LGBTQ seniors fear discrimination when searching for housing


Many LGBTQ+ seniors who live in long-term care communities and senior housing are fearful of being mistreated, refused care, neglected, or abused—with some even re-closeting themselves for safety. In many states, it’s still legal to deny access to housing and public resources, and few long-term care facilities have policies to protect residents based on sexual orientation and gender identity. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports.

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Hari Sreenivasan:

It’s hard enough in this country to find safe secure housing if you’re elderly, much harder still if you identify as LGBTQ. Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day, but tonight we have a story about some of the 2.4 million seniors who identify as LGBTQ going back in the closet. It’s because many elderly gay and trans people fear mistreatment and abuse when seeking senior housing.

The Fair Housing Act prohibits the denial of housing based race, religion, or sex but there is no federal law that explicitly protects people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano visited one senior housing development in New York City that is making sure their LGBTQ residents are welcome.

Ivette Feliciano:

Stonewall House in Brooklyn is an LGBTQ-friendly senior housing development. SAGE, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ elders which created Stonewall House, says it is the largest such development in the country. The 145-unit building, which opened in 2019, is named in honor of the 1969 uprising often cited as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

71-year-old Deidra Nottingham was one of the first to move in.

Deidra Nottingham:

I said, finally, a house for us to stay in and not be judged. You know, I’ve been waiting a long time, over 50 years, for something like this.

Ivette Feliciano:

You don’t have to be gay or transgender to live here. To qualify, you must be at least 62 years old, and earn 60 percent or less of the area median income.

But the fact that Stonewall House welcomes gay and trans seniors is important to Nottingham. For decades, she says she faced housing discrimination, and at points, homelessness, due to her sexual orientation. It began at 14, when she came out as lesbian and her family kicked her out on the street. It just got worse from there.

Deidra Nottingham:

When I was younger, me and my girlfriend, they wouldn’t rent to us. And it was hard because we couldn’t go back home. My family didn’t want us. It’s hard when they’re calling you a freak or a weirdo. I was called that lots of times by my own family members. So it’s very hard when you don’t have no support. And there wasn’t any groups out there where you could go to. We were lost.

Ivette Feliciano:

Nottingham says before coming to Stonewall House she lived in eight other residential long term care facilities over the last 12 years. Each included some level of neglect, or hostility, by staff and other elderly residents.

Deidra Nottingham:

They did not want gay people there. They always made remarks and cursed at me when I came outside. So I just couldn’t take it, I was afraid that they was going to set my door on fire or something.

Ivette Feliciano:

Were you ever tempted to hide who you were in these housing situations?

Deidra Nottingham:

Yes. A couple times. I was scared.

Ivette Feliciano:

According to SAGE, gay and trans seniors face more obstacles than their straight counterparts. They’re more socially isolated because they are less likely to have children, and are more likely to live alone, or to be estranged from their families.

And a lifetime of employment discrimination contributes to higher poverty rates among LGBTQ people over the age of 50, according to the UCLA School of Law Williams Instiute .

Michael Adams:

It is truly a disgrace that there is no federal law prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing.

Ivette Feliciano:

Michael Adams is SAGE’s CEO.

Michael Adams:

And what that means is that about half of our LGBTQ older adults are living in places where there are no such protections because there’s no federal law and there’s no state law.

Ivette Feliciano:

SAGE reports that more than one third of LGBTQ seniors fear having to “re-closet” themselves when seeking housing due to discrimination and violence.

Michael Adams:

And their fears are real and they’re based in fact. Sadly, we hear over and over again from our elders that some of the places they feel least safe and most vulnerable to harassment and discrimination is where they live. One of the big challenges we’re dealing with is the vast majority of residential long term care communities have no formal policies that are protecting and lifting up LGBTQ elders.

Ivette Feliciano:

SAGE teamed up with the human rights campaign to create what it calls the Long Term Care Equality Index. It says that only 18% of senior housing communities have policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

With 29 affiliates nationwide, SAGE trains long term care providers on how to support older LGBTQ people. This includes cultural competency, writing staff and resident non-discrimination policies, and having LGBTQ-inclusive intake forms and marketing materials.

Michael Adams:

Many of the residential communities are run by faith based organizations, while some of them are wonderful and are embracing of LGBTQ people, some of them are not. So we have numerous instances of blatant discrimination where these communities simply refuse to accept people because they’re LGBTQ. And then if people are accepted, there is the question of is this an environment where I can be open about who I am?

Ivette Feliciano:

Seventy-eight-year-old Stonewall House resident Bill Meehan understands more than most.

Bill Meehan:

Back when I was a young man, being gay was not the thing you ascribed to be. Being gay was a psychological association, psychiatric association. To them, it was a disease.

Ivette Feliciano:

A former catholic priest, Meehan battled coming to terms with his sexual identity before finally coming out in his early forties.

Bill Meehan:

I gave myself a hard time in just trying to be who I was. And that’s a terrible journey, you know, and the idea that some people have to go back to that is just not right. This place offered an opportunity for gay people to find housing proudly. And it’s not totally a gay house. It’s a mixed community here. But it’s a community that recognizes diversity. We celebrate diversity, and as different as we all are, we live together nicely.

Ivette Feliciano:

SAGE is lobbying congress to pass the Equality Act, which would create federal anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws for housing. In the meantime, at the state level, it’s pushing for legislatures to adopt a long term care bill of rights for LGBTQ seniors.

Deidra Nottingham has no plans to leave her one-bedroom apartment at Stonewall House because she feels safer than she ever has.

Deidra Nottingham:

I be so happy when I wake up, and I haven’t felt like this in a long time. It doesn’t bother me being alone. I feel comfortable. I come downstairs, three o’clock in the morning just to check my mail. That’s how safe I feel. It makes me happy when I see somebody like me. It’s refreshing. I’m home.

This article was originally published in PBS NewsHour on October 10, 2021.

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