Photo: Left: Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU and the LGBT Older Adults Coalition. Right: Charles Alexander, Between the Lines columnist, local artist, board member of the Scarab Club and retired Detroit Public Schools administrator.
"Growing older is a challenge," says Charles Alexander, 78. "There used to be a saying, 'Nobody wants you when you’re old and gray.' And in sense, the saying these days is, 'No one wants you when you’re old and gay.' "
Continuing our look at older adults and the issues they face in Detroit, metro Detroit and the state, we turn our eye toward the older LGBT population. Of the 39 million Americans that are 65 years of age or older, it is estimated that 1.75 to 4 million of them identify as LGBT, according to the Administration on Aging. This population is expected to double by 2030.
The issues facing the older adult population are as diverse as the population itself. But for the older LGBT adults, there are some unique issues to consider that include survivor and spousal benefits as well as potential -- and legal -- discrimination.
To discuss these topics we spoke with Jay Kaplan, ACLU staff attorney and a part of the LGBT Older Adults Coalition; and Charles Alexander, 78, a columnist for Between The Lines, a local artist and retired Detroit Public Schools Administrator.
For the older adult LGBT population, there are a few main issues that they immediately face.
"When you look at the demographics of LGBT older adult population, they're less likely to have family members or children who can take care of them when they become ill," Kaplan says. "They are more likely to have to rely on outside services like nursing homes or long-term care facilities. And so they’re subject to, many times, discriminatory policies or laws that exist in society, as well as attitudes that we see. And for many LGBT older adults they fear having to rely on those services because they fear that they will be discriminated against and for some of them who have been out for many years they believe or the reality is they have to go back in the closet. They can’t be who they are because they are afraid they are not going to be able to receive these services."
To help mitigate this issue, Kaplan says the LGBT Older Adult Coalition has a grant to work with three Area Agency on Aging groups to train call operators on LGBT cultural competencies.
"It’s awful to finally be able to live your life and then to hide a very integral part of your identity," Kaplan says. "One of the things we’ve been working very hard with the LGBT Older Adults Coalition is to increase, or even to start with a sense of LGBT cultural competency from senior providers. And we recently got a grant to work with three of the Area Agencies on Aging to train their call operators in LGBT cultural competencies so people will be more willing to access those services. A lot of times LGBT older adults won’t even access the senior services that are even available because they fear that discrimination; they fear that rejection.
Alexander says he came out of the closet in 1956 and at that time you had to have a nickname, you didn't tell anyone anything about your background, you kept everything really close. He says it was all about protecting your identity. From 1956 to 2014, Alexander says, "To see the changes that have come about is truly amazing."
However when it comes to marriage and survivor and spousal benefits, the LGBT community is still fighting that fight. There are now 19 states that recognize same-sex marriages. Michigan is one of 31 that doesn't.
The LGBT population is not eligible for these types of benefits for partners. "(Michigan does) not recognize marriages, legal marriages between same sex couples, if they happen in other jurisdictions, we don’t permit same sex couples to get married in the state of Michigan," says Kaplan. "So you’re not able to access spousal benefits or survivor benefits. ... Under Michigan law, those relationships don’t exist. The two people are strangers unto themselves."
Aging Together is a summer-long project between MLive Detroit, WDET 101.9FM Detroit and Model D Media that explores the issues of older adults in Detroit, Southeast Michigan and the state.