When my son first came out, I vividly remember my reaction: he will grow old with no one to care for him—no children or spouse to be there for him. He will be alone.
It made me incredibly sad.
In the years since, I’ve recognized that even though “Mr. Picky” has no partner, he has a huge “family of choice.” He is a very social being, and he has an enormous circle of very good friends. And of course, he has his brothers and sisters, not to mention the nieces and nephews who adore him.
A good friend of mine committed suicide this year. He too had many friends—although honesty compels me to acknowledge that he was more guarded, more private, than my son. Still, I couldn’t help thinking: he didn’t have a significant other, he didn’t have anyone truly close to whom he could turn in moments of despair. What if….??
Which brings me to a recent study conducted by a whole raft of very impressive organizations—the LGBT Movement Advancement Project, SAGE (Seniors and Advocates for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders), the American Society on Aging, the Center for American Progress, and the National Senior Citizens Law Center. The study confirmed (as so many do) something we all instinctively know: LGBT seniors face unique challenges that make successful aging much more difficult for them than it is for those of us who are heterosexual. (And let me assure you, as a woman aging far more rapidly than I am comfortable with, it isn’t all that easy for us heteros.)
The study found that the effects of social stigma and prejudices—past and present—have made it much more difficult for members of the LGBT community to save for retirement. It also found that the need to rely on “families of choice” for care and support made the availability of that care and support far more “iffy.” (Granted, the report didn’t use terminology like “iffy,” but that was what it meant.)
More important by far, LGBT seniors face continued unequal treatment under the law. Rules surrounding everything from hospital visits to inheritance rights elevate the legal status of blood relatives over long-term partners, even in cases where those “blood” relatives have disowned, belittled, demeaned and disparaged the individual involved. Take just one example: Medicaid, the largest funder by far of long-term care, has spousal impoverishment protections that simply do not apply to GLBT unions. The result is that the healthy partner in such unions may be left homeless and/or penniless. The study notes that the lack of spousal benefits in Social Security can cost an elderly LGBT person as much as $14,000 a year. Tax-qualified retirement plans have punitive rules that don’t apply to heterosexual couples. And that same disparity applies to employment pensions, health insurance benefits for retirees, estate and inheritance taxes, and even veterans’ benefits.
These inequities are the result of a society that has stubbornly resisted applying the principal of equal protection of the law to gay and lesbian people.
Right now, many in the gay community are focused upon issues like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and same-sex marriage. Those are very important issues—especially marriage, the recognition of which would go a long way toward ameliorating the gross unfairness this study documents. But sometimes it is a good idea to take the long view—to stand back and recognize the lifetime effects of the unfair, unequal and prejudicial legal environment we inhabit.
My son has assured me that he does not entertain suicidal impulses, and that he appreciates and values both his blood family and his large, extended “family of choice.” And I know he is sincere. I know he is loved—and I know that he knows it too. And he is still young; he may yet find someone who meets his exacting specifications.
But I’d feel a lot better if we had a fairer legal system, and a fairer society, for him to grow old in.