Why Some LGBT Seniors Are Pressured to Go Back in the Closet

August 31st 2016

The LGBT rights movement has made massive strides in recent years, but one group of gay Americans is being pressured back into the closet, The Atlantic reported: the elderly, who find themselves harassed and discriminated against by the staff of nursing homes and care facilities.

Anti-LGBT discrimination is still present in care facilities.

Only 22 percent of LGBT seniors felt comfortable being open about their sexual identity with staff members, according to a 2011 report in the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, which surveyed seniors about their experiences in long-term elder care facilities.

"Two friends of mine, Vera and Zayda, had been together for 58 years," said a woman identified as Nina L. of Carlsbad, California, in the report. "When Vera's Alzheimer's became too much, Zayda moved her to an assisted living facility. Zayda could barely trust family or neighbors with the truth, let alone strangers, so she and Vera became 'sisters.'

"Much later, after Vera's death, Zayda needed to move into an assisted living facility herself," Nina L. added. "She had many, many photos of the love of her life, but dared not display them in her new home. The other residents would talk about husbands, children, and grandchildren, but she felt too vulnerable to tell the truth. Zayda was in hiding and terribly isolated."

About 43 percent of LGBT seniors reported being mistreated by staff members.

Multiple LGBT survey respondents said they were "prayed over" or told they would "go to hell" by staff members, the report said.

"Insisting on praying for me feels like harassment," said one participant, who chose to remain anonymous. "It took a lot of work to get staff to stop asking me about a wife, especially because I have children from a heterosexual marriage. I have been in my same-gender relationship for over 30 years."

Eddie W., 62, described a friend's experience at a nursing facility: "My lesbian friend, whose given name is Hazel, has gone by the name Rusty her entire adult life (she is in her 80s)," he said in the report. "The staff in the skilled nursing facility insists on calling her Hazel. Mentally, she is very astute, but it is rare that other residents or staff interact or make conversation with her. I feel that she has been excluded or isolated often."

A transgender resident was banned from eating or socializing with other residents, said a respondent from Ombudsman, California, who chose to remain anonymous.

The survey was conducted between 2008 and 2010, and it's possible that things have improved since then.

Public opinion on LGBT rights has shifted dramatically in recent years: An overwhelming majority — 72 percent — of Americans believe in passing laws to prevent anti-LGBT discrimination, according to a poll just released by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Only 48 percent of Americans believed that being gay or lesbian was morally acceptable in 2008; 60 percent found it morally acceptable in May 2016, According to Gallup polls.

Some progress is being made to spread awareness of anti-LGBT discrimination in elder care, but there's still a long way to go.

From The Atlantic:

"Although an increasing number of long-term care facilities throughout the country are doing more to reach out to LGBT seniors, significant progress is needed before this becomes a widespread practice, said Tari Hanneman, director of the Health Equality Project at the HRC Foundation. 'Unfortunately, because so many LGBTQ elders are not comfortable being out, aging service providers often do not realize that they are serving this population and do not recognize that they may need to change their policies and practices to become more LGBTQ-inclusive.'"

The LGBT Aging Project, a nonprofit organization, advocates for equal care for LGBT seniors.

You can read the full report in The Atlantic and learn more at the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.

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