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U.S.: Gay, Grey and Groundbreaking

PORTLAND, U.S., May 13 2011 - People in the U.S. are becoming more and more open towards homosexuality, in part due to the trendy Hollywood culture that conveys the image of young, hip and good looking gay men and women. But the situation changes when it comes to the elderly.

Bob Rupar, Jo Hamilton, Sharon Messerschmidt and Bruce Meisner, Gay & Grey PDX members. Credit:  Jennifer Jansons/Street News Service

Bob Rupar, Jo Hamilton, Sharon Messerschmidt and Bruce Meisner, Gay & Grey PDX members. Credit: Jennifer Jansons/Street News Service

For a while, Bruce Meisner and Bob Rupar were attending a funeral a week. The two energetic, grey-haired men in their 70s, partners for 40 years, recall the Reagan era, in the USA, as a dark time when male friends were quietly dying, childless and spouseless, from an epidemic no one acknowledged: AIDS.

Today, Meisner, Rupar and other gay seniors of their generation still live in the shadows. There are an estimated 10,000 gay seniors in the U.S. city of Portland, and around thre million nationwide, according to the most conservative estimates. Many are battling a double dose of vulnerability that wreaks havoc on their finances, health and emotions.

Portland’s own gay elder advocacy group, Gay & Grey PDX, is on the frontlines of fighting that vulnerability. Supported by the community nonprofit Friendly House in Northwest Portland, the team of about 20 advocates and allies organises benefit events and conducts educational workshops in nursing homes to raise awareness about discrimination that many don’t even realise exists.

The group is a rarity – Gay-Straight Alliances and United Sexuality clubs are becoming common in schools, but gay senior support groups are virtually nonexistent. Consider the last time you heard of an LGBTQ group at your grandma’s nursing home, or similarly elder statesmen at the Pride Parade.

Covert discrimination

"Especially in Portland, discrimination is a challenge," says Mya Chamberlain, director of Services for Seniors and Homeless Families at community nonprofit Friendly House. Chamberlain explains that because of Portland's gay-friendly reputation, covert discrimination is often brushed under the rug rather than addressed seriously.

Research supports Chamberlain's theory. For instance, a four-year-old Urban Institute study found that even in states with no official legal barriers to gays adopting children, covert discrimination against gay couples was occurring within adoption agencies. Another study published twelve years ago in The Journal of Social Psychology, entitled "Covert Discrimination Against Gay Men by U.S. College Students," found that even when study participants made "overtly positive evaluations" of gay men, they maintained "covert negative attitudes."

After participating in a Gay & Grey PDX educational workshop with Portland State University's School of Community Health, one student wrote in an evaluation, "Whenever someone tells me they're gay, my reaction is honestly, 'So?' Your talk made me realise that it's about culture and identity - by shrugging off someone's gay status, I have been discrediting them, or a big part of who they are."

To combat covert discrimination, Gay & Grey PDX volunteers teach workshops not only for Portland State University's community health students, but also for nursing students at Linfield College and University of Portland, and staff at Multnomah County Aging and Disability Services and Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

But a new awareness is gaining steam and Oregon leaders are joining the cause. Gov. John Kitzhaber is proclaiming May 21 as “Gay & Grey Day” in Oregon, and Secretary of State Kate Brown is reading the official proclamation at the Gay & Grey PDX Expo at Friendly House on that same date.

Double dose of vulnerability

LGBTQ seniors are more likely to live alone and five times less likely to access senior services than their heterosexual peers, according to Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE). Gay seniors are also more likely to lack adequate support networks, especially since many do not have children to care for them as they age, according to SAGE.

More than 1,000 federal marriage benefits are denied to gay couples, many hitting gay seniors the hardest, including medical decision-making power and hospital visitation rights, Social Security survivor benefits, Medicare spousal benefits, inheritance of a spouse’s estate, and financial decision-making power on a spouse’s behalf.

When Rupar was hospitalized in Arizona, nurses would not let long-term partner Meisner see him because he wasn’t a family member. They would not tell Meisner about Rupar’s condition or even if Rupar was still receiving care. In other states, hospitals recognize domestic partnership certificates, but an individual nurse or administrator can still “make it difficult in a difficult time,” says Gay & Grey PDX member Sharon Messerschmidt, who dreads what would happen if her partner of 26 years, Jo Hamilton, should enter the hospital.

“If one of us were to become widowed,” speculates Hamilton, “how would we grieve? People would say, ‘I’m so sorry about your husband,’ but I would be mourning Sharon.”

Whereas a heterosexual older couple wouldn’t think twice about moving into a nursing home together, many same-sex senior couples hesitate to divulge their sexual orientation to health and housing providers because they fear prejudice, and struggle with the idea of coming out anew in retirement.

“Until I started coming to Friendly House,” says Messerschmidt, “I referred to Jo as ‘my partner’ purposefully, as a cover.” Rupar laughs, saying he frequently refers to Meisner as his partner only to get the response, “what business are you in?” Both Messerschmidt and Rupar say they did not always correct people.

Martha Wright, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Friendly House, weighs concerning questions: “In nursing home facilities where care workers come from a conservative religious background, are they delivering care to gay seniors with compassion? Are [gay senior couples] free to be in the same apartment? Will they be separated from their loved ones? The bottom line is there are policies that are flat-out unfriendly toward gay seniors.”

Changing for the better

In response to gay seniors’ worries about discrimination, gay retirement centers are springing up nationwide. The Palms of Manasota in Palmetto, Florida, Triangle Square in Hollywood, California, and RainbowVision in Santa Fe, New Mexico are just a few that cater specifically to LGBTQ elders.

“They offer a place for people who might want to watch musicals, not football,” says Meisner. Rupar and Meisner moved to Portland from Oakland to live at Rainbow Vista, “an active LGBT senior residence,” in Gresham; however, even there, Rupar and Meisner say they witnessed “psychological abuse” that made them move out.

Even the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) is making changes. Earlier this month, HUD launched a new, yearlong campaign called “Live Free,” designed to draw national attention to housing discrimination against minorities, including the LGBTQ community.

Although there is no national assessment of LGBT housing discrimination (HUD is currently working on one based on the last census), several state and local studies that have indicated evidence of bias. A 2007 report by Michigan’s Fair Housing Centers showed that nearly 30 percent of same-sex couples were treated differently when attempting to buy or rent a home, facing burdens from higher rental rates and application fees to borderline sexual harassment.

Oregon is one of seventeen states that ban housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nevertheless, the Portland nonprofit Senior Housing and Retirement Enterprises (SHARE) was established in 2001 to address the lack of local affordable housing for gay seniors.

SHARE’s raison d’etre is to offer “safety (from the) fear of mistreatment by care-givers and other residents…socialisation that is inclusive…(education for) staff and other residents regarding LGBT seniors’ sensibilities and fears” and to combat the “reluctance of LGBT seniors to reveal their sexual identity to health providers and care providers.” Last year, SHARE was incorporated into Gay & Grey PDX, which is in the midst of forming a subcommittee on housing.

Paving the way

There’s no denying that the gay rights movement has come a long way. Gay & Grey PDX members vividly remember a time, only forty years ago, when being gay was defined as a mental illness and gay-friendly bars would flash lights to warn patrons that police were coming.

“Youngsters today are so fortunate that we’ve come before them and paved the way,” says Messerschmidt.

Even so, gay youth coming out today continue to face rough odds – LGBTQ teens are bullied two to three times as much as straight single teens and are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide, according to the It Gets Better Project, started by media pundit Dan Savage.

“The thing is, it doesn’t get better at our age,” says Gay & Grey PDX member John Behrens. “As we get older, we get more vulnerable…but we don’t want to go back into the closet.”

“Friendly House has changed our lives,” says Hamilton. “It’s given us friends and allies.”

* Published under an agreement with Street News Service

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