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July 31, 2013

Five years of political progress for LGBT older people—but more remains

Robert EspinozaToday’s post is from Robert Espinoza, Senior Director for Public Policy and Communications at SAGE. Follow him on Twitter.

When I began my role at SAGE nearly four years ago, I sensed the tipping point that SAGE had animated—and which would eventually transform the field of LGBT aging.

In April 2010, I was hired to create and oversee SAGE's national policy advocacy program. As the Baby Boomer generation entered retirement age, aging advocates were increasingly discussing the implications of a quickly aging country. LGBT aging issues were becoming more salient—thanks in large part to SAGE’s leadership, organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the work of local advocates around the country—yet LGBT aging remained largely marginalized in the policy discourse and in the broader cultural narrative.

In response, SAGE had steadily built the infrastructure to imagine the large-scale, national strategies that millions of LGBT older people deserved. In the months prior to my arrival, SAGE issued a landmark policy report on LGBT older adults, in partnership with a few leading national organizations. It opened an office in Washington, DC; joined the influential Leadership Council of Aging Organizations as its only LGBT organization; and received a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to seed the creation of what would later become SAGE’s National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.

Our political charge then was to make policy issues visible and relevant to leaders in government, the aging field and the LGBT rights movement. Our charge was to begin changing the representations of what it means to age as LGBT people. We sought transformational change.

This summer, as SAGE celebrates five years of achievements under the previous strategic plan, I reflect on what has changed politically for LGBT elders.

Here are seven ways in which SAGE dramatically improved the policy conversation—and the political realities—for LGBT older people over the last few years:

  1. A heightened visibility of LGBT aging in the policy discourse. Through our leadership on reauthorization of the Older Americans Act (OAA)—developing original policy analysis, holding Congressional briefings, persuading the aging network to support our goals, and more—SAGE brought considerable attention to the omission of LGBT elders from the OAA, which awards more than $2 billion annually to aging services nationwide, yet allocates very little to LGBT aging. Currently less than $2 million of OAA funding reaches LGBT aging programs. In May of this year, a bill was introduced to make the OAA more inclusive of LGBT people—a top policy goal for SAGE as reauthorization heats up.

  2. Robust and original knowledge on the wide array of policy barriers facing LGBT older people. Since SAGE released our first major policy report in early 2010, we continue to highlight policy remedies for addressing the challenges facing LGBT elders, including landmark reports on transgender aging, spousal impoverishment, economic security and health equity, among others. In 2011, we partnered with the National Academy on an Aging Society to produce an LGBT aging-themed issue of Public Policy & Aging Report, marking the first time a mainstream aging organization issued a comprehensive policy report on LGBT aging.

  3. A stronger grassroots infrastructure of local and state organizations that engage and advocate with LGBT older people. The grassroots centerpiece of SAGE’s advocacy program is SAGENet, our network of local and state affiliates around the country. Since January 2010, SAGENet has grown remarkably—from 14 to 24 affiliates (a 71 percent increase). These local advocates in every region of the country provide critical services to LGBT older people in their communities and advocate for policy change. In 2011, many of these leaders launched statewide efforts to secure Medicaid protections for same-sex couples as part of SAGE’s multi-state initiative.

  4. A visible aging field that addresses LGBT issues and champions our efforts. In 2011, SAGE was a prominent player in the first-ever White House LGBT Conference on Aging. Additionally, our partnership-approach has influenced aging leaders to take public stances on LGBT issues—from a series of widely distributed LGBT-supportive recommendations from the Leadership Council on Aging Organizations, to a media event showcasing the aging network's support of marriage equality (weeks before the historic SCOTUS opinions), to a Congressional briefing on marginalized elders with the country’s leading aging organizations working in communities of color—and more.

  5. A firm spotlight on racial inequality and its effects on LGBT elders of color. Our involvement in the Diverse Elders Coalition (DEC) has focused attention on the shared barriers facing marginalized communities as they age: widespread discrimination, housing and employment insecurity, a dearth in government funding, and more. SAGE helped launch a website on these barriers and issued an original policy report. And in April of this year, as part of National Minority Health Awareness Month, we released a policy report on the health issues facing LGBT elders of color, which reached the wide array of national advocates working in health, aging, LGBT rights and racial justice.

  6. Enhanced representations of LGBT older people in the media and in social change advocacy. The number of news stories on LGBT aging has surged since 2010, reflecting the growing visibility of these issues, as well as the dedicated attention that SAGE has placed in reshaping the media narrative. Our large-scale marketing campaigns have reached millions and won multiple awards from GLAAD and the International Academy of the Visual Arts. In January 2013, SAGE launched SAGE Story, a national digital storytelling and advocacy program for LGBT elders, funded generously by the AARP Foundation. And our online presence has exploded; today SAGE reaches more 70,000 people online per month—up from 6,000 people per month in January 2010.

  7. Public policies that better support LGBT older people, and ultimately, their physical and material conditions. Our ultimate goal is to change the public policies that govern our lives. SAGE maintains a year-by-year listing of these policy achievements on our website, which includes multiple policy wins in areas such as Social Security, Medicaid, HIV and aging, and federal definitions of "greatest social need," among many others. This work is made possible by dedicated SAGE staff and our national partners.

Our policy successes in the last few years are impressive and wide-reaching—but work remains to be done. In September of this year, SAGE will unveil its new strategic plan for the next three years, and I'll offer a preview of the policy goals we seek to achieve in that time frame.

In the meantime, here’s a toast to everyone who supported our advocacy vision, helping make our aging realities more hopeful. Here’s a toast to LGBT older people, who helped our movements pave the way. And here’s a toast to achieving progress and sparking change.

Stay tuned—we’ve only just begun.

Read more about SAGE’s successes over the last five years in our latest issue of SAGEMatters.

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