On March 3, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation to protect seniors and queer elders who may be entering long-term care facilities. Called an “LGBTQI+ Senior Bill of Rights,” Bill S2545 prohibits long-term care facilities from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, intersex status, or HIV status. LGBTQ residents of such facilities can no longer be evicted for their sexual orientation or gender identity and must be provided equal medical and non-medical care, among other requirements.
Many seniors are often faced with having to disguise their identity when seeking out care. Effectively, some elders feel forced back into the closet. Having to hide sexuality or gender and sexual identity with providers, facility leaders, and associated staff can have negative issues on personal health. That regards both physical and mental issues of well-being.
“Building a stronger and fairer New Jersey starts with ensuring that every individual is given the right to live their truth openly and freely,” Governor Murphy shared in a press release. “Today’s bill signing underscores this commitment to our LGBTQI+ older adults and people living with HIV in long-term care facilities by providing critical protections from discrimination. No one should ever feel ashamed for who they are, and everyone should be able to live with the dignity and equality that they deserve.”
A 2018 article from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reveals those surveyed had some fears about getting the services, treatment, and respect they need as older LGBTQ-Americans.
Many people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s — before the introduction of more effective medications — did not anticipate a long life. Some 30 and more years later however those who were diagnosed early-on are experiencing longevity on par with their HIV-negative peers.
Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, said the organization has been trying to get such a bill passed for the past few years.
“The newly signed bill means that providers and long-term care faciilities will receive training that makes them better equipped to care for LGBTQ older people and older people living with HIV, minimizing discrimination and disparities between them and other residents of long-term care facilities.”
Fuscarino thanked state lawmakers including Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle, Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, Senator Troy Singleton, Senator Vin Gopal, and Senator Richard Codey for, “fighting hard to get this over the finish line.”
Garden State Equality conducted state-wide research panels with older LGBTQ+ New Jersey residents, to ensure their needs would be addressed by the legislation. Nine elements were put into the bill to make the lives of LGBTQ+ seniors are protected. In addition to prohibiting evictions and guaranteeing equal care, some highlights from the bill stipulate that providers and care facilities cannot oppose a request for residents to share a room, assign a room based on gender, restrict a resident from restroom use based on gender, and they must use a person’s preferred pronouns or chosen name.
“When someone is considering long-term care, the last thing we want is for them to be fearful they will face harassment because they identify as LGBTQI+. This fear may even deter some from going into long-term care in the first place. Our goal is to ensure all LGBTQI+ residents feel safe and respected in long-term care facilities, and all receive the highest standard of care,” said Assemblywoman Quijano.
David Griffith, Director of Programs and Outreach for Philadelphia’s LGBT Elder Initiative, praised the New Jersey legislation.
“Sadly, we know that so many LGBTQ elders have to conceal their identities when going into long-term care settings out of fear of mistreatment. This legislation is a tremendous step to better support LGBTQ older adults in New Jersey and to ensure that long-term care facilities are safe and affirming settings where LGBTQ people can live openly while expressing their authentic selves.”
Griffith also weighed in on the possibility of passing a similar bill in the Commonwealth.
“We would love to see something similar happen in Pennsylvania. The big challenge that we face here is that we still don’t have even basic non-discrimination protections at the state level. States that have successfully passed these LGBT bill of rights for long-term care — including Massachusetts, California, Illinois, and now New Jersey — have already had LGBT nondiscrimination protections in place.”
Griffith’s understanding is that the first step probably needs to be passing something like the Fairness Act in Pennsylvania, or the Equality Act federally, and then building on that with the specific focus on the long-term care system. Until that happens, it will be difficult for Pennsylvania to enact legislation similar to Bill S2545. Fuscarino, however, said that such legislation always takes time.
“This bill is about equality in the law, but the journey for lived equality is a long road ahead. This work is still in the early stages and Garden State Equality is committed to seeing lived equality for all of New Jersey’s LGBTQ older adults,” Fuscarino concluded. “Many of these individuals have spent their entire lives fighting for the rights we now enjoy today, it is our responsibility to fight for them as they move into older adult facilities. We owe them that and so much more.”