Following a Stroke, She Woke Up in Men’s Clothes: Why LGBTQ Seniors Deserve Equal Rights

Many older LGBT people lack support systems or children to care for them.  Those who can afford care worry about having to go back into the closet in a nursing home. Photo: Thinkstock

Corinne was capable and courageous.

She had served in the military and ran her own business for years, doing both as a man. At the age of 55, Corinne, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, took her boldest step and decided to finally live as the person she had always known herself to be.

She came out as a transgender woman and transitioned to living openly as her true self.

But, following a massive stroke eight years later, she woke up in a long-term care facility dressed as a man and placed with a male roommate. Semi-paralyzed and unable to speak, she could do nothing to protest. Her only family members, an estranged brother and uncle, had registered her there as “John,” her birth name.

Rick Zbur is executive director of Equality California.

Corinne’s story is sadly typical of what awaits many LGBTQ seniors as they age. Because they are sometimes childless or estranged from other family members who could aid in their care, these seniors can be left at the mercy of uncomprehending or downright hostile caregivers.

This maltreatment can take many forms, including being turned away or evicted from a long-term care facility based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

After a lifetime of bullying by schoolmates, co-workers and society at large, some LGBTQ seniors are forced to share a room with homophobic or transphobic companions. Same-sex couples are sometimes separated.

After fighting to summon the courage to live as who they truly are their entire lives, transgender seniors like Corinne often find themselves addressed as the wrong gender or by the wrong name, housed with a roommate of the wrong sex.

After struggling to come out at a time when same-sex conduct was still criminalized and fighting the first and most difficult battles for LGBTQ civil rights, the overall effect is to force these seniors back into the closet.

A bill currently making its way through the California legislature would do much to combat the lack of understanding or hostility confronting so many LGBTQ seniors in residential care. Senate bill 219, by Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, would create a “bill of rights” for LGBTQ seniors in residential care facilities, prohibiting refusal or eviction on the basis of sexual orientation, HIV status or gender identity.

Among other things, it would also require caregivers to address residents by their chosen names and pronouns, allow them to use restrooms corresponding to their gender identity, and create room assignment standards that forbid a facility from assigning a resident based on bias or fail to protect or respect an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Many of these practices are already illegal under California’s non-discrimination laws but this bill would make it clear that long-term care facilities are required to respect and protect LGBTQ seniors.

In a 2011 study of LGBTQ seniors and family members released by the National Senior Citizens Law Center, 43 percent had either been abused by caretakers themselves or witnessed that abuse. This incidence of maltreatment is likely far higher, as many cases of discrimination go undocumented.

SB 219 sends a message that we will protect our most vulnerable—particularly those lacking family members to whom to turn for help.

Corinne finally found the help she needed in the form of a court-appointed conservator. With her help, Corinne is learning to speak again, and has finally been able to legally change her name and gender. She’s been placed with a female roommate and has access to clothes and other items that are important to her sense of self.

SB 219 would aid those who are not as fortunate and help ensure that residential care facilities, including skilled nursing and intermediate care centers, understand their responsibilities to their LGBTQ residents.

How these seniors are treated when they are at their most vulnerable goes beyond an issue of LGBTQ civil rights and is not solely the responsibility of the LGBTQ community itself. It falls, in fact, on all members of any society that wants to call itself civil.

Rick Zbur is executive director of Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBT civil rights organization.

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