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May 8, 2012

Gay activists, allies gather in Miami for first White House LGBT Conference on Aging

The Miami Herald
By Steve Rothaus
For years, Bruce Williams managed a Texas retirement community. Now 65, he himself is retired, living in Miami Beach and chairman of thePride Center of South Florida’s senior advisory council in Wilton Manors.

Williams, a board member of SAGE South Florida (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), advises other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people how to cope with getting older. “They are ill-prepared for their personal aging situations,” he said. “There’s been very little education available to individuals as to the needs that will arise and the resources that are available or not available to meet those needs.”

On Monday, he and about 160 other gay activists from throughout Florida participated in the first White House LGBT Conference on Aging, held at the University of Miami’s Clinical Research Building in Miami.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, opened the one-day conference.

“It’s hugely important to my constituency,” said Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and one of Congress’ most outspoken gay allies. “I represent one of the largest gay populations in the country. ... We have had for many years a generation of the LGBT community that has been able to live openly. Now, we have unique and specific issues for LGBT seniors that we’re aware of. They always existed, it’s just that they existed in the shadows and there were no services and no attempts to help them.

“It’s important to have the White House conference on aging because now we can specifically identify and assist when there are unique issues, like there are unique issues with every type of senior community,” she said.

National speakers included Kathy Greenlee, an out lesbian administrator at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department; andRafael Bostic, a gay assistant secretary for policy development and research of the Housing & Urban Development Department.

“These LGBT elder issues are real and they are going to get bigger as we go on,” Bostic said. “Just the timing of when people are out and when people are ready to talk about it. We’ve got a wave of elders coming in our community and we need to be ready for them.”

Jim Crochet, state ombudsman for the Florida Department of Elder Affairs’Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, said his office is seeking LGBT people who can be trained to assist elderly gays and lesbians.

This marks “the first time that the LGBT issue has ever been raised” by Elder Affairs, Crochet said.

There are an estimated two million LGBT American seniors (about 4 percent of the national population ages 65 and up), according to Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE USA in New York.

“LGBT adults are four times less likely to have children, twice as likely in their old age to be single and live alone,” Adams said. “They’re more likely to be disconnected from their family of origin. It makes this population particularly vulnerable.”

In 1988, Congress protected poor, elderly married couples from Medicaid Spousal Impoverishment, ensuring that if one spouse enters a nursing home, the other wouldn’t lose his or her home and savings. Gay and lesbian couples, regardless of whether they are married in some states, are not protected, Adams said.

Also at risk are transgender seniors, said Barbara Ann Coombs, 77, of Miami Lakes.

“While I don’t need any long-term care right now, there may be a day when that will come and I want to be myself, not somebody else,” Coombs said. “I want to have that guarantee given to me by the federal government. I served the country for 27 years in the military so I am entitled, I think.”

Married to a wife with grown children, Coombs came out as a trans woman about 25 years ago.

She worries what could happen at a hospital or nursing home where patients usually share rooms with people of the same gender.

“It could get messy,” Coombs said. “Then you’ve got a problem. A big problem.”

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