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Black LGBT seniors struggle with double discrimination

Part 4 of series. For links to the entire seriies, see Part 1.

SAN FRANCISCO--In San Francisco African American seniors who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) often face 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.

Shunned by Two Communities

"A lot of the African American community still works under the larger social, psychological and political tendencies of the church," he said.

Saxxon added, "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 report, "Addressing the Needs of LGBT Older Adults in San Francisco: Recommendations for the Future." Completed in March, the study is based on a survey that the city’s Task Force commissioned last year.

Of the 616 LGBT residents (ages 60 to 92), 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 San Francisco 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 as many as 20,000 LGBT seniors currently live in the city.

Nationally, the 2010 U.S. Census data does not distinguish LGBT seniors by racial group among the country’s 42 million adults aged 65-plus. But overall, a 2013 report on LGBT older adults by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimates that "anywhere from 1.5 to 7 million older adults" 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, " notes the national organization Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), in its 2013 report, "Health Equity and LGBT Elders of Color: Recommendations for Policy and Practice."

Health Disparities

Yet, says the SAGE report, "Available research shows that they often face heightened health disparities and are largely rendered invisible in public policy discussions on aging."

The 30 African American respondents to the San Francisco survey 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, executive director of the San Francisco-based Black Coalition on AIDS, who also served on the Task Force, sees housing as a key concern among his agency’s clients, whether they are old or young, LGBT or straight.

"I think the housing connection is definitely there," said Lang, 59, who is also a gay African American. Even though only a small percentage of survey participants had HIV/AIDS, he noted, "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, collaboration between Lang's agency and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, plans to review the recommendations in the final Task Force report.

"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. [Some experts add “Q” for queer.]

"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."

Matthew S. Bajko wrote this article for Bay Area Reporter through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.


(Editor's note: This post was originally published on New American Media.)