

In 2017, the Center introduced Clark to Jane, who’s now her roommate and best friend.

 

“We love classical music, so we listen to it every meal,” Clark said. “I’ve made her over 650 breakfasts since she moved in, and she’s an excellent cook so she makes dinners.”

 

Aisha Davis, policy and advocacy manager at Howard Brown Health, said aging can be even more challenging for transgender or gender-nonconforming adults, who might not have access to transition-related medications or nursing staff who are educated and willing to make sure they’re getting hormones and other needed services.

 

“This law addresses the intentional discrimination that people face but also this information gap so that care providers are aware and up to date,” Davis said.

 

Kim Hunt, executive director of Pride Action Tank of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, agreed, saying that closing the information gap is a key component of the new law.

 

Hunt said Pride Action Tank is developing programming to educate senior service providers on the new law and the needs of older adults who are LGBTQ or living with HIV.

 

“The real work is changing hearts and minds and educating senior care facilities on how to properly care for LGBTQ people and people with HIV,” Hunt said.