By George Stewart
Not long ago, the Washington Post reprinted a letter signed by a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) millionaires asking Congress to come to a resolution on the “fiscal cliff” by preventing across-the-board spending cuts to federal programs, preserving tax cuts for the middle class and allowing tax cuts for the wealthiest to expire. As heartened as I was to see some LGBT voices in the public debate on economic issues, I wondered how many people know how the impending spending cuts will impact a vast majority of LGBT older people throughout the country—people like me.
I have spent much of my life looking for where I fit in, while striving to serve my country and my community. I’ve witnessed intolerance in my life, as well as positive change. In the 1950s, I was a black soldier in a segregated Army unit stationed in the South. I found a lot of camaraderie with the soldiers in my unit, but we always felt that we had to go above and beyond—if another outfit shined the tops of their shoes, we’d shine the bottom of ours. I was stationed last in Louisiana, where one of my most vivid memories is being singled out by a policeman because he thought I was sitting too close to a white woman in a public park. When my enlistment ended in Louisiana, I decided that I would move to New York City. I hoped my move would lead to better things—an opportunity to be an individual in a big city, instead of being viewed as just a black man inappropriately sitting down next to a white woman.
I’ve now lived in New York City for nearly 50 years. From the moment I moved here, I met new people, had many new experiences, and have been treated, mostly, as an equal. But as a hospital employee in the 1980s, I also saw the terrible mistreatment of patients living with HIV/AIDS. This discrimination made me think about my own past experiences, and brought me further along on my journey as an advocate for equal rights.
Recently there have been so many progressive changes for LGBT people. But now that I’m older, I see how the needs of LGBT elders are often overlooked. For the past several years, I have been a volunteer and participant at Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). These days, I have a part-time job as a receptionist at The SAGE Center, the nation’s first full-time LGBT senior center that opened earlier this year in New York City.
Our society is youth-oriented and doesn’t always recognize the fact that older people exist and need extra help—LGBT older people suffer from homophobia and ageism. LGBT elders are more likely to live in poverty than their heterosexual peers. They are also twice as likely to be single and to live alone, and three to four times as likely to be childless—meaning they have fewer people to rely on in times of need. LGBT older people also experience poorer health. LGBT elders of color are even more prone to financial insecurity, social isolation and poor health. All of this leads to a greater need for the programs and services intended to protect our nation’s elders.
So when I hear about the cuts that would happen if Congress does not resolve the fiscal cliff, I think about the real, negative consequences for LGBT older Americans. According to the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, we are facing cuts to several programs that support healthy aging and economic security for older people.
For my part, I rely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), otherwise known as food stamps, which is luckily exempt from the potential cuts. I also have dinner, offered at very low cost, at The SAGE Center. This kind of meal service is funded through the Older Americans Act (OAA), and unfortunately, funding for congregate and home-delivered meals is at risk. These programs do much more than provide nutrition; they offer a connection to the world outside of the home, especially for those who otherwise would be eating alone (or not at all). I, for one, eat as often as possible at The SAGE Center, where I can share experiences and build a sense of community with other LGBT older adults.
The OAA is also facing cuts to programs that help older people stay in their own communities. These programs provide transportation, caregiving support, personal care services, and much more. As individuals who often rely on “families of choice,” as opposed to blood relatives, it is important for LGBT older adults to be able to stay in our homes, where we have already built a support network. The alternative is often to go into long-term care settings, which costs the government more money, and where all too often, LGBT older people feel compelled to go back into the closet for fear of discrimination or harassment.
For those LGBT older adults who do need to go into nursing homes, safety is a key issue. LGBT residents have reported mistreatment in long-term care facilities. But there is a system in place to help prevent abuse: long-term care ombudsmen, who are trained and certified advocates who resolve issues with long-term care facilities on behalf of residents and their families. Ombudsmen play a vital role in ensuring elders’ safety, yet cuts to the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, already funded modestly, would leave many more elders without the resources to report mistreatment.
Community and support in an LGBT-affirming environment—this is the value of The SAGE Center, and the promise of programs like those funded by OAA. I have been fortunate to become part of this community. Others are not so lucky. Now is not the time to cut valuable programs that help LGBT older adults, and elders of color, age with the dignity and respect we all deserve.
George Stewart is a SAGE constituent and works part-time at The SAGE Center, the nation’s first full-time LGBT senior center. He is an outspoken advocate for LGBT elders’ rights.