New year brings uncertainty and fear for some LGBTQ elders
By Julie Compton
As many Americans think about what they will receive this Christmas, some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors are wondering what they may lose in the new year. A number of them even wonder if they’ll still have homes.
More than 100 LGBTQ elders gathered for a holiday party on Thursday at the Union Community Health Center in the Bronx borough of New York City. Several donned holiday sweaters and Santa hats, a few got up and danced to live Christmas music, and a handful shared their concerns about the future.
Tom, Albert, and Alfredo were among the party’s attendees. Now in their 60s and 70s, they talked to NBC News about their hard-fought battles of the past and their concerns about the future — especially a future under the Trump administration.
The three men declined to share their last names in order to protect their privacy.
Tom, a retired banker, receives less than half of his pre-retirement income. In 2015, he moved into a senior living complex in the Bronx. Now 76, he said he’s worried about losing his apartment. In May, the Trump administration announced plans to slash funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which Tom depends on for his housing subsidy.
“I’m hoping HUD doesn’t end or kick me out because of Trump,” Tom said.
He said his rent will go up to $1,600 a month if he loses his subsidy. “I’m paying $500 a month now, so that would raise my rent by $1,100 a month,” he said.
Albert, 62, lives in Section 8 Housing, a HUD program that subsidizes housing for low-income families, the elderly and disabled people. He currently pays $300 a month. If his rent goes up, he said, he won’t be able to afford an apartment in the city he calls home.
“I’ve seen many hundreds of people die from AIDS,” he said. Those people, he added, included two of his boyfriends and most of his friends.
“I think when you’re older, it’s less easy to make new friends, but I was able to make friends,” he said. “I’d make a new batch of friends, and they’d all start getting sick and they would all die, and then I would have to go through it again, and again, and again. It was like very traumatic, and I’ve seen a lot of cruelty.”
LGBTQ elders with HIV are particularly vulnerable, according to Michael Adams, CEO of Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE), which organized Thursday's holiday party at the Bronx center and other centers throughout the city. Adams said many suffer from comorbidity issues that worsen with age.
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Even though drug treatments for HIV have gotten better, health is still a constant worry for Tom. “After you’ve been taking the medication for over 20 years, you start getting long-term side effects,” he said, “and people don’t know that.”
One of the side effects he suffers is osteonecrosis. The condition causes arthritis, he said, and is painful. He said it also makes it difficult to get surgeries due to potential complications. “I need a hip replacement,” he said, “but I’m afraid to do it.”
Half of people with HIV in the U.S. are aged 50 or older, according to Adams, and he said financial security and poverty are major challenges for many LGBTQ elders, particularly those living with HIV.
Adams said the number of homeless LGBTQ elders in the city is on the rise. Many seniors who are HIV positive did not save enough money, he explained, because they assumed they wouldn’t live to be old.
“As a result of that, we often see heightened levels of financial insecurity and poverty among the folks that we are working with living with HIV, who also — even if they had thought to save it — would have been completely impossible because they were too sick to work for many years,” he said.
Alfredo, a 72-year-old retired college professor, moved to the U.S. from Chile in the late 1960s. He said he is concerned about the future of civil rights in America. He was 21 years old when he came to the U.S. to escape homophobia in his homeland. Now, he said, he wonders if LGBTQ people in the U.S. may lose some of the rights they fought for.
“I feel like I am in the wrong place, because I feel like here — the current climate here — is so anti-gay that I really feel like I am in the wrong country,” he said.
The Trump administration reportedly ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop using a list of words including “transgender,” “vulnerable,” and “diverse” in 2018 budget documents, according to the Washington Post. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which includes the CDC, denied the report.
“It’s our elders who are among the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community,” Adams said, “so if we’re not allowed to say words like ‘vulnerable’ and ‘diverse’ and ‘transgender’ anymore when dealing with the federal government, that is going to have a very negative impact on our ability to advocate for SAGE’s constituents.”
The alleged ban comes just months after the HHS removed questions that would have allowed LGBTQ elders like Alfredo to identify their sexual orientation on a federal health survey.
Adams is also concerned about an ongoing Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The case will determine whether a baker had the right to turn away a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs. Some argue religious exemptions are about freedom of speech, not discrimination. But Adams said such exemptions could have a devastating impact on LGBTQ elders across the country. He said 85 percent of longtime senior care providers are religiously affiliated organizations.
“Given the ages of our constituents, many of them already over the course of their lives have been subjected to really negative treatment as a result of religious beliefs,” Adams said. “And so the notion of sliding back to that kind of an experience, it’s really horrific.”
The Department of Justice, led by Trump appointee Jeff Sessions, submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in favor of the baker.
On top of worrying about their health and policies that may negatively affect them, many LGBTQ seniors live in quiet isolation, according to Adams. They are four times less likely to have children than their peers, he said, and are more likely to be estranged from their families.
Tom, Albert, and Alfredo all live alone and rely on their local SAGE centers to get meals, participate in group actives and simply meet other people. The organization has senior centers in 29 cities and 20 states across the U.S.
“If I didn’t have SAGE, I would be home watching TV,” Alfredo said. “I would be bored. I wouldn’t have the possibility of communicating with other people — interesting and nice people.”
Holidays can be a particularly lonely time of year for these seniors, according to Adams.
“It’s the time of year when everything inside of you is telling you that you’re supposed to be with family, that you’re supposed to be with friends, that you’re supposed to be having the best time of the year,” he said.
But sheer resilience help the men cope. Tom and Alfredo plan to attend another holiday lunch at a SAGE center in Manhattan on Christmas. Albert said he may spend the holiday with a friend. But for the most part, they said, Christmas is just another day.
“The day I stopped believing in Santa Claus,” said Alfredo, “that was the day Christmas was over.”
“I never saw holidays as a big deal,” said Tom. “Like my first lover that died of AIDS, we had an agreement, and we never bought presents for each other for holidays or birthdays unless we wanted to, but we would get gifts on non-holidays when we felt like it.”
But Tom said he is looking forward to one thing.
"I decided to drink some alcohol this year,” he said with a smile. “Some piña coladas.”