LGBT seniors are being bullied in housing facilities: 'This is happening all the time'

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor

A 70-year-old lesbian’s lawsuit against her senior housing facility, which she claims has failed to keep her safe from antigay harassment, is highlighting a troubling fact of life for many LGBT seniors: the return, in their supposed “golden years,” of bullying.

Marsha Wetzel, 70, is suing her former senior housing facility, which is alleged to have not protected her from antigay, bullying residents. (Photo: Courtesy of Lambda Legal)

“I thought, oh no, here we go again: gay hate,” said Marsha Wetzel in a video she created with her attorneys at Lambda Legal.

Wetzel is appealing her recently dismissed case against the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles, Ill., where she lived for three years (and which maintains it did not discriminate against Wetzel). After coming out to another resident there, Wetzel says she was forced to dodge peers who physically attacked her and called her names, including “f***ing dyke” and “homosexual bitch.”

“I tried to avoid them, but they would seek me out and taunt me,” she said. “I’ve heard every negative homosexual term. I’ve been hit more than once. … When is it going to stop?”

For Wetzel, at least, it has stopped for now, because she has relocated to a supportive facility in Chicago. But many other LGBT seniors like her — who faced years of bullying in their youth and had hoped, finally, to be living in safety and contentment — find themselves in residential facilities where they must deal with homophobic and transphobic harassment.

“Senior spaces are seeing a huge increase of people who have lived their entire adult lives out of the closet … but then find themselves with aggressors who are completely emboldened in terms of their generational attitudes,” Karen Loewy, lead counsel on Wetzel’s case and the seniors’ program strategist at Lambda Legal, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

LGBT seniors, already facing health and financial issues of aging, can be more vulnerable to isolation and harassment. (Photo: Getty Images)

Situations like Wetzel’s are very common, Loewy says, although there are scant statistics on the issue. “We know we’re not hearing about the vast majority of them,” largely because coming forward to find help and support in such a threatening environment takes huge resolve, she says. “But anecdotally, we know this is happening all the time.”

According to 2010 statistics (the most recent available) from the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, an estimated 1.5 million adults age 65 and over are lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB); about 4.1 percent of American adults identify as LGB, resulting in an estimated 1.5 million LGB elders today — a total that is expected to grow to nearly 3 million by 2030. (Unfortunately, there is little information on the number of transgender older adults, the report noted.)

Regarding much-needed support in postretirement years, the resource center notes the following: Although 80 percent of long-term care in the U.S. is provided by family members, LGBT elders are twice as likely to be single and three to four times more likely to be without children than their heterosexual counterparts. Further, many professional caregivers are not accepting of LGBT elders and not trained to deal properly with their unique needs. Therefore, such caregivers might be hostile, discriminatory, or simply unaware that LGBT elders exist. For example, 8.3 percent of LGBT elders reported being neglected or abused by a caretaker due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBT folks can face more isolation and discrimination as they age. (Photo: Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

“LGBT people face myriad complications when aging,” Hilary Meyer, chief enterprise and innovation officer at SAGE, a national advocacy organization for LGBT elders, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “On top of the same concerns that non-LGBT people face as they age, such as financial insecurity and declining health, studies have shown that LGBT elders are more likely than their non-LGBT peers to be at risk for social isolation due to shrinking support networks and higher rates of living alone, and face higher rates of discrimination when accessing health care and housing. For older people who may already be vulnerable, dealing with discrimination and bullying by peers in a residential setting can be even more difficult.”

She adds that “LGBT older people have lived through decades of stigma and discrimination by their peers, families, and society’s systems of care. For much of their lives — and still for some people, especially trans folks — LGBT people could be fired, involuntarily hospitalized, arrested and prosecuted, and worse by the very societal systems designed to protect people. Because of that, LGBT people carry a tremendous amount of fear and concern about mistreatment.”

In an effort to make it easier, SAGE offers a national training and credentialing program on LGBT aging to facilities and providers across the country on how to provide “culturally competent care to LGBT people,” Meyer says. An agency that completes the program then earns a SAGECare credential, signaling that it’s a safe place for LGBT seniors.

Another helpful trend has been the rise of LGBT senior communities and housing facilities opening up around the country — including in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, Provincetown, Mass., and Pecos, N.M. SAGE is behind the effort to bring such a facility to New York City, where the project has broken ground in Brooklyn and is expected to open in 2019.

Marsha Wetzel. (Photo: Courtesy of Lambda Legal)

In the absence of such safe havens, though, there is often fear of abuse — rightly so, in many cases.

“Many of our constituents describe the action of ‘scanning the environment’ for clues that this is a safe place to be openly LGBT,” Meyer says. “If they don’t see signs of safety, or worse, hear disparaging remarks or see harassing behaviors, they will likely stay closeted so as to try to ensure that they do not become victims themselves.

She adds: “For anyone having to hide core parts of their identity, especially where they would otherwise call ‘home,’ there are damaging results to a person’s ability to be happy, healthy and age successfully. For example, just imagine if you lived in a place where you could never talk with your neighbors or peers about a deceased partner with whom you shared your life, instead pretending the person never existed? It’s incredibly destructive to a person’s well-being.”

As for Wetzel, she moved into Glen Saint Andrew after losing her partner of 30 years to colon cancer — which followed being shunned by her adult son, being evicted from her home, and getting shut out of the family by her late partner’s relatives. “No one would drive me to her funeral,” she said. It was then, amid her grief, when she opened up about her late partner and the child they had raised together, that she wound up being bullied. Luckily, she was directed to the Lambda Legal help desk by a caseworker. The staff at the residence facility, she reported, did nothing to try to protect her.

“I don’t feel any safety in going to them … they ignore me like I’m a ghost,” she explained in the video. “I put in a complaint, I hear nothing. I’m not treated like the other residents. If you can’t go to the staff, who do you go to?”

Although taking the abuse as an adult is in some ways easier than it might be for children and adolescents, Wetzel noted, it definitely took its toll. “The older I’m getting and the pride I feel knowing [my late partner] Judy Kahn and loving her, and her loving me, it’s easier to handle these taunts,” she said. “But still, there are some that surprise you and hurt you.”

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