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Queer and Trans Elders in Search of Safe Housing Face Barriers, Discrimination

For LGBTQ elders, finding safe and affordable housing can be a matter of life and death.

According to SAGE, a national advocacy organization for LGBTQ elders, there are an estimated 3 million LGBTQ adults over the age of 50 in the U.S., and that number is expected to double by 2030.

As the baby boom generation enters its golden years and average lifespans increase, the U.S. is becoming home to more older adults. In 2019, there were over 74.6 million Americans over the age of 60, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS). The agency projects that there will be 80.8 million seniors in the U.S. by 2040, a demographic trend that has particular ramifications for aging transgender people, for whom access to safe and affirming housing is already a critical need.

According to SAGE, a national advocacy organization for LGBTQIA+ elders, there are an estimated 3 million LGBTQIA+ adults over the age of 50 in the U.S., and that number is expected to double by 2030. These adults face more discrimination and experience poorer health outcomes, such as chronic illness, hypertension, and depression, than any other sector of the overall aging population, and those with overlapping marginalizations face even more dire consequences.

New medical issues, loss of loved ones, and financial instability are some of the difficulties elders face, especially within marginalized communities. For example, the median income for older adults in 2020 was $26,668, but cisgender men made $35,808 while cisgender women only made $21,245. Outcomes for seniors are also clearly impacted by race. While 6.8% of white seniors were living beneath the poverty line in 2020, that number nearly tripled for Black and Latinx elders, whose poverty rates were 17.2% and 16.6%, respectively.

Limited access to safe and affordable housing continues to be a disturbing trend in the U.S., but the stakes are even higher for LGBTQIA+ people, particularly for transgender elders. A 2022 survey of LGBTQIA+ elders conducted by AARP found that nearly nine in ten transgender or nonbinary seniors are concerned about gender-based discrimination when seeking a home, and they also fear age-based discrimination. These fears often result in people deciding to “re-closet” themselves or delay transitioning to avoid animosity, violence, or houselessness. Across the country, there is a dearth of affordable and accessible senior living facilities. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 30,577 residential care facilities and just under 1.2 million licensed beds existed in 2020. As of 2021, the national average monthly cost of an assisted living facility is $4,300. There are even fewer options for trans and nonbinary people.

For transgender people, finding safe and comfortable housing is a critical need and a significant barrier. Advocates stress that the need for trans-affirming housing isn’t a matter of comfort so much as the difference between life and death.

“People generally want to live in communities that are welcoming; one reason is that our neighbors are typically our first line of defense in case of an emergency,” said Cassandra Cantave, a senior research advisor with AARP. “Neighbors are sometimes able to get to us faster than an ambulance, firetruck, or the police. Having a community that is accepting becomes a matter of safety and comfort.”

Discrimination and Trauma Have Distinct Impacts on Aging

The challenges faced by older members of the LGBTQIA+ community do not exist in a vacuum — they are the predictable result of a lifetime of discrimination and hardship. The LGBTQIA+ elders who now need additional physical, financial, and housing support are known as the Stonewall Generation; a 70-year-old today was in high school when the riots overtook Greenwich Village. They have endured a lifetime of bigotry that has resulted in real emotional trauma and tangible differences in preparedness for growing old.

Examples are abundant. For one, LGBTQIA+ elders are less likely to have access to financial savings—a direct result of a lifetime of employment discrimination. Data from AARP’s 2022 Dignity Survey shows that upwards of 83% of these seniors are at least somewhat concerned about retirement savings, although this differs according to identity. Cisgender gay men were the least concerned (and generally had the most financial security), and transgender or nonbinary older adults were the most concerned (and generally had the least financial security).

“Half of all LGBTQIA+ plus older adults live in a state where they can legally be denied housing and public accommodations,” says Sydney Kopp-Richardson, director of SAGE’s National LGBT Elder Housing Initiative, “There’s no federal law prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people in housing.”

Despite some positive shifts under the Biden administration, fair housing laws still lack specific protections regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. According to Kopp-Richardson, trans elders are particularly at risk of “falling through the cracks.”

“Trans people struggling with homelessness might not feel safe being their full selves in a homeless shelter, where physical, sexual violence is happening against trans people, and might prefer to stay on the street rather than entering a shelter,” Kopp-Richardson said. “That cuts them off from a possible referral system to transitional affordable housing.”

The 2022 Dignity Survey also shows that LGBTQIA+ seniors are far less likely to have familial support, which can be a crucial component of a safe and healthy life for older adults. A little less than half of LGBTQIA+ seniors are single, with cisgender gay men the least likely to be partnered. Additionally, 49% of older LGBTQIA+ people report feeling either extremely or very concerned about having adequate family and/or social support to rely on as they age. Living alone can be dangerous for older adults, and being single means there is less financial stability at a time when medical and housing costs explode. Not surprisingly, LGBTQIA+ seniors who are single, not white, or are transgender and nonbinary are most concerned about a lack of social support.

As a teenager, Deirdra Nottingham was rejected by her family when they discovered she had a girlfriend. Nottingham ended up living on the New York City streets, cycling through rental houses and homeless shelters. Now Nottingham is a 72-year-old living in Stonewall House, an LGBTQIA+ friendly elder housing community in Brooklyn, New York. Over the years, Nottingham has lost three romantic partners to illness and violence and she feels lucky to have a daughter who visits her. Still, Nottingham sees the seclusion of her neighbors. And even though she lives in the country’s largest LGBTQIA+ friendly housing development, she still fears interactions with heterosexual neighbors in the same building.

“Some of the elderly people [here] don’t have family because they were probably shunned,” Nottingham said. “I understand people are set in their ways with society, but it’s not easy living with heterosexuals. It can bring your morale down […] it can even make you suicidal. We should have our own building where [we] don’t have to be leery [of what people are saying].”

Affirming Housing Communities Means More Safety for Transgender Elders

Nottingham is not alone in her unease. In 2021, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducted a study of discrimination against LGBTQIA+ individuals and found that cisgender gay men were less likely to be told about rental units than cisgender heterosexual people and that transgender people were told about even fewer rental units. Both gay and trans populations were quoted higher prices than their cisgender heterosexual peers. Meanwhile, only 49% LGBTQIA+ older adults are homeowners, as opposed to 62% of cisgender heterosexual seniors.

Housing fears are compounded for LGBTQIA+ elders who aren’t white. Over 72% of respondents to AARP’s Dignity Survey fear discrimination when buying a home. Black and Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) elders have elevated fears regarding housing, reaching rates of 94% and 80%, respectively.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, “one in five transgender people in the U.S. has been discriminated against when seeking a home, and more than one in 10 have been evicted from their homes because of their gender identity.” Transgender people of all ages also suffer the mental health impacts of transphobia in housing, healthcare, employment, and more. According to the groundbreaking 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), 39% of respondents reported serious psychological distress, compared to only 5% of the general U.S. population. Furthermore, 23% of respondents avoided medical treatment for fear of mistreatment, and 33% avoided medical treatment because they could not afford it. (Results from the 2022 UTS are expected later this year.)

Transgender and nonbinary people are also the least likely of all LGBTQIA+ adults to own a home. While 62% of cisgender lesbians over the age of 65 own a home, only 43% of transgender or nonbinary adults of the same ages are homeowners. According to AARP’s Dignity Survey, “Forty-one percent of respondents were at least somewhat concerned about future housing discrimination as they age because of their LGBTQ identity. Transgender and nonbinary participants indicated an even greater level of insecurity with more than half (58%) expressing concern about needing to hide their identity to access housing options for older adults.”

When compounded by the specific challenges brought on by aging, existing data paints a distressing picture of the struggles transgender people go through while trying to find a safe home.

Ray Gibson, a 65-year-old transgender man living in the Southeast, is discreet about his identity. Letting strangers assume he’s cis is a matter of safety and privacy. At his previous home, his neighbors saw him transition — a process that included changing his name and growing facial hair — and they looked for “an excuse” to get rid of him, according to Gibson. He also experienced homelessness and discrimination in the rental market, but he is now a homeowner.

“[Management] doesn’t take it seriously when I have housing problems or [issues] with a neighbor,” Gibson said. “Any kind of issue that comes up, they seem to be real quick to want to use that [to get rid of me]. I’m a squeaky wheel, and I’m a trans man, and I’m Black, so it’s just been a variety of hard experiences.”

Pushing Back Against Disinformation and Being Invisibilized

While the housing difficulties faced by trans and nonbinary elders are myriad and multifarious, the solutions available are focused and few, primarily pursued through legislation and advocacy. There are currently two major legislative initiatives making their way through the federal government.

First and most prominent is the Equality Act (H.R. 5), which passed the House of Representatives in February of 2021 but has stalled in the Senate. This bill would codify protections against discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in federal law in “places or establishments that provide (1) exhibitions, recreation, exercise, amusement, gatherings, or displays; (2) goods, services, or programs; and (3) transportation services.” The legislation would also allow the Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of those who experienced such discrimination. For millions of trans and nonbinary elders who rely on the capricious goodwill of their employers and neighbors, the Equality Act would provide security and relief.

However, the Equality Act faces significant pushback from conservatives, who relentlessly target transgender people with vicious attacks. Detractors primarily fall back on fearmongering and transphobic rhetoric that deliberately obscures and denies the reality that the existence and rights of transgender and nonbinary people do not put cisgender people at any risk. On the other hand, the 2015 USTS shows that 31% of transgender Americans were attacked, denied service, or mistreated while accessing public accommodations due to their gender. As many as 8% reported developing a urinary tract infection due to lack of access to public restrooms.

The second legislative action is the LGBTQ+ Data Inclusion Act. This bill was passed by the House of Representatives in June of 2022 and was referred to the Senate in July 2022. The Data Inclusion Act would require federal agencies to include categories for sexual orientation and gender identity when collecting data. The aim of federal data collection regarding gender and sexuality is to provide actionable insights to lawmakers, advocacy organizations, and activists working to improve the lives of LGBTQIA+ people, as well as obtaining quality data about the U.S. population.

“There’s not enough data on LGBTQIA+ elders because of legacies of discrimination,” Kopp-Richardson said. “People have not always felt safe being out, and also because people are not counted on the census, particularly trans people. People are often misgendered or not captured in surveys. There’s also a distrust of medical systems and of service provision systems, especially if people have experiences of medical trauma.”

SAGE and AARP, for their parts, are working on several local fronts to support LGBTQIA+ elders across the country — often in partnership with one another. Cantave said that over 60 local AARP communities with LGBTQIA+ strategies and state offices offer outreach and programming. The organization has also publicly supported passing the Equality Act and filed amicus briefs on behalf of queer elders.

SAGE runs the National Housing Initiative, a five-pronged approach that combines advocacy and education among a network of partner organizations in order to expand access to safe housing for LGBTQIA+ seniors nationwide.

“Housing developers, service providers, and aging care facilities are beginning to see that [LGBTQIA+ communities have] specific needs…engaging in cultural competency training for seniors and building this kind of housing to create more affirming affinity-based spaces,” Kopp-Richardson said.

This includes housing facilities like Brooklyn’s Stonewall House and Durham, North Carolina’s Village Hearth, as well as a training program through which standard senior care institutions can receive a ‘SAGECare Credential,’ showing potential residents that staff has received competence training. Lastly, SAGE and its affiliates work to ensure that LGBTQIA+ homeowners and renters are aware of their rights.

Ultimately, lessening the burden and stress of finding affirming and accessible housing on trans and nonbinary elders — whether through legislation, organization-led programs, or other means of support — can make a critical difference. Finding housing is already a tiring and frustrating process for many trans elders, having to constantly fight for their humanity to be respected while seeking a safe place to live is exhausting.

“It takes a lot out of you,” said Gibson. “I’m just feisty, but for some people who shy away from confrontation it’s hard. Having to explain [your experiences], who wants to do all that just to live?”

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