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GUEST COLUMN Illinois Must Protect LGBT Elders from Housing Discrimination
by Serena Worthington
2018-03-14

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Many older people who move into a residential care facility may feel a bit hopeless or unmoored as they adjust to a new way of living. Now imagine that in addition to those feelings, you are spat upon, yelled at, and physically attacked for whom you love. That's exactly what happened to Marsha Wetzel, the lead plaintiff in Lambda Legal's appeal in Wetzel v. Glen St. Andrew Living Community. Marsha had her day in court last month at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, based in Chicago, where she is fighting to hold Glen St. Andrew accountable for keeping her safe in her own home. The court may now issue a ruling at any time, which could set important precedent for similar cases going forward.

Marsha moved to Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois in 2014. After disclosing that she had been in a long-term committed relationship with another woman and had raised a son with her, some residents harassed and physically assaulted her, and called her anti-LGBT slurs. When Marsha reported the incidents to administrators, they neglected to take action. With no family to turn to for help, Marsha suffered this harassment for more than 15 months.

The Seventh Circuit heard oral arguments in the case in mid-February, and Lambda Legal, the nation's oldest and largest legal organization advocating for equal treatment for LGBT people, is representing Marsha.

Through my role at SAGE, the country's leading advocacy group for LGBT elders, I know housing discrimination is a particular concern for LGBT older adults. LGBT older people are twice as likely to live alone, twice as likely to be single, and three to four times less likely to have children—and many are estranged from their families. For LGBT older adults, a lifetime of employment discrimination and other factors contribute to disproportionately high poverty rates. These factors, and more, result in LGBT elders who are sometimes unable to provide for themselves, and who rely on caretakers and residential care facilities as they approach the end of their lives. They are rightly worried and scared about continued discrimination. Through SAGE's Chicago affiliates, I've met personally with a number of LGBT older adults who worry that they cannot be honest about their sexual orientation or gender identity in the place they call home.

No one should have to worry about something as basic as being yourself in your own space—especially as you age. The ability to enjoy a home, live as your authentic self, and feel comfortable and safe is something that matters to all of us. Equal housing opportunity is a basic right that should be available to everyone. Whether you live at home, in independent living like Marsha, or a higher care facility such as an assisted living facility or nursing home, you should feel safe. Sufficient action on the part of staff members to immediately address and resolve discriminatory practices, and proactive prevention of similar situations in the future, is basic human decency.

Happily, Illinois' Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but that doesn't prevent discrimination from happening. Nationwide, there is no federal nondiscrimination law in housing for LGBT people—meaning in 32 states that lack statewide laws, LGBT people have no recourse. This problem is exacerbated for older people who lack the money, energy, and support to navigate potential legal action. In Illinois, we still have work to do to provide trainings, resources, and opportunities for service providers to understand how to best care for LGBT people, especially elders.

By hearing Marsha's case, our circuit court of appeals has an opportunity to send a message of fairness for all in housing. I hope the Seventh Circuit does the right thing in affirming that facilities like Marsha's must treat all people equally, and ensures justice for her. We will stand with Marsha.

Serena Worthington is the Director of National Field Initiatives at SAGE, where she oversees SAGE's national affiliate network, facilitates state-based policy advocacy on LGBT aging issues and, enhances the capacity of partner organizations across the country to work effectively on behalf of LGBT older people. A veteran in aging services and advocacy, she enjoys sharing her passion and expertise on LGBT aging issues.


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