National Coming Out Day: Some LGBTQ+ seniors fearing discrimination go back ‘into the closet’

When Don Bell, a 71-year-old gay man, was searching for a senior living facility, he knew one thing for sure: He didn’t want to go “back into the closet” to find a safe place to live.

“I had to face the fact that I was entering the stage of life where I was going to be living alone and responsible for my own life,” Bell told ABC News. “I had to look around at my own home community, and I had to consider where I would be safe and where I would be accepted.”

Bell was his mother’s caretaker for many years, but after she died, he feared living alone. He said he wondered what life might be like if he was unable to find a welcoming environment as a gay Black man.

Fearing homelessness, Bell fortunately won a lottery for one of the 72 spots in Chicago’s first LGBTQ+-inclusive living facility.

But many aren’t so lucky. Some older members of the LGBTQ+ community are forced to hide their sexuality or gender identity in long-term care or housing facilities because they’re afraid of discrimination.

LGBTQ+ elders are a vulnerable population — they experience high rates of social isolation, are less likely to have children to care for them and experience higher levels of disability and illness, according to research by the Human Rights Campaign. Discrimination only exacerbates these insecurities.

About 3 out of 4 LGBTQ+ adults age 45 and older said they’re concerned about having enough support from family and friends as they get older, according to a 2018 study by AARP.

According to Michael Adams, chief executive officer of the LGBTQ+ senior advocacy group SAGE, elderly LGBTQ+ people often fear they’ll be refused care, abused or neglected in senior living communities.

“Re-closeting,” Adams explained, “looks like: People taking the pictures of their loved ones and their partners down off their walls because they’re afraid a homecare attendant will see the pictures and will mistreat them as a result of it.”

AARP found that respondents living in “unfriendly” communities were seven times more likely to report experiences of housing discrimination due to their sexual or gender identity.

“It looks like making believe that they’re straight when they’re not,” Adams added. “It looks like making believe that they don’t have same-sex partners, hiding their LGBTQ+ magazines … it means erasing a whole fundamental part of their lives in order to protect themselves.”

There aren’t consistent or explicit anti-discrimination protections for all LGBTQ+ people at a federal level. SAGE data shows that about half of all LGBTQ+ older adults live in states where it’s not illegal to deny access to housing or public accommodations based on someone’s sexuality or gender expression.

Only 18% of long-term care communities have policies in place that protect LGBTQ+ residents, SAGE’s research shows.

Bell can recall the many forms of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination he’s experienced throughout his life. He’s part of what he calls the first “out” generation, which is now aging: “We have lived the entire 50-year arc of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. Everything from Stonewall onward is not history to us, it’s life experience to us.”

The sharpest memories of discrimination for Bell seem to be the HIV/AIDS crisis that killed hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ people across the U.S. during the 1980s. The epidemic peaked in 2004, killing 1.9 million in one year, according to UNAIDS, a United Nations advocacy agency.

Patients with HIV/AIDs, as well as other LGBTQ+ people at the time, faced discrimination in health care, employment, housing — and the community was forced to create its own safe spaces.

“Many of the brick-and-mortar institutions that exist in the LGBTQ+ community are those that we had to build ourselves because we could not seek shelter or care in other places,” Bell told ABC News.

Bell lives in one of few spaces created specifically for LGBTQ+ elderly people in the country. New York, California and Illinois are among the states where inclusive housing is easier to obtain, and organizations like SAGE are trying to help ensure access to more.

SAGE is working to build housing specifically designed for LGBTQ+ elders, to change laws and policies that protect elders from discrimination, and offer centers, programs and more to keep elders safe while they live alone.

They work with local legislators and partner on initiatives to address discrimination and safety issues.

However, Adams said, they can’t do the work alone.

“We need people in power — our legislators, our governors — to understand that our elders have given so much to our society,” he said. “They have worked so hard over so many decades, and it is profoundly wrong that because of who they love, and because of who they are, that in the later years of their life, they are left completely vulnerable to discrimination mistreatment. That has to change.”

Lujira Cooper, a 73-year-old lesbian woman, has never been had to hide her sexuality, but she said she understands the pain that being closeted, or re-closeted, can cause.

“It’s a form of isolation, traumatic, and I can see it creating a case of more suicides,” Cooper explained. “You don’t want to have to go through that again just to get a place to live and be safe and cared for and comfortable. And it’s a fight, and unfortunately it’s a fight that’s still going on.”

For National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, Cooper urges people of all sexualities and gender identities to stand up for LGBTQ+ seniors — people who’ve played big roles in the gay rights movement’s success.

“Community is really important and finding like-minded people who will fight with and for you is a major task for senior LGBTQ+ people,” Cooper said.

Adams agrees: “We had to fight for the right to get old. We’re not willing to accept that we’re going to be treated like pariahs and made invisible in our old age. We won’t accept that.”

This article was originally published in Good Morning America on October 11, 2021.