LeadingAge Magazine · November/December 2014 • Volume 04 • Number 06

Progress Takes Time: Advocating for LGBT Older Adults

November 12, 2014 | by Jerry Brown

Progress Takes Time: Advocating for LGBT Older Adults

The passion I feel toward the mission of my organization and for making a difference each and every day is something that spills over into every part of my life. For the past 28 years I have served as the executive director of Bethany Center Senior Housing, a proud LeadingAge member in downtown San Francisco, CA. And for my whole life I have been a pioneer, activist and advocate for LGBT older adults.

In 2006 LeadingAge came to San Francisco for its Annual Meeting. The theme of the conference was “Tell Your Story” and LeadingAge asked if the beautiful mural painted on the front of the Bethany Center could be the cover shot for the conference booklet. I was ecstatic and filled with pride for what that mural means to me and the residents. Within that mural is a picture of a former resident, a gay man, like me, who lived his life with passion and purpose, like I do. That mural kindles in me the fire I have always had to awaken the aging services field to the thriving LGBT presence which includes staff, residents, clients and vendors within the tapestry of each community across the country.

It was during this meeting that I and several folks from other member communities organized the very first Inclusion Reception at a local LGBT Museum. It was the first of its kind for LeadingAge. Most of the attendees had never seen a pride flag or even knew the history and impact that the Stonewall riots had on the LGBT community. It was a true educational and emotional experience for all of us who attended. Many stories were told and relationships have grown since that first event, which continues at each Annual Meeting to this day.

While I always knew that LeadingAge member organizations and their staff were serving and working alongside persons who identified as LGBT, education for those who serve this population remained under the radar for many years. However, the more people I met, the more I understood the need to keep pushing the envelope. So I made it my mission to broaden LGBT awareness for providers within the aging services field.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s I became a founding member of the Lesbian Gay Aging Issues Network of American Society on Aging (ASA) and began serving on education review teams for both LeadingAge California and LeadingAge. Through these affiliations I was able to begin a dialogue with people about the importance of providing education, networking and other opportunities to expand the knowledge base on serving LGBT elders.

Progress takes time, and in 2003 the California Department of Health and Human Services requested input to their strategic plan, “Getting California Ready for the Baby Boomers.” Both ASA and LeadingAge California participated and we were able to add a subsection entitled: “Support Culturally Appropriate Outreach Campaigns.” LeadingAge California also initiated a diversity task force that discussed all types of diversity (race, economic, etc.) and created a statement supporting diversity (although it was not specific but was inclusive of LGBT). It was around this time that LeadingAge members started to think about and add their own inclusion and diversity policies.

Over the years the conversations have evolved both inside and outside LeadingAge. I have seen organizations such as Services and Advocacy for Gay and Lesbian Elders (SAGE), the National Resource Center for LGBT Elders (a consortium of organizations which received a historic grant from the Department of Health and Human Services) as well as many provider members provide excellent and timely education. This includes seminars, symposiums, webinars and even screenings of films such as the one that was featured at the 2011 LeadingAge Annual Meeting and IAHSA Global Ageing Conference called Gen Silent. If you have not seen it, make sure you do! And, in 2012 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) incorporated a final rule to “Equal access to housing in HUD programs regardless of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.”

Flash forward to 2014. LeadingAge launched the LGBT Network along with a LGBT listserv to share information, resources and best practices for members. While the journey continues, I can point to welcome shifts and changes in social values and norms toward LGBT elders both here and abroad. However, there is much work to be done. The challenges are many and strikingly similar across all marginalized groups: access to care and services, finding affordable housing options and battling existing regulations and policies, both at the state and national levels, which keep LGBT elders in the dark ages.

The journey to create awareness, educate and grow inclusivity continues, but I would not have it any other way. I know we are in good hands, and I am proud of how we got here. I look forward to continuing to expand the possibilities for aging for all elders and to see how things change over the next 20 years.