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Black LGBT Seniors Struggle with Bias, Housing

by Matthew S. Bajko
Friday Apr 11, 2014

In San Francisco, African American LGBT seniors often face a double jeopardy in terms of discrimination. Within the black community, they struggle to overcome homophobia. In the LGBT community, they encounter race-based prejudices.

"We've gotten burdened at both ends of the candle. By the African American community, which until recently tended to be more conservative relative to the LGBT community within its own ranks," said Larry Saxxon, 61, a gay black man who served on the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force. "A lot of the African American community still works under the larger social, psychological, and political tendencies of the church."

Saxxon added that, "on the other hand, we've gotten burned by the LGBT mainstream community at large because of racism."

Those experiences can hamper elder LGBT African Americans' willingness to seek out support within either community, noted Saxxon.

"You have a very narrow margin in which you can survive and glean support when you can't fall back on racial bloodlines because of homophobia and you cannot fall back unconditionally on the LGBT community because of racism," he said. "You have a very small margin within which to work."

Those experiences were captured by the findings of the July 2013 report "Addressing the Needs of LGBT Older Adults in San Francisco: Recommendations for the Future" based on a survey commissioned last year by the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, which finished its work last month.

Of the 616 LGBT city residents aged 60 to 92 years old who took part in the survey, 5 percent identified as African American. (The city's total black population, both LGBT and straight, was 6 percent in 2012 and has been in decline for years.)

The survey found that the African American participants "are at greater risk" for being discriminated against due to their gender identity, sexual orientation, race and gender "relative to other racial or ethnic groups."

Similar to the survey's Latino respondents, African American LGBT seniors in San Francisco are also less likely to own a home compared to other LGBT seniors in the city and are more likely to be in the closet. Both racial groups also reported higher rates of needing mental heath services and alcohol or substance abuse programs.

"I have often told people that being old, black, and gay in America is tantamount to being dipped in a vat of acid every single day when I walk outside my door," said Saxxon. "I have to pray for grace and endurance so I can walk out with dignity and, with the help of a higher power, to walk back in. I can't allow this society to rob me of my spiritual joy of living."

It is unknown how many LGBT African American seniors are living in San Francisco, as the city's senior demographics are not broken down by race and sexual orientation. It is believed that anywhere from 18,000 to 20,000 LGBT seniors are currently living in the city.

Nor are there any national statistics on the number of LGBT seniors by racial group among the more than 40 million adults aged 65 and older in the U.S. based on 2010 census figures. A 2013 report on LGBT older adults issued by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimated there are likely "anywhere from 1.5 to 7 million older adults" who are a part of the LGBT community.

As American society continues to grow older, "LGBT elders of color are an important part of this demographic shift, " noted SAGE, short for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, in its 2013 report "Health Equity and LGBT Elders of Color: Recommendations for Policy and Practice." Yet "the available research shows that they often face heightened health disparities and are largely rendered invisible in public policy discussions on aging," noted SAGE's report.

Among the 30 African American respondents to the San Francisco-based survey, close to 7 percent was living with HIV or AIDS. Overall, the black participants reported a "significant need" for housing assistance and were "the least likely" to have a will, power of attorney for healthcare, revocable/irrevocable trust and a power of attorney for finance.

"Among the racial and ethnic groups, African Americans have the lowest rates of future planning," concluded the report.

Perry Lang, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Black Coalition on AIDS who also served on the LGBT Aging Policy Task Force, sees housing as a key concern among the clients his agency serves, whether they are old or young, LGBT or straight.

"I think the housing connection is definitely there," said Lang, 59, himself a gay black man. "As a health organization we realize it is difficult sometimes to work on health issues if people do not have adequate housing."

The African American Community Health Equity Council, a collaboration between Lang's agency and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, will be reviewing the recommendations included in the final report published by the LGBT Aging Policy Task Force.

"They make recommendations for the larger African American community and they include LGBTQ members on it," said Lang, who serves as the council's administrative director. "I think the pivotal piece to me is an acknowledgment by the task force that what is recommended for the LGBTQ community we also recognize is beneficial for other communities."

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