As we age in America, the specter of isolation looms as a qualifying condition. A recent article in The New York Times (“How Social Isolation is Killing Us”) reported that “about one third of Americans older than 65 now live alone, and half of those over 85 do.”
This threat of isolation can be heightened for LGBTQ people. The U.S. Administration on Aging says that of the nation’s 76 million baby boomers, as many as 4 million are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. National real estate experts estimate that more than half of them live alone.
Many older LGBTQ people identified themselves as such before the liberating Stonewall riots of 1969, an era characterized by stigma, identities condemned to the closet, and severed family ties. It is this generation, now in their 70s and 80s, that faces the most uncertainty about where to live, and how, and with whom.
Last fall, for example, Kaiser Health News reported that some same-sex partners considering retirement homes feel they may not be allowed to live together in open acknowledgment of their relationship. The article profiled one Georgia couple who, concerned about overtly religious retirement centers in their region, moved cross-country to Oregon to live in community that actively welcomes LGBTQ seniors.
Yet concerns persist, despite the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples and increased societal acceptance. For people who identified as queer and came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, you chose your people. They were your family. Will senior care facilities—out of cultural blindness or bias—forbid partners and friends from making significant care decisions or refuse to acknowledge chosen family members? Will finances and benefits normally given to heterosexual partners be withheld from surviving same-sex partners?
The rate and scale of growth in Seattle has added to problems of displacement and un-affordability for many people, including LGBTQ seniors. Our city’s brisk development may have increased the value of real estate and prettied up some neighborhoods, but higher costs inevitably expel the populations that once gave character and flavor to urban areas. When communities meet the wrecking ball, where do the scattered denizens gather to socialize, mobilize, plan, and learn?
Take Seattle’s Capitol Hill, once known for its LGBTQ bars and gay-owned bookstores and other businesses. Many of those cherished places in which to meet and mingle are gone. A group that can no longer congregate loses representation. They see less of a reflection of themselves in the larger culture, and a dwindling sense of belonging, and empowerment.
As a personal example, in 1995, after a four-year hiatus on Lopez Island, I moved back to Seattle. Rents were already climbing, and I was advised to apply for low-income housing through CCHIP. The Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program was an organization founded to help marginalized populations. (It was true then, and still is, that “artist” and “marginal” often occupy the same sentence.)
I was granted a tiny apartment in the John Carney building, a beige rectangle wedged between a large, brick apartment building and an open field at First and Broad Streets. (Yes. An open field.) The field would soon succumb to the first of many condo blooms; within a year of my residency, it seemed, any open space along First Avenue had been laid siege to by the weapons of mass construction.
The point is this: Had it not been for CCHIP, and the John Carney’s mission to provide housing for the mentally ill, recovering addicts, and artists, I would have found neither housing nor community. It was not, admittedly, my chosen family, but the place was clean, welcoming, well-managed, and a vibrant place in which to live and work.
But this is 2017. Growth in Western Washington has further transformed neighborhoods, and developers have been encouraged to put profit over intentional community design. Affordable, safe housing continues to be a central issue for everyone in our region.
It’s one thing to articulate a problem, and another to understand and implement change. An activist and advocacy organization, Allyship, founded by Debbie Carlsen, began working with homeless LGBTQ youth in 2010 when the vulnerability shared between this group and the elderly appeared obvious. A sustained intergenerational dialogue began, and for the past three years, its focus has been on affordable, safe housing.
Historically, there has prevailed the stereotype of the affluent gay—but in reality, more LGBTQ seniors live in poverty than their straight peers, and they are less likely to be partnered. The intergenerational relationships forged by Allyship’s programs have addressed this, while also forging political action. Members engage through educational discussion series, social media, community events, lobbying, and conferences. But Allyship takes it one step further, encouraging the emergence of leaders who have lived the issues. Participants become spokespeople and experts. By empowering people through education and exposure, member-activists are introduced to public officials, and to the mechanics of social and political change.
One result is Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program passed in August 2016, which ensures—for the first time—that residential and commercial developers create or fund affordable housing with every new project.
The advisory committee consisted of 28 members: renters and homeowners, for-profit and non-profit developers, and other local housing experts. Among its 60-plus recommendations is an anti-displacement law, demanding that rents be reasonable. Allyship helped pass the 2016 Housing Levy, which required that LGBTQ retirees be recognized as a priority population for “affirmative marketing” when it comes to advertising new and available housing.
It’s hard enough planning next week’s menu let alone the details of a life over the next 10 years, yet we are continually reminded of the crucial importance of wise planning and we skip it at our peril. Where will I live as I grow older? Will it be in some form of community? What can I afford? Who will I live with?
These are challenging questions facing all of us as we age, whether we’re straight or queer. The LGBTQ housing goal has never been to obtain housing for the specific group, but to insure queer friendliness in our wider communities: their dwellings, businesses, and institutions. LGBTQ people have shown inimitable resilience over the decades, but there is work to be done, and allies are ever welcome.
The Northwest LGBT Senior Care Providers Network is “an informal network of senior care providers of all kinds working together to promote advocacy and quality of care for the LGBT seniors of Washington State,” according to its website. Learn more at nwlgbtseniorcare.org.
A practicing Buddhist for over 30 years, Hollis Giammatteo has sought experiences that challenge her practice, from teaching writing to working with the elderly. She co-founded, managed, and wrote plays for The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia and for Rhode Island Feminist Theater. Hollis has published in a variety of magazines, and her memoir, The Shelf Life of Ashes, was released in May by She Writes Press.