LGBTQ+ Aging: How the Stonewall generation is still shaping our community

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

You’ve likely heard a lot about how this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are viewed as the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ movement. Just take a look at photos from the event itself in June 1969 and consider this: every adult in those photos who’s still with us today is on Medicare and/or drawing Social Security. Every one of them. 

As our first major “out” generation—that fought at Stonewall, survived the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, and organized to win marriage equality—ages, they are leaving their imprint on the experience of getting older as well. But are we ready for those conversations? Because they will change the LGBTQ+ community, too.

Of course, there are already many older LGBTQ+ adults receiving services in homes, facilities, and communities across the country. Though solid numbers are hard to come by, the Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that there are roughly 48,000 LGBTQ+ people aged 65 or older in Minnesota, including an estimated 30,000 living in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. These numbers will only continue to grow as the baby boomer generation gets older and expands its use of care resources—a shift affecting the entire nation. Among this cohort may well be the first substantial population of out transgender older adults seeking care and services.  

Accessing services can still be a mixed and unpredictable experience. A federal court in Chicago recently allowed a lawsuit filed by a lesbian against her senior-housing facility to move forward, following horrific harassment and physical attacks perpetrated by other residents while management looked the other way. On the other hand, a court in Missouri dismissed a lesbian couple’s lawsuit against a senior facility that refused to let them move in because their (obviously same-sex) marriage conflicted with the facility operators’ self-defined religious beliefs.  

Another shift that deserves more consideration is that roughly half of all people who are living with HIV are age 50 or older. It’s projected that by 2020, that number could be as high as 70%. With today’s widespread use of powerful antiretroviral medications to suppress the virus in a person’s bloodstream, the average HIV-positive individual with access to healthcare can expect to live out their full lifespan. 

Unfortunately, access to healthcare continues to be a barrier for many people living with HIV. Recall that in the 1980s, an HIV diagnosis typically represented a short-term death sentence—many people who were diagnosed with HIV never considered what it would mean to age into their 70s or 80s. And as it turns out, a number of senior-service providers never gave any of this much thought, either.  

Minnesota state law bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including gender identity and disability (such as HIV status) in areas such as housing and public accommodations. But we must ask: Will this be enough?

In conversations with older adults, JustUs Health hears from people who are afraid that at a vulnerable period of their lives, when they are dependent on others for care, being out about their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status will expose them to harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Many LGBTQ+ older adults expect that the services they receive from generic senior providers will be provided in a way that does not respect their identity, or that they will be denied services entirely. 

We were stunned by the explicit statements provided by participants in our “Trans Aging Report,” which was completed in conjunction with the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2017, regarding their fears of being denied transition-related care and being persistently misgendered and disrespected, and their thoughts of ending their lives before the need for such services arose.

But there is a reason for hope. There is strong demand for education, like our “Training to Serve program,” among service providers who are eager to learn about how best to work with LGBTQ+ seniors. As more agencies recognize the growing need in this area, interest grows for client-centered training on how to address the needs of the LGBTQ+ community. As more HIV-related material is included in these trainings, more people begin to comprehend how important it is to anticipate this need as well. 

And all of this is powered by an increasingly visible cohort of LGBTQ+ older adults within an ever-growing senior population. Working together as a community, we can change for the better what it means to age as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or person living with HIV. 

Phil Duran is Director of Advocacy, Research and Education for JustUs Health (justushealth.org)

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