Maine and the entire nation have witnessed profound policy change with regard to lesbian and gay rights in the last decade. But gay and lesbian individuals, especially those who are older, still fear they will be targeted for who they are.
In Maine, after a battle stretching back to the 1970s, a law preventing discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation was finally passed in 2005. More recently, in 2012, also after a hard-fought campaign, Maine joined a minority of states that allowed same-sex marriage.
Nationally the changes have also been dramatic. Just 10 years ago, sodomy laws made it essentially illegal to be gay in 14 states. These were finally struck down by the Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.
Then, this past summer, the Supreme Court handed down yet another historic decision in United States v. Windsor by ruling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Passed in 1996, DOMA defined marriage as a contract between one man and one woman and allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Both these decisions reflect the slowly changing attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in the country.
The current cohort of LGBT elders came of age in a much less accepting world.
Gay men and lesbian women over 65 years of age were already in their 20s, if not older, at the time of the Stonewall rebellion of 1969 — a watershed event initiating the movement for gay and lesbian civil rights. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in New York City that was frequently raided by police in the 1960s. On June 27, 1969, the patrons did not acquiesce to the raid but rather fought back, resulting in three days of rioting. The Stonewall rebellion symbolized the beginning of active resistance to anti-gay violence.
But each battle for civil rights has been hard won, and anti-gay attitudes — sometimes referred to as homophobia — have been slow to change, meaning many older LGBT individuals have spent much of their lives hiding who they are due to real fears for their safety, or potential loss of their jobs, homes and children.
This older generation came of age when homosexuality was viewed as a disease. The first two editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952 and 1968, labeled homosexuals as sexual deviants and classified them as child molesters, voyeurs, exhibitionists and people who committed antisocial and destructive crimes. It is thus not surprising that older LGBT individuals might be wary of health care professionals.
According to the Pew Research Center, most (60 percent) Americans think homosexuality should be accepted. Ten years ago, only 47 percent did. But nearly a third (31 percent) of Americans still think homosexuality should be discouraged, most often because it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
So while the trend is toward greater acceptance and rights, LGBT individuals often still face discrimination and judgment. For example, six national LGBT and mainstream aging organizations — including the National Senior Citizens Law Center and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force — conducted a survey in 2011 regarding how LGBT adults fare in long-term care facilities and found actual incidents of abuse (reported by 43 percent of the respondents) and widespread fear that staff would discriminate against them if they were “out” (reported by 89 percent of the respondents).
Given this situation, a group of interested professionals formed the Maine GLBT Aging Project in 2011 with the purpose of conducting a community needs assessment to identify the key issues facing LGBT elders in Maine and establishing an affiliate chapter in Maine of the national organization, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). Based on the findings from this 2012 needs assessment, published by AARP earlier this year, SAGE Maine has been formed with the specific mission to improve the quality of life for older GLBT adults living in Maine through advocacy, education and social support.
The SAGE affiliate will proactively assist the approximately 15,000 LGBT older adults in Maine to assure that their elder years need not be lived with the fear and harassment many experienced in their youth. Its establishment demonstrates once again that Maine is willing — albeit sometimes with much debate and dissension — to treat its sexual minority neighbors with respect rather than judgment.
Sandy Butler is a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week. Nancy Kelly is field director at the University of Maine’s School of Social Work and a member of the SAGE Maine board of directors.