Editorials

Tacoma area awakes to needs of older LGBTQ community

John McCluskey and Rudy Henry (seated) won a lottery to become the first same-sex couple issued a marriage license in Pierce County on Dec. 6, 2012, the first day that such marriages became legal in Washington state. The needs of older members of the local LGBTQ community are coming into clearer focus today.
John McCluskey and Rudy Henry (seated) won a lottery to become the first same-sex couple issued a marriage license in Pierce County on Dec. 6, 2012, the first day that such marriages became legal in Washington state. The needs of older members of the local LGBTQ community are coming into clearer focus today. News Tribune file photo

To use current vernacular, more and more people are “woke” when it comes to issues important to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Americans are finally waking up to the idea that equal justice applies to everybody, LGBTQ individuals included.

While the battle for fair treatment isn’t over, laws that relegated LGBTQ persons to second-class status are disappearing. Sodomy laws are unconstitutional. The military repealed its misguided “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And as of three years ago, same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states.

But progress doesn’t mean the LGBTQ community is now escaping stigma and discrimination; prejudice is too deeply woven into our culture, manifesting itself through slurs and slang, stereotypes and disparate treatment.

LGBTQ folks who are 50 years and older, worn down by judgmental attitudes most of their lives, face a unique set of challenges. It’s why last week public officials who advocate for aging people in Pierce County hosted a SAGE Table in Tacoma. SAGE is the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of older LGBTQ folks.

Last year SAGE began a series of conversations across the U.S. Nellis Kim, a program specialist with the Pierce County Aging and Disability Resources agency, was familiar with SAGE’s work nationally and wanted to bring the dialogue to the Tacoma area. Kim knows that many aging adults with nontraditional sexual and gender identities in the Puget Sound region are living with social isolation, which in turn can have negative consequences on health and well-being.

Kim reached out to Tacoma Older LGBT, a local nonprofit group, and the Korean Women’s Association, a local organization known for embracing multi-ethnic/cultural populations. Both agreed to host a get-together with free food and drinks.

It was a chance for local, intergenerational LGBTQs to forge friendships and gain new networks. But it was also an invitation to get real.

The evening’s topic was loneliness — not exactly the stuff of light party chatter — but given that LGBTQ elders score significantly higher on the scale of depressive symptoms and are more likely to report suicidal thoughts or attempts than their heterosexual and non-transgendered peers, it was a conversation that needed to happen.

The LGBTQ community is a living example of how poor public policy negatively impacts populations. Legal barriers to marriage certainly cramped their relationships; for decades same-sex partners were denied familial status, an especially grievous injustice when a loved one was sick. Inequities still exist in home ownership, insurance, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Some religious communities still don’t accept or sanction LGBTQ sexuality.

Recent news reports revealed the Trump administration is exploring a new federal definition of “sex” that would undercut civil rights protections for gay, bisexual, and especially transgender Americans.

Today many older members in this community are thriving; some are not. But it’s safe to say most grew up in a society that ridiculed, shamed and in some instances inflicted violence.

Kim says more discussions will lead to more services. It’s why her agency is planning additional social activities for LGBTQ elders, to include a film series and classes on wellness and exercise. Science shows these activities could even stave off cognitive decline.

Older LGBTQ citizens have made countless contributions to the South Sound. Some have left an even bigger mark, including Margaret Witt, the Tacoma native ousted from the Air Force in 2004, who fought back in court and set the stage for the demise of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

But years of injustice have consequences that only conversations can cure. Stay woke and keep talking.

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