New movie highlights important issues facing LGBT seniors

  • by Mark Snyder
  • Wednesday June 29, 2011
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Actor Christopher Plummer plays an older gay man in the<br>new film, <i>Beginners</i>. (Photo: Andrew<br>Tepper)
Actor Christopher Plummer plays an older gay man in the
new film, Beginners. (Photo: Andrew

The new movie Beginners is based on the true life story of director Mike Mills, played by Ewan McGregor, whose 75-year-old father, played by Christopher Plummer, comes out as gay. It couldn't be a more timely film, as the baby boomer generation is now aging and more seniors than ever are coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. It's estimated that there are currently 3 million LGBT elders across the United States, and that 25,000 live in the Bay Area alone. Census figures released last week estimate 34,000 same-sex couples in the Bay Area.

Many younger people are finding themselves in the position of caring for their parents and other seniors in their life who happen to be LGBT. At the LGBT Advisory Committee of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission we've formed a seniors workgroup to begin to address some of the most pressing needs of LGBT seniors. Meanwhile organizations like COLAGE: People with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer Parent are providing community for people who have LGBTQ parents and the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Elder Law Project is in its 12th year of operation.

In Beginners, the father has the financial means to acquire excellent health care and housing. But for many LGBT seniors accessing quality housing and health care are a struggle that can be the difference between life or death, and a struggle that can put pressure on the entire family. Studies show that lesbian couples are nearly twice as likely to have incomes below the poverty line as straight couples. Gay couples are also more likely to be poor. Furthermore, even for those who do have access to quality health care and housing, it isn't always the most culturally competent. For transgender people – including elders – nearly 20 percent have been refused care outright because of transphobia. Even with their economic advantage, "It wasn't always easy," Mills said of his father's coming out.

Seniors often feel pressure to stay in the closet about their sexual orientation or gender identity as staff and residents at senior centers and care providers may not be creating inclusive environments. In one recent survey, 89 percent of the 769 LGBT elders and service providers who responded stated that it wouldn't be safe to come out in a nursing home. That's a shocking number. They may feel afraid to reveal the news to their children and extended family. Furthermore, many San Francisco seniors grew up in different political times and in locations that were extraordinarily hostile to LGBT people. In the 1950s and 1960s, every institution in society – political, religious, and medical – marginalized and criminalized LGBT people.

There are simple things senior centers and care facilities can do to include LGBT people. Host a movie night, plan a Pride celebration, and present workshops on the legal rights of LGBT seniors. Organizations like Lavender Seniors of the East Bay and Openhouse both provide trainings to help facilities become more inclusive. The gay community and culture also needs to evolve quickly to celebrate and include our seniors at events and encourage intergenerational socializing and knowledge sharing.

In order to best serve LGBT seniors in San Francisco, though, more structural changes will need to be implemented. We need citywide programs to ensure staff at agencies that serve seniors are ready to create inclusive environments and address the unique needs of LGBT seniors. California passed a law in 2008 mandating cultural competency training for nursing home personnel, but the Department of Public Health has yet to enforce it. It's long overdue. We need plenty of affordable housing for low-income seniors, and assisted living housing for seniors who have health complications. And finally, we need to ensure seniors who have been living with life partners are recognized as family at the hospital, in their housing and care facilities. By taking these and other steps to create safe, respectful, and caring environments for LGBT seniors, we can prepare for situations like the one portrayed in Beginners and other real life stories being confronted by thousands of families all across the country.

Mark Snyder is the communications coordinator for COLAGE: People with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer Parent, and a member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission's LGBT Advisory Committee.