I have a confession. Until last week, I had never been to Florida. As a West Coaster for much of my life, Florida was simply too far. My inaugural visit was to Fort Lauderdale and included: eating lots of tacos; having everyone apologize to me because it was 80 degrees and overcast; attending the largest weekly gathering of LGBT older adults in the US; visiting with folks from our oldest affiliate, SAGE of South Florida and our newest, SAGE Tampa Bay; and, the main reason for my visit, serving on a panel at Town Hall meeting focused on LGBT older adults. I was proud to join a distinguished panel and a sizable crowd of LGBT and allied people for this important conversation. Moderated by the knowledgeable and passionate Hannah Willard, Policy and Outreach Coordinator for Equality Florida, the panel included David Jobin, President/Chief Executive Officer, Our Fund; Elizabeth Schwartz, Esq., Principal, Elizabeth F. Schwartz Attorneys and Mediators; and Stephanie Schneider, Esq., Board Certified Elder Law Attorney, Law Office of Stephanie L. Schneider, P.A.
In partnership with AARP Florida, Equality Florida, Our Fund and SAGE, the Town Hall was held at the Pride Center at Equality Park in the Wilton Manors neighborhood. Just north of downtown Fort Lauderdale, Wilton Manors is described by USA today as, “the epicenter of gay life in all of South Florida.” This sounds a little hyperbolic but the census data lines right up. “The 2012 U.S. Census revealed which cities have the highest concentration of same-sex couple households (among cities with a population of 65,000 or above). The surprising frontrunner? Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where same-sex couples make up a whopping 2.8 percent of total households.” Another stat, which will surprise no one, is that 19.1% of Floridans are over 65.
Whenever I’m lucky enough to be around lots and lots of LGBT people, I experience a familiar duality. I’m exhilarated by the density of people like me; I feel safe; I feel a kind of calm and warmth and, simultaneously, I’m saddened by the reality that even in a place like Wilton Manors—where I can enjoy the sight of two older women walking hand-in-hand, gray heads bent towards each other, strolling slowly across a parking lot—even in this epicenter of gay life, LGBT people, including our elders, do not have full equality.
“AARP knows that for too long, LGBT elders have faced challenges as they navigate life that others do not. In order to best fight for and equip each individual to live their best life as they age, it’s imperative for us to know what issues this community is facing and how we can collaborate to address them.” Jeff Johnson, State Director, AARP Florida
This concentration of LGBT elders warrants our attention and our action. Stratton Pollitzer, Deputy Director of Equality Florida, clarifies why. “LGBT elders encounter the same challenges as other seniors: declining health, diminished income, ageism, the loss of family and friends. But, as so many know first hand, LGBT elders often must deal with ignorance and discrimination in the services available to them. That makes them among the most invisible, stigmatized, underserved and at-risk populations in the country.” This Town Hall, is the first of two community dialogues in Florida to learn how aging service providers and LGBT organizations in Florida are working to address these vast concerns and to identify what else needs to be done to assure that LGBT older adults in Florida enjoy a high quality of life free from discrimination. The second will be on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at the Metro Wellness Community Center, home of SAGE Tampa Bay.
David highlighted a new South Florida initiative by Our Fund and SAGE called Protecting Our Elders (POE). Working with local LGBT organizations, POE seeks to change the landscape and ensure that any services to or care required by an LGBT elder happens in a welcoming and discrimination-free environment. Stephanie and Elizabeth (who serves on SAGE’s board of directors) addressed legal and financial issues and I shared market research from our recent report, Out & Visible: The Experiences and Attitudes of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Older Adults, Ages 45-75. From the quality of the suggestions, observations and questions from the audience, it seems to me that the mix of informed LGBT older adults, engaged organizations from the aging sector like AARP Florida, committed funders like Our Fund, and hard-working LGBT organizations like Equality Florida are exactly what’s needed in this fight.
By: Serena Worthington, Director of National Field Initiatives
Follow her on Twitter at @SerenaWorthy