LGBTQ Elders Dream of Aging Among Friends

Critics say the city continues to pass over seniors’ need for services.

Longtime community activist and Seattle Gay News publisher George Bakan would like to fall in love again. The 78-year-old sat on the porch of his Capitol Hill office, which doubles as his home, during a brief lull in the rain on Friday afternoon. Surrounded by stacks of old Seattle Gay News papers, Bakan spoke wistfully of the neighborhood’s heyday as an LGBTQ epicenter several decades ago. There were gay-owned bars, restaurants, novelty shops, “you name it,” he reminisced.

While seven in 10 Americans now believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, that was not the case in the 1980s. Coming out was complicated. It could mean losing jobs and risking ostracism from family members or friends. The comfort of Capitol Hill provided an antidote to isolation by providing a space for the LGBTQ community to find camraderie in shared experiences. “This idea of the alternate family and connections beyond your traditional church and family was important, and that’s what Capitol Hill offered in the day,” Bakan said.

But Capitol Hill’s queer scene isn’t what it used to be. Elevated home and rental prices have pushed LGBTQ residents out of the neighborhood into more affordable parts of the city. The proof is in the numbers: U.S. Census data show that as same-sex couple households throughout Seattle have increased by 52 percent between 2000–2012, Capitol Hill has seen a 23 percent drop in the population at the same time.

Along with the decline in the neighborhood’s LGBTQ population came an increased sense of isolation. A 2017 LGBTQ Allyship housing report found that nearly 50 percent of the 300 LGBTQ respondents reported feeling more socially isolated in Seattle.

The loss of the LGBTQ community has especially hit elders, many of whom have aged out of the bar scene, were priced out of their neighborhood, or are estranged from family, said Bakan. Although he has secure housing and veteran’s medical care, he does seek greater socialization.

That brought him to voice his desire in rekindling “affairs of the heart,” as he called it—a display of his joie de vivre and undying yearn to give and receive love. The existence of an LGBTQ senior center—and coordinated events that are affordable to elders on a fixed income in Seattle—could help address pervasive loneliness, because sometimes “you need to kick yourself in the fanny, go somewhere and have a beer with some friends,” he said.

As Seattle becomes older and more diverse, the need for senior services and housing for older LGBTQ adults is set to increase. Yet study after study has found that Seattle lags behind other cities in meeting their needs. Nonprofit organization Generations Aging with Pride sought to address isolation within the older LGBTQ community by applying for funding in Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD)’s 2019–20 budget, but their application was rejected. The news followed the Office of Housing’s rejection of affordable housing developer Capitol Hill Housing’s application to create Seattle’s first LGBTQ-affirming senior housing in the city’s 2017–18 budget. While the City Council continues to review the budget in the upcoming weeks, elder members of the LGBTQ community say that their needs have largely gone unnoticed.

In his talks with LGBTQ community members who were getting older, Generations Aging with Pride Executive Director Steven Knipp found that middle-aged people hoping to plan for the next few decades of their lives were unable to find services. The dearth in assistance spurred him to seek $249,000 from HSD to create the city’s first LGBTQ-affirming senior center. “They said that we didn’t have experience in running a senior center,” Knipp said about the city’s reason for rejecting their application. He added that the city took issue with the organization’s plan to host a fitness program off-site.

“This city prides itself in being progressive, so it’s a disconnect, I think,” Knipp said. “The fact that we don’t have specified services for elders is a big … gap that’s just not being handled. I think that’s partly because this population of seniors tends to fade into the background, so it’s easy to forget people who aren’t visible.”

HSD spokesperson Meg Olberding said in an email that the organization’s application was rejected because they couldn’t afford to expand their funding for senior services. “Applications were reviewed by a panel that included subject matter experts and community members who considered multiple factors when providing a recommendation to the department,” she wrote. “As there was no sizable increased funding available, the panel recommended that the current senior centers in operation be continued with available funds.”

However, she said HSD does fund senior centers that offer LGBTQ programming, along with Seattle Parks’ Lifelong Recreation Program that offers LGBTQ programs at local community centers and hosts events. The department also holds a $144,000 contract with Generations Aging with Pride to offer sensitivity training to their existing service provider networks.

Olberding added that the department will continue its efforts to provide services to LGBTQ seniors in the future. “Planned actions for 2019 include partnering with NW LGBT Senior Care Providers Network to learn more about the issues facing LGBTQ elders in their end-of-life care and working with Gen Pride to develop promising practices for LGBTQ elders to age in home and community.”

Knipp stressed the need for LGBTQ-specific senior centers owing to the anecdotes that he’s heard of elders going back into the closet late in life to blend into community homes and centers. “My generation and the generation ahead of me had a very different experience in coming out,” he said, recounting collective experiences of shame and discrimination. “You take that trauma into your adulthood like we all do … but when we go into a place where we don’t know people, you go in there and you’re hesistant because you remember what it was like to be discriminated against and harrassed.”

Bakan and about 20 other LGBTQ older adults ranging in age and ethnicity attended the Capitol Hill organization’s community meeting last week. The range in experiences and challenges that each person faced has solidified Knipp’s belief that more services need to be available. One attendee who was a longtime survivor of AIDS said that he had not been out in a group in 10 years, and expressed gratitude to be in an environment where he felt safe and understood.

A Generations Aging with Pride rally on Oct. 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Beatrix Miguelez

A Generations Aging with Pride rally on Oct. 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Beatrix Miguelez

Findings in a recent study commissioned by Seattle’s Office of Housing reflect the need for community services and stable housing for LGBTQ elders. Authored by University of Washington School of Social Work Professor Karen Fredriksen Goldsen, the Seattle Rainbow Housing Report found that many of the about 27,000 LGBTQ elders who live in the Seattle area are at risk of losing their homes due to rising rents and housing. They were also more likely to live alone without support. Older LGBTQ adults are disproportionately burdened by the cost of housing and are over 30 percent more likely to spend a large chunk of their income on housing compared to other renters age 60 and above.

LGBTQ elders also experience higher health disparities, the study found. “Many of the senior people we are talking about are people who had full-blown AIDS, but didn’t die,” Bakan said. “They need some very special attention to make sure that they’re properly … getting all of their medical needs in this era, in the last phase of their lives.”

Although Seattle has one of the largest LGBTQ communities in the nation, it doesn’t have any LGBTQ- affirming senior homes. The lack of a senior home is notable, as the report found that most LGBTQ elders did not access senior or housing services because they were too expensive or the elders were afraid they would face discrimination. Their concerns aren’t unfounded: The study found that over 30 percent of the participants have experienced discrimination when pursuing housing, while nearly half of transgender older adults said that they have been physically threatened or assaulted by someone in their housing.

Capitol Hill Housing tried to fill the need for services by conceptualizing the construction of a seven-story building, following decades of community discussion about the health disparities and barriers to housing that LGBTQ seniors face. The developer plans to create 82 apartments for seniors who earn between $44,900 for a one-person household and $51,360 for a two-person household, or less than 60 percent of the area median income. Generations Aging with Pride also plans to offer opportunities for the tenants to socialize at dance classes or rainbow-themed bingo.

“CHH made a strategic decision not to apply in 2018 for the LGBTQ-affirming building at 14th and Union. This was in order to build stronger partnerships that will eventually benefit the residents of the building and members of the LGBTQ community. We’re working hard this year and next year so when we do get funded, we’ll be ready to start construction and we’ll have a project that meets the needs of LGBTQ elders. We currently plan to apply in 2019 with an aim to start construction in 2020,” Capitol Hill Housing spokesperson Yiling Wong wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly.

In the meantime, Knipp at Generations Aging with Pride continues brainstorming ways that the organization could address the needs of LGBTQ elders. He’d like Generations Aging with Pride to create a helpline and community-generated fund in which people can call the center to request that their electricity bills or other basic necessities be covered when they’ve fallen on hard times. He stands firm in his belief that a little help can go a long way. “We’re a very resilient group. We’ve been through the meat grinder—as I like to call it—when it comes to having difficult lives,” Knipp said. “And even with all of that we’ve risen up. We’ve accomplished some great things.”

The article has been amended to include updated figures for the Capitol Hill Housing building.

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