Black LGBTQ Elders Face Unique Hurdles. They’re Calling on Congress to Act.
Marie (left) and Donna Sue (right). Photo courtesy of SAGE (Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders)

Every year in June we celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Month to “honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan…[which] was a tipping point for the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States,” the Library of Congress states.

But “[w]hile the public perception of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people is largely one of a young, affluent community, there are more than 2.7 million LGBT adults ages 50 or older living in communities across the country” according to a report co-authored by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a think tank that works collaboratively with LGBT organizations, and Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), the U.S.’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT elders. 

The Diverse Elders Coalition (DEC), a national group advocating for the interests of racially and ethnically diverse older adults, including LGBT+, is trying to change this narrative. They have submitted a proposal calling for $450 million out of the $400 billion that President Biden allocated toward eldercare in his American Jobs Plan to support equitable access to the Older Americans Act programs and services as well as a series of initiatives that will focus on the actual realities and needs of the diverse elder population, many of whom have faced a lifetime of discrimination.

The proposal specifically calls to allocate funding over eight years to support the National Resource Center for LGBT aging, targeted case management, enhanced capacity for providing technical assistance and training, cyber education to close the digital divide and virtual programming for LGBT+ older adults.

Lauren Pongan, National Director for DEC, has stated that “[w]e’re excited to see the Biden-Harris Administration prioritizing elder services and care in the American Jobs Plan. At the same time, we’re looking to policymakers to invest in expanding care and services for older people from racially and ethnically diverse communities, and LGBT+ elders. With this funding, we have a chance to address some of the longstanding inequities older people in underserved communities face in getting the care and support they need.”

In 2017, NBC reported that while “economic, social, physical and mental health disparities are high among all LGBTQ older adults, the complexities of race, age, sexual orientation and gender identity are especially challenging for many black LGBTQ elders… Advocates attribute the economic disparities of black LGBTQ elders to longstanding race, age and LGBTQ discrimination, which has been exacerbated by a lack of equal protection under the law and social stigma. Neglect and isolation are especially prevalent when their peers—the only support network many of them have due to family rejection—die off or age themselves, as research shows older LGBTQ adults are less likely to be partnered or married or to have children to depend on as caregivers.”

Four years later, unfortunately, not much has changed, especially with the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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Longtime advocates have reflected on what it means for them to have lived in New York City during both the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall Riots, and the challenges and obstacles they have faced as a member of the Black LGBT+ community. One key theme was a lifetime of being silenced, disenfranchised and stereotyped, which caused an inability to be one’s authentic self.

Lujira, a member of SAGE, told ESSENCE that “one of the things that we need more of is affordable housing, and especially for seniors, and also…healthcare, and community. I think they all go together,” after describing her own personal experience being houseless for ten months, but who now fortunately lives in a subsidized building.

Donna Sue, a SAGE member, shared her thoughts on the unique experiences of elders as well, telling ESSENCE that “our caregivers are unfortunately nonexistent in some cases…[and] we’re falling through the cracks, free falling through the cracks. And we need to have that safety net so that we can survive, so that we can thrive….We are elders who want to teach others that you can reach your unlimited potential. Maybe we weren’t able to because we were silenced; because we were ignored; because we were discriminated against; because we were disenfranchised. But hopefully we can get the DEC proposal to not just uplift us, but uplift those who are coming behind us.”

Her partner Marie discussed her hopes for this initiative so “that we can get some assistance, because I found that with the lack of being able to communicate [face to face], a lot of us are not financially able to buy certain equipment, you know like laptops or tablets…If we had more funding, then we would be able to offer training and technical assistance to our seniors, and also to their caregivers, and we’re hoping that we can get some funding to help us with these things.”

As these vignettes demonstrate, the challenges so many of our Black LGBT+ elders face have continued to escalate, and the DEC is fighting to preserve a quality of life for these individuals, and reverse the trends of rising poverty levels, poor healthcare and living conditions, and a lowered quality of life.

As Lujira has said, “Older people like myself are more likely to face social stigma, poverty, and poor physical and mental health. That’s why whenever there are public policies related to elder services and care, we need legislators to recognize the concerns we face and make sure no elder is invisible.”

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