The Shaw resident lived through the Stonewall era and resides in one of the nation’s most gay-friendly cities. Furious, he ordered the therapist out and complained to the agency that sent him. But older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, including those among the first to come out as a political and social force, are increasingly apprehensive about encountering discrimination as they grow older and more dependent on strangers for care.
An estimated 2 million Americans 50 or older identify as LGBT, with that number expected to double by 2030, according to the Institute for Multigenerational Health at the University of Washington. About 15,000 are estimated to live in the Washington metropolitan region.
Those over 65 grew up in what their younger counterparts now see as a dark age, when doctors viewed homosexuality as a disorder and gay men and lesbians were sometimes committed to psychiatric wards.
“They came of age and lived through an era when it was particularly dangerous to be out,” said Susan Sommer, senior counsel and director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, an LGBT advocacy group. “They risked losing employment, losing family, losing friends, and even violence. They became habituated to a closeted existence.”
Those in their 50s came of age during a more tolerant time. Nevertheless, anti-LGBT attitudes are still common among people over 50, with just 50 percent of baby boomers and 47 percent of the Silent Generation saying they think homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to two Pew Research Center polls conducted this year. Among Generation X, the number was 63 percent, and among millennials it was 71 percent.
Since 2010, federal law has mandated such rights as hospital visitation for same-sex partners. But as they get older, many feel less comfortable standing up for themselves, particularly if they are not wealthy, and they are increasingly vulnerable to being pushed back into the closet, experts say.
“If you’re getting public assistance, you often have very little say on who’s assigned to you,” said Wendy Lustbader, a University of Washington professor of social work who specializes in aging. “Many people actually accept various kinds of abuse from health-care workers because they are dependent on their care.”
A 2011 survey by six LGBT and older adult advocacy groups found that just 22 percent of LGBT aging adults said they felt it was all right to be open about their sexual identity in a nursing home or assisted-living facility. Fear of discrimination from other residents was almost as high as fear of discrimination from staff, the survey found, and 43 percent said they had experienced mistreatment at facilities.