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It’s Time to Treat Gay Elders with Respect
by Deb Price
© 2000, Deb Price

After 42 years together, the lesbian couple needed nursing home care. Their relatives swooped in, put them in separate institutions and refused to let them even see each other.

Their tragedy — described in a new report that should serve as a national wake-up call — spotlights the special vulnerability of older gay Americans. At the age when they are least able to protect themselves, gay retirees are cruelly victimized by discriminatory attitudes, regulations and laws.

For example, federal policies tailored to heterosexuals shamelessly pick the pockets of gay elders and push countless thousands into poverty by denying them a fair share of retirement benefits.

“One of the hardest things is getting people — even gay people — not to narrowly define our issues,” notes Sean Cahill, an author of “Outing Age,” the welcome new study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. [After October 2014, known as the National LGBTQ Task Force.] “Social Security is a gay issue. Medicaid is a gay issue.”

The report’s timely release offers compelling reasons why the next president, the Congress and organizations devoted to serving older Americans ought to face up to — and correct — the gross inequities being inflicted upon gay elders.

Older gays, fearing neglect or abuse at the hands of hostile nursing home personnel, often find themselves retreating into the closet after living openly for much of their lives.

“Outing Age” documents that such fears are well-founded: A resident of one home wasn’t bathed because no one wanted “to touch the lesbian.” A social worker at another reported, “We don’t allow partners of the same sex into the home. … (It’s) part of the admission requirement.”

Meanwhile, a 1994 New York state survey found that gay elders were not welcome at 46 percent of senior centers there.

One urgently needed protection for older gays is federal civil rights legislation that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation not just in employment but also in housing and public accommodations.

Another essential protection is legalization of same-sex marriage, because that would force public and private policymakers to be fair financially to gay couples.

In the meantime, officials who say they support fairness but oppose gay marriage must be pushed to prove their good intentions, by updating the definition of “spouse” so gay couples qualify for essential spousal benefits.

A few illustrations of the enormity of the injustice that gay elders are suffering:
  • Social Security — The surviving gay partner of a retiree receives no Social Security survivor benefits. That contrasts with the more than $5,000 per year that widows and widowers draw, on average, in survivor benefits. “Outing Age” estimates that, in that one area alone, the federal failure to be fair is costing gay seniors $124 million a year.
  • Medicaid — When a gay elder needs Medicaid-financed nursing home care, his or her partner can lose their jointly owned home because gay couples aren’t covered by federal rules protecting the assets of nursing home residents’ spouses.
  • 401(k) plans — Surviving gay partners suffer an immediate 20 percent tax bite on inherited 401(k) money. Legal spouses under age 70 1/2 can roll the entire amount into a tax-free individual retirement account.

  • Spousal benefits — Federal law requires that pension plans protect surviving spouses: The worker’s legal spouse gets half the pension even after the worker’s death. Gay couples enjoy no such protection and very, very few get spousal benefits from private pensions. Plus, Social Security spousal benefits — which make the difference between a comfortable and cramped retirement for millions of Americans — are still out of reach for gay couples.

Older gay Americans helped pay for the multitude of protections that their straight friends and neighbors enjoy. Isn’t it time to treat all our elders with fairness and respect?

© 2000, Deb Price
c/o The Detroit News, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226

Reprinted with permission of the Detroit News.
Originally published November 6, 2000.

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