We can’t leave LGBTQ+ elders behind


There are more than 2.4 million LGBTQ+ adults over the age of 50 in the United States, and this population is expected to more than double by the year 2030. From inadequate access to health care to financial insecurity, older LGBTQ+ adults face a unique set of challenges compared to the general population of older adults. When President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021, Congress has the responsibility to work with the new administration to pass legislation that will meet their specific needs, including protecting and expanding Medicare and Social Security. In our fight for equality and for better services for America’s seniors, we must ensure that LGBTQ+ elders are not left behind

LGBTQ+ older adults make up a distinct population that is disproportionately affected by longstanding discriminatory policies across various areas of life — health care in particular. According to the Williams Institute, LGBTQ+ older adults face greater risks of both physical and mental health issues, and higher rates of disease. Like many members of the LGBTQ+ community, they often conceal their gender identity and sexual orientation from health care providers due to fear of judgement or discrimination. These health care disparities are serious, especially for a population that has faced barriers accessing quality health care at all stages of life. While Medicare benefits cover LGBTQ+ seniors, they still face the high cost of prescription medication, out of pocket expenses, and the underlying issue of accessibility and LGBTQ+ affirming care. Medicare is a lifeline for our seniors, but more needs to be done to fill the gaps that disproportionately affect the LGBTQ+ community. Under a Biden administration, we must not only protect Medicare, we must also expand it to ensure that America’s seniors, especially LGBTQ+ older adults, have access to the lifesaving health care they need and deserve.

Apart from facing significant health care disparities, LGBTQ+ elders also face financial insecurity that threatens their livelihood. Due to discriminatory unemployment practices experienced throughout their lives and their careers, LGBTQ+ people encounter higher rates of poverty and a less secure retirement. For example, according to SAGE USA, LGBTQ+ Americans are far more likely to be subject to hiring or salary discrimination, leaving them with fewer financial resources and making their earnings — and their Social Security payments — much lower. Currently, 64 million people in America rely on Social Security for a dignified retirement, but this reality is different for LGBTQ+ older adults. According to Forbes, straight men make 46 percent more than gay men, and transgender individuals are 275 percent more likely to make less than $10,000 per year compared to their cisgender (a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth) counterparts. This makes living comfortably and saving for retirement much more difficult. If we want to support our LGBTQ+ elders, we must level the playing field, codify employment nondiscrimination protection in the law, and expand Social Security benefits. The path to equality has to include a way for everyone to retire with dignity. 

Aside from protecting and expanding Medicare and Social Security, Congress must pass new legislation to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ older Americans. Several legislative proposals have been introduced by members of the Equality Caucus that would address some of the challenges this population faces. The Elder Pride Act would establish an office of Inclusivity and Sexual Health within the Department of Health and Human Services, support research in the field of LGBTQ+ aging, and create a grant program to help support organizations that serve LGBTQ+ older Americans. We must also make the Older Americans Act more inclusive of the unique needs of LGBTQ+ people to ensure they are taken care of. The Ruth and Connie LGBT Elder Americans Act would amend the Older Americans Act by including the LGBTQ+ community as a vulnerable population, providing funds, critical resources, information and tools for aging service providers. This is critical because it’s often difficult for LGBTQ+ older Americans to find caregivers or safe, inclusive long-term living facilities to settle down in. There’s plenty of work to do as a nation to better support LGBTQ+ elders, but these are just some of the legislative actions Congress can immediately take under a Biden administration to address their specific needs. 

It’s clear that LGBTQ+ older adults face a unique set of challenges that are not yet widely understood or addressed in our society. As we prepare to enter this next Congress and swear in a new administration, we must commit ourselves to ensuring that our seniors, especially those who are more vulnerable, have access to the resources they need. That means strengthening programs our seniors depend on, like Medicare and Social Security, but also passing laws that are considerate to their unique needs. If we truly want to become a more equal, a more perfect union, we can’t leave anyone behind, especially not LGBTQ+ elders. Let’s get to work.

This article was originally published in The Hill on December 2, 2020.

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