Anti-LGBT bias in retirement homes: 'It was like they had bubonic plague'
By Ryan Schuessler
“It just went through this place like wildfire,” she said. “And certain individuals got ahold of it and used it against me.”
In the 15 months since, Wetzel says she has been the target of anti-LGBT harassment and violence from at least half a dozen of her neighbors at Glen St Andrew Living Community. They hurl slurs such as “fucking dyke” and “homosexual bitch”, she says. One man, she says, told her that her partner died to get away from her, and if she were to have sex with a man, she would never want to be with a woman again – even threatening to “rip [her] tits off”. Some residents have physically attacked her.
At the 24-hour living facility where residents eat, socialize and participate in activities together, Wetzel has had little escape from the harassment and has begun confining herself to her one-room apartment.
“I hate to go out that door,” Wetzel said from inside her apartment, “because I know what’s awaiting me.”
She filed a lawsuit last month alleging that Glen St Andrew has not addressed her complaints, and failed to protect her from persistent anti-LGBT harassment that advocates say is becoming increasingly common as openly gay residents pass retirement age, but is seldom discussed.
“LGBT elders are at a higher risk for the kind of harassment and abuse Marsha is experiencing, as it relates to the generation of people who are in [facilities] right now,” said Serena Worthington of Sage, an LGBT aging advocacy group. “The people who are discriminating against her are the people who supported anti-LGBT laws over her lifetime, or supported pastors being anti-gay, or sheriffs doing bar raids.”
Lambda Legal, a not-for-profit law firm that is representing Wetzel in the lawsuit, alleges that the facility’s administration violated the federal anti-discrimination laws by failing to protect Wetzel from sexist and anti-LGBT harassment and violence.
“[The case] alleges the failure of the administration to stop regular, pervasive, and severe harassment from other residents,” said Karen Loewy, the lead attorney representing Wetzel. “It is about putting facilities on notice, and putting other LGBT seniors on notice, that this kind of discrimination and harassment is not only wrong, but it’s illegal.”
Glen St Andrew’s administration did not respond to requests to comment on the suit.
Advocates report that those in similar situations are often pressured into silence or forced back into the closet, and that abuse is especially severe against transgender and gender non-conforming residents.
Photograph: Leslie VonPless/Lamda legal
“There are people who are going back into the closet,” Worthington said. “I’ve heard people who have de-transitioned, which is horrifying to think about.”
A 2014 study by the Equal Rights Center – the first of its kind – found that half of LGBT seniors surveyed had experienced at least one instance of “adverse, differential treatment” when seeking housing.
Worthington said there are an estimated 1.5 to 3 million LGBT Americans above the age of 65, and that number is expected to grow as the baby boomer generation continues to age. While recent progress has been made, she said the ageing services sector nationwide is unprepared to address the discrimination LGBT seniors face in retirement communities. There are 31 states that still allow discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation.
In 2014, Sage launched a nationwide initiative to begin to address the struggles of seniors like Wetzel. The organization created a curriculum to train senior residential facilities, helped to create LGBT-specific senior housing, and worked with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to issue a directive that federally subsidized senior housing facilities must address anti-LGBT discrimination.
“You can’t regulate the behavior of people who live there, but you can set a standard,” Worthington said.
Chris Moffat, who runs a senior care agency alongside his wife in Florida, is starting a project to house LGBT elders after he witnessed discrimination firsthand.
Annie and Annette – Moffat’s clients – told other residents at the facility where they were living that they were cousins living together to save money, until they decided to get married after the US supreme court legalized same-sex marriage. They revealed to the community they had been partners for 42 years.
“It was like they had the bubonic plague or something,” Moffat recalled. “They were completely ostracized.”
Annie died late last year, and Annette was denied Annie’s private pension benefits.
“Our goal is to start developing facilities where people should feel comfortable,” Moffat said. “These were the pioneers [of the gay rights movement]. People who have worked so hard to get to this point, and they have to turn right back around and deny their being to get what they need.”
Worthington pointed out that those from the generation who led the early push for gay rights are “not going back in the closet”.
“The aging services sector has to be ready,” she warned.
Wetzel says she makes no apologies for being open about her sexual orientation, and has no plans to leave Glen St Andrew.
“That would be giving them their victory,” Wetzel said. “They want me to leave. We got to keep fighting.”
Photograph: Leslie VonPless/Lamda legal