LGBTQ seniors have spent the majority of their lives experiencing discrimination and have now also lived through the incredible progress of the past 10 years. Our great hope is that we make progress fast enough for them to experience full legal equality in their lifetimes.
We’re seeing momentum already for older LGBTQ adults in the South — the latest evidence being the inclusion of seven Southern cities, including Asheville, on a list from SeniorAdvice.com counting down the Top 20 Cities for LGBTQ Retirement.
Lists like this one from SeniorAdvice.com are important because they shine a light on the unique experiences of LGBTQ older adults. Research shows that LGBTQ elders are twice as likely to be single and live alone, four times less likely to have children and generally more likely than non-LGBTQ elders to have faced discrimination and social stigma, which can lead to poor physical and mental health, poverty and homelessness. Too often, LGBTQ elders face additional barriers in accessing equitable services and health care, so spotlighting cities leading the way as models of support is critical.
It’s heartening to see Asheville on the list, as well as other Southern cities such as Austin, Texas; Alexandria, Va.; and New Orleans, La. These are Southern communities with strong LGBTQ communities and more services and resources than you might find elsewhere. Asheville, for example, is home to Western North Carolina Community Health Services, a great resource with a groundbreaking Transgender Health Program. Advocates at WNCCHS and beyond are working to repair relationships between health service providers and LGBTQ people. Other efforts, including LGBT Elder Advocates of WNC, provide resources about LGBTQ-friendly elder services. Overall, for a Southern community Asheville features a higher than average number of LGBTQ-friendly medical providers, attorneys and faith communities. This combination of access to LGBTQ-friendly services and social support offer LGBTQ elders two pillars that can contribute to health, wellbeing and a sense of connectedness.
Still, there’s a lot of room to grow support for LGBTQ seniors. Data shows that one-third of LGBTQ seniors live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and those numbers are even higher for LGBTQ people of color. In the South, we know that many social services and direct services are faith-affiliated and that this can present a barrier to LGBTQ elders accessing the care they need. When our team at the Campaign for Southern Equality conducted the Trans Health Focus Group Project, several transgender seniors reflected on the new challenges they were encountering with medical specialists, some of whom had not previously treated trans patients. With each new provider relationship, the burden of educating about their identity and unique health needs often falls to the trans and nonbinary patient.
Beyond that, every Southern state lacks critical LGBTQ non-discrimination protections at the state level, and in North Carolina, HB142 prohibits cities like Asheville from passing their own LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances. Until we can ensure these comprehensive protections, LGBTQ people will continue to face and fear discrimination and harassment — whether it’s as overt as being directly denied a lease, mortgage or space at a senior living facility or more subtle, such as facing hostility at a senior center or being given inadequate health care.
At the Campaign for Southern Equality we know that local communities can lead the way when it comes to establishing strong equity practices in the South. That’s why we do so much work with local health care providers, direct service providers and businesses to become more inclusive and affirming. On the policy level, that’s why we advocate for Southern cities to pass comprehensive non-discrimination ordinances and directly address the inequities that LGBTQ people experience.
Ultimately, LGBTQ seniors shouldn’t need to consult a list of the most supportive, inclusive cities out there. LGBTQ seniors — and LGBTQ people of any age — should be able to live their lives freely and equally in every town and city in every state across the South. That’s what we’re working toward, and that’s what we’ll keep working toward until LGBTQ people are free and equal across the South.