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Chicago Conference Highlights Plight of LGBT Ethnic Elders

New America Media, News Report, Paul Kleyman Posted: Jul 02, 2009

Editor's Note: The Pride-parade image of carefree, middle class youth doesnt fit the impoverished reality of millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders of color. Recent findings expose the multiple jeopardies that confront ethnic LGBT people in their later years.

CHICAGO The common image of the Pride Parade is of the middle-class, young, and largely white lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. But there is a growing number of this demographic group that is often ignored: LGBT elders of color.

We talk about persons of color being invisible, said Syracuse University gerontologist, Alejandro Garcia. If you add LGBT, they become even more invisible.

The number of LBGT elders is expected to double -- along with the rest of the huge boomer population -- to six million people by 2030, Garcia said. He spoke at the AARP Diversity Conference in Chicago in June on the multiple challenges of being old, LGBT and a person of color.

New findings presented at the session challenge many stereotypes of LGBT elders, such as that most lived a promiscuous lifestyle. For example, a survey presented by the Griot Circle, a service organization assisting 1,200 ethnic elders in New York City and the Tri-State area, shows that more than half of the elders had been in monogamous relationships.

According to Glen-Michael Francis, Griot Circles executive director, of the older survey respondents who reported losing a lover, partner or spouse (12 percent of those surveyed), had relationships lasting from 10 to 47 years.

Men and women stay together married, said Lilly Wheatley, a Caribbean American born in Harlem in 1923. I don't know why they can't understand two women doing the same thing.

She discussed her nearly half-century of life with her late partner, Ellen, in a new Griot Circle video premiered at the conference along with the survey data. Wheatley explained that because her mates business connections she realized she couldn't be gay. So the pair lived as cousins.

As in many long-time marriages, things changed. Ellens career demands as an entrepreneur left her little time, so Wheatley managed the pairs household much as any 1950s housewife.

I did everything, said Wheatley, I did what I wanted to do. A lot of people say, Why did you stay?

She stressed that committed couples simply don't always agree on things but you stay together.

Bursting another common stereotype of LGBT people, the Griot Circle study, which includes 451 elders of color between ages 50 and 95, shows that many are far from being middle-class professionals.

Ethnic LGBT elders are mainly working class people, who were poor in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, said Francis.

The survey shows that 27 percent of the respondents had annual incomes under $10,000, and 35 percent earned $39,000 per year or less.

Many of them didnt have jobs that paid into Social Security or Medicare, and now they are in their 70s or 80s and continuing to work in menial jobs to pay the rent, Francis explained.

Having a sexual orientation that is especially taboo in many cultures compounds the difficulties many of these elders face, Francis said. More than half (55 percent) of elders in the Griot Circle survey live alone.

Others have grandchildren, nieces or nephews to look in on them, Francis said. But many of these LGBT elders have been separated from their families for years and seen all their friends die.

Griot Circle, like other LGBT organizations across the United States, struggles to help these older people navigate the few and fragmented social services available to them, from subsidized housing to Medicaid.

For instance, Francis said, Griot Circle is currently helping one octogenarian client stop New Yorks Medicaid bureaucracy from taking her home. He explained that rules for the federal-state program for low-income people allows states to recover costs of care in some cases by selling the persons property. A state can seize a house, if it decides a Medicaid beneficiary will not return home from a long-term care facility.

The Griot Circle elder had been convalescing in a nursing home since February, Francis said. Although her rehabilitation has been slower than she hoped for, she hoped to return to the home where she and her late partner lived for decades.

More than half of Griot Circle sample (57 percent) also said their physical health impeded them from engaging in certain activities, Francis said. He added that many were vulnerable to mental health problems because of such factors as continued conflicts with their ethnic cultural and traditional values, language barriers and social isolation.

A Chicago survey also presented at the conference found that the usually high prevalence of depression among older adults was significantly higher among Latino and African American elders approximately 40 percent compared to one-third of white survey respondents.

Although Hope Barrett, deputy director of elder services at the Howard Brown service center, emphasized that the study was limited to 75 LGBT elders of color, she said the findings echoed those in other surveys around the United States. As in the New York study, for example, 53 percent of the Chicago respondents live alone.

As LGBT older adults also lack legal protections for lifetime partnerships, confront discrimination by health and service providers, are denied screening and treatment for HIV/AIDS because they are consider too old to be sexually active, may have no support after the death of a lifetime partner, and have few opportunities to meet other gay and lesbian older adults for mutual support, said Syracuse Universitys Garcia. Older LGBT people of color find themselves juggling multiple identities, Garcia said, such as reconciling their ethnic roots with their sexual orientation.

Im a Latino, and I come from a culture that is homophobic, to say the least, he said.

Garcia added that these older people might also struggle with the youth culture along with elements of racial prejudice in the LGBT community.

Although the headline-grabbing issue of gay marriage is not a high priority issue for LGBT seniors of color, Garcia said, current marriage restrictions can have serious consequences for these older adults. Committed LGBT couples are denied Social Security survivor benefits for widows.

In a Griot Circle video production to be released on the organizations Web site this summer (www.griotcircle.org), Rev. Paul Darling, 78, a retired alcoholism and substance counselor who once kicked the heroin habit he picked up as a soldier in the Korean War passes on his hard life lessons to younger LGBT people of color.

If you were born gay, there's nothing to think about, Rev. Darling says. Everybody is not going to accept you. But you must carry yourself with such dignity and respect that they have no other alternative but to respect you.

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