Allow older LGBT individuals to age their way by passing the Equality Act

by Stephanie Cole, Pennsylvania Department of Aging

May was Older Americans Month. The theme of this year’s observance was “Age My Way,” a phrase I continue to reflect upon as we find ourselves in the midst of Pride Month celebration activities. For LGBTQ older adults, ageism piles onto the homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and societal rejection that many of the nation’s estimated three million LGBTQ people over 50 years old have experienced most of their lives. 

If you’ve lived beyond 50 years without feeling the sting, first-hand, of our society’s many unfair isms, each subsequent decade that passes will give you that dose of reality when you experience the ageist attitudes of those who don’t realize they’ll be older themselves someday. I see this sting in my parents, my dad nearly 80 and mother not far behind. My parents are lucky to still be here for each other for 59 years of marriage, and just like marriages between older LGBTQ couples, they assist where the other needs help. 

For the last four years, I’ve had the privilege of leading LGBTQ initiatives at the PA Department of Aging as part of my overall role. I often chat with my parents about the isolating circumstances of some older individuals.  I’ve explained that “yes,” older [and all] LGBTQ people can and do face discrimination in housing, medical care, and business just by virtue of going about their lives as their authentic selves. I believe my parents’ pain in hearing this comes from empathy, knowing that even for them, not facing any discrimination, aging can be tough. Trying to imagine existing in their community with mobility issues, hearing and vision loss, worrying that anywhere they frequent could pull up the welcome mat for no good reason, is devastating.

Reflecting on this issue takes me back to my childhood and something my mother would say when I sought her advice while negotiating a problem with the neighborhood kids. She would say “play fair.” There wasn’t any qualifying of who deserved fairness, but everyone should be treated fairly. Shouldn’t this simple premise apply throughout our lives? Realistically, we know it doesn’t or there wouldn’t be a need for a Civil Rights Act or Americans with Disabilities Act.

I’m grateful when someone asks me what makes LGBTQ older adults any different than other older people. First, most have faced a lifelong history of discrimination and social stigma. LGBTQ people are twice as likely to be single, twice as likely to live alone, and four times less likely to have children than their contemporaries who are not LGBTQ. These factors can reduce a person’s available informal support system, making it even important to ensure equitable access to services and support. For older LGBTQ people in underserved communities, matters of age, race, ethnicity, English-proficiency, religion, disability, geography, and family dynamics can intersect in different ways, making the disparities experienced by LGBTQ older adults truly unique.

A little over a year ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the federal Equality Act, which builds on the current civil rights laws and would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in all fifty states. But it is still sitting in the U.S. Senate without action. Currently, less than half of states have some version of fairness laws supporting the LGBTQ community. Here in Pennsylvania, the older LGBTQ population benefits from a supportive administration in state government and leadership at the Department of Aging forwarding initiatives that are culturally sensitive and inclusive. Additionally, the PA Commission on LGBTQ Affairs and PA Human Relations Commission advocate tirelessly for the rights of all LGBTQ people, but laws that support them would go a long way.

I believe in our department’s vision of a Pennsylvania where older adults are embraced and empowered to live and age with dignity and respect, for every older adult, because that’s what is fair. It is time for the U.S. Senate to take action and pass the Equality Act.

Stephanie Cole is Special Assistant to the Secretary & Director of Special Projects at the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, and a recipient of the Governor’s Award for Excellence.