LGBT Elder Initiative celebrates 10 years

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Heshie Zinman and Dr. Levine at the 2019 A Cause for Applause event.

Philadelphia’s LGBT Elder Initiative (LGBTEI), which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is hosting its annual A Cause for Applause event on January 14. The virtual gathering will honor Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, U.S. Senator Bob Casey, and the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE).

“It is an honor to be this year’s recipient of the Edwin J. Bomba Memorial Award for Advocacy as the LGBT Elder Initiative celebrates its 10th anniversary,” Sen. Casey said in a written statement. “The LGBT Elder Initiative has established itself as the one of the leading voices for older LGBT Pennsylvanians and I thank them for their years of advocacy …I promise to continue to be a partner in the fight for equality and to help carry the legacy of Edwin Bomba into the future.”

Bomba, who passed away in 2016, was a founding member of the LGBTEI and did advocacy work for members of the LGBTQ community, seniors, people living with HIV/AIDS, people with disabilities and intersections thereof. 

Dr. Levine, who will receive the LGBT Elder Initiative Angel Award, echoed Casey’s sentiment.  “I am grateful to accept this award from the LGBT Elder Initiative, an organization that has truly united our community and provides resources and education to help provide social, emotional, financial and medical support structures for over a decade,” she said in a written statement. “Here is to another decade of providing resources, changing lives for the better and supporting LGBT individuals as they age.” 

“I feel a lot of pride for the Elder Initiative, said Heshie Zinman, director of the initiative’s special projects. “Looking back, we created a conversation in the city about LGBT aging back in 2010, gathering people around the table talking about the perceived needs of LGBT older adults.” 

All three honorees this year have done important work in tackling issues facing LGBTQ elders. 

Sen. Casey has worked to boost health and economic services for senior Pennsylvanians through his work in state government, including his participation in the Special Committee on Aging and the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Dr. Levine has served as the state’s calm and fearless leader in battling COVID-19 in Pennsylvania. She became part of the Wolf administration in 2015, where she initially served as Physician General. 

Members of CARIE, including Executive Director Diane Menio and Development Director Michele Mathis, along with members of other local LGBTQ+ organizations, helped get the LGBTEI off the ground in 2010. The folks at CARIE served as its fiscal sponsor before it achieved 501c3 status. The two organizations have frequently collaborated over the years. 

“When we first started doing this work, we didn’t really envision that there would be an organization,” Menio said. “It’s a really nice thing that it’s lasted this long. It’s brought a lot of attention to the issues. Having the elder issues focused on is great, because we know bias is in all communities. Ageism is another ism that we have to be concerned about.”

Some of the issues that affect LGBTQ elders, many of whom have kept their queer identities concealed in a largely heteronormative society, include discrimination in various aspects of life such as healthcare and housing, isolation, domestic abuse, a lack of LGBTQ-competent care and long-term care equality.

“In the past, what would it mean for someone who is in a gay relationship to actually come out and talk about being abused,” Mathes asked rhetorically. “That was not anything that I think was possible to talk about.”

The LGBTEI team has indeed accomplished a lot in the last decade. The organization’s 2018 LGBTQ aging summit is among one of its most significant achievements, Zinman said. Members of the initiative spoke with Pennsylvania state legislators to bring the summit to fruition, which some 300 people attended. 

“There’s five regions across the state,” Zinman said, “and we wanted to create a network of representatives of those regions where we could be talking about the needs of LGBT older adults – service needs, resources, and be able to share that information across the state.”

Menio also confirmed that the state-level policy work that members of the LGBTEI and CARIE have been doing has proven beneficial. 

“There was a task force set up by the lieutenant governor’s office on COVID and disparities,” Menio said. “They included all the issues that we had to be concerned about – racial, cultural, sexual orientation and gender identity were all included. It’s not something we have to tell them to do anymore. That’s probably one of the big accomplishments of the EI, we’re doing what we have to do as a community, rather than being told what we have to do.”

Zinman also cited the LGBTEI’s work in the area of HIV and aging as particularly important. Thrivers, the initiative’s monthly discussion group, is a space for people impacted by HIV/AIDS. Members of the initiative have played a role in facilitating The Reunion Project, an annual event that honors and shares the stories of people living with HIV in the long term, founded by Matt Sharp and Jeff Berry. The LGBTEI also held a health summit in 2016 in collaboration with Jefferson Health. 

“What we have been able to do at the Elder Initiative is to pull together government insurance, LGBT organizations, aging service organizations and we’ve really been able to raise the bar on LGBT aging,” Zinman added. “There’s much greater involvement [and knowledge] on the part of LGBT people about aging, I think because of the Elder Initiative.” 

He added that the LGBTEI plans to roll out a series of programs around March or April dedicated to the management of chronic disease, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. There is a need for education about caregiving in this area, Zinman explained.   

Going forward, the LGBTEI will soon be merging with William Way, which the two organizations have been discussing for the past couple of years. 

“It will provide much greater capacity for both organizations to address the needs of LGBT older adults,” Zinman said. “So it was a win-win situation.” Additional information about A Cause for Applause can be found on the LGBTEI Facebook page.