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National LGBT senior movement grows up

by Heather Cassell | Bay Area Recorder

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Now 10 years old, the LGBT senior movement is young and vibrant. With years of grassroots and professional experience within its ranks, and some of the nation's largest gay rights organizations backing it up, it is about to burst into full bloom.

But there are growing pains, most notably the dismissal of a gay man from a position at the American Society of Aging that has concerned some leaders.

For nearly a decade since its founding as part of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Elder Law Project has brought greater visibility of LGBT senior issues to legal, medical, and social service professionals across the United States. Now the legal advocacy program is empowering LGBT seniors to protect themselves.

This month the Elder Law Project published a groundbreaking comprehensive guide, "Planning with Purpose: Legal Basics for LGBT Elders." That will be followed by manuals from New Leaf: Services for Our Community, which will assess agency tools and implement best practices; and Openhouse, which will provide cultural competency training curriculum along with a comprehensive trainers guide. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force will release a revised "Outing Age," which addresses public policy issues that affect LGBT elders, this fall.

"I'm very encouraged with the work that we are doing," said Joyce Pierson, NCLR's Elder Law Project consultant and one of the country's leading experts in the LGBT senior movement.

Pierson said that planning is the key for gay seniors.

"LGBT people have made progress on our civil rights, but there is still a lot to consider if you are an older LGBT person in the U.S.," Pierson said in a statement.

California is the nation's highest retirement destination with an estimated 4.9 million people over the age of 65 living in the Golden State in 2003. That figure is expected to jump to more than 9 million by 2020, according to Jenefer Duane, founder and CEO of the Elder Financial Protection Network, which is urging people to sign a petition in support of the Elder Justice Act, currently in Congress.

Currently, there are an estimated 25,000 LGBT individuals over the age of 55 living in San Francisco and the population is only going to grow, said Seth Kilbourn, executive director of Openhouse.

The goal of the California manuals is to help support the state's Older Californians Equality and Protection Act (AB 2029) and LGBT Senior Care Training (SB 1729), passed in 2006 and 2008 respectively, mandating LGBT cultural competency training for aging professionals, LGBT senior advocates said.

The purpose of the Elder Law Project's guide is to provide comprehensive legal resources to LGBT seniors and their families to assist them with navigating three key issues: relationship recognition, discrimination, and elder abuse, said Melanie Rowen, NCLR staff attorney who worked with Pierson on the manual.

It's important for LGBT seniors and their families to know "how the law helps them and doesn't help them and how they might expect the law to work for them," said Rowen. The guide's goal is to aid LGBT seniors and their families in navigating hurdles they might face accessing services and other institutional roadblocks in one accessible and easy to read booklet.

"Aging is hard generally and our health care system and our other systems don't handle it very well," Rowen added.

LGBT seniors struggling

Now more than ever is a crucial time for LGBT seniors and advocates working together to help this vulnerable population due to the economic crisis, program cutbacks, and other issues impacting LGBT elders and the organizations that work to help them sustain quality of life.

Gordon Smyth, 79, a gay San Francisco resident, said he's in a constant state of stress due to the recession and the potential loss of up to 60 percent of his life savings when the economy plunged into a downward spiral last fall. He is now working a variety of part-time jobs to survive and he is concerned that he won't have enough money saved when he's in his 90s to take care of himse

SAGE Executive Director Michael Adams worries about budget cuts and the impact of the economic crisis on LGBT seniors. Courtesy: SAGE
lf as he planned. He isn't alone. His friends are worried too, he said.

"I'm in a constant state of worry whether I am going to survive on the small income that I have," said Smyth. "I know other friends my age that are feeling very much the same way that I'm feeling."

There has been a significant increase in LGBT seniors requesting services and utilizing programs, according to LGBT senior advocates throughout the country. At the same time many organizations are experiencing drastic cuts in federal and corporate funding.

"Our LGBT seniors have been hit by the economic crisis," said Michael Adams, executive director of Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders in New York City, who has seen an estimated 35 percent increase over the past six months. At the same time SAGE's funding is being cut significantly.

SAGE provides services to an estimated 2,000 LGBT seniors monthly, with an estimated $4.1 million annual budget, according to Adams.

"It's a very tough situation right now," Adams said.

Openhouse's Kilbourn and Mark Supper, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing in Los Angeles, said that they are both seeing an increase in demand with fewer resources and supplies.

Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing built one of the first successful low-income LGBT-friendly senior housing communities in the nation, Triangle Square, on which Openhouse's housing program is modeled.

Openhouse is rapidly working on solutions to ease the situation. Soon it will have a comprehensive LGBT-friendly housing list on its new Web site (launched just a couple weeks ago) and the organization is training LGBT seniors how to advocate for themselves. Openhouse also is providing services at neighborhood senior centers, among other programs.

New Leaf is also preparing to assist LGBT seniors in the face of possible cuts to Medicaid and Medi-Cal cuts, said Ann Harrison, the agency's executive director.

LGBT senior leadership change

While the American Society on Aging doesn't outright state that the economic crisis influenced the agency's recent reorganization, it did affect the LGBT senior movement. In May it let go of Gerard Koskovich, who was the staff liaison of the Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network of the ASA (formerly LGAIN, now recognized as LAIN), when it outsourced its publications department. Koskovich had been the department's director, said Brian DeVries, LAIN co-chair.

For nearly 11 years Koskovich has been a ubiquitous figure in the LGBT senior community, propelling LAIN's national scope, which spans nearly 35 years, and the movement overall. He not only developed and maintained a national clearinghouse of LGBT aging resources, but he was also the editor of "OUTWord," the ASA's LGBT aging newsletter.

Under ASA's restructuring plan, "OUTWord" will now be included as a section in the print and online editions of "Aging Today," explained DeVries and Loree Cook-Daniels, who are both volunteer board members with the American Society on Aging's Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network.

Many LGBT aging experts were shocked and expressed concern over the loss of Koskovich's position.

"It's just a loss for all of us that do work in LGBT aging," said Laurie Young, the Task Force's aging policy analyst.

Koskovich is currently working as a consultant with Young on a project for the Task Force's aging initiative, she added.

"We were spoiled with Gerard's expertise and commitment to LGBT aging," DeVries said.

Many of the materials Koskovich gathered over the years are archived at the National Sexuality Resource Center, affiliated with San Francisco State University, and the GLBT Historical Society, according to DeVries.

Neither Koskovich nor Marianne Gable, who stepped into his position, would comment for this article, directing the Bay Area Reporter to ASA leadership. Gable is an out gay woman who is ASA's marketing and development manager. She has worked for ASA for four years, DeVries said.

LAIN volunteer board members will meet in September for a retreat to continue Koskovich's work and plan LAIN's future, DeVries said.

Moving forward

Various LGBT senior advocacy organizations plan on filling the void left by Koskovich's departure from LAIN, advocates said.

"Everyone who is interested in health issues or social justice issues needs to become aware of elder issues," said Rowen, who pointed out along with other senior advocates that elder issues are a growing diverse field in need of dedicated individuals, especially in the face of funding cuts to services that will continue to become increasingly difficult to access.

Rowen said LGBT organizations in particular are going to have to "step up to the plate" as much as possible – and they are.

The movement has gained a great deal of momentum. Within the past 10 years the LGBT senior movement has grown across the U.S. to an estimated 50 local organizations, according to Pierson. LGBT senior issues are being recognized by major elder advocacy organizations, such as AARP. Pierson noted that an estimated 500 AARP conference participants recently attended a workshop dedicated to LGBT aging issues.

LGBT senior experts are also gaining momentum to influence public policy, organizing on the national and state level. For the past two years leaders have participated in a national roundtable on LGBT aging to address various issues. In California, LGBT senior advocates held a telephone conference June 18 as part of Equality California's California LGBT Health and Human Services Network headed up by Daniel Gould, the program's network coordinator based in Los Angeles, senior advocates said.

Gould did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Honoring elders

LGBT seniors will be featured in an upcoming exhibit, "Finding Home," at the San Francisco Public Library. The exhibit explores "what it means to age in the LGBT city they helped forge as a safe haven," by telling 13 stories of LGBT seniors who came to San Francisco to find a home before Stonewall through photos and narratives.

"If you are removed from contact from people, if you don't know their stories, and if you don't see the faces, it's hard to get your heart involved and being interested in helping out or being interested in supporting their lives," said Karen Ande, who is straight, about why she decided to produce the exhibit with former Openhouse executive director Moli Steinert, who wrote the accompanying narratives.

The library's James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center is co-sponsoring the show with Openhouse, said Karen Sundheim, program manager of the center.

Ande, an amateur photographer who took the 13 portraits, will also celebrate her 59th birthday July 18, the day the exhibit opens. Her goal is to engage people "in the work in this community and the hopes and dreams of the people in it."

The show will be on display through September 3. A free reception will be held July 29 from 6 p.m. to 8 at the main library, located at 100 Larkin Street, in the Latino/Hispanic Community Room.

In the East Bay, longtime lesbian community activist and senior advocate Cathy Cade was honored by the Oakland City Council and Assemblyman Sandre Swanson (D-Oakland) in May for her work in the LGBT senior movement.

Cade has been actively involved with the Lavender Seniors of the East Bay, Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, and the GLBT Historical Society, as well as serving as a cultural resource. Cade mentioned that Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian journal, will soon publish a special issue by and about old lesbians.

Cade was honored to receive the award as it brought together and supported the diverse "pieces of my life," she said.

"There is a movement of those of us in our 60s and 70s reaching out and finding each other and coming together and I think it's going to happen more," Cade, 67, said. "It's wonderful to have each other and we do. ... We are finding each other."

Original Link: The Bay Area Reporter Online