We all know that we are in a deadly global pandemic, the likes of which the world has not seen in at least a century. We know that older people and those with certain health conditions are particularly at risk. And we know that this pandemic is likely to continue for months and will take the lives of many before it is contained and reversed.
What many of us may not know is that our LGBT elder pioneers are at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic because: (1) they are among the most isolated and least supported older adults in this country; (2) they are more likely than older Americans in general to be aging with compromised immune systems and other health conditions; and (3) many of them live in the U.S. cities that have been hardest hit in the early stages of the pandemic. New York City, where SAGE is headquartered, itself accounts for almost half of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in the entire country. As I write, medical triage tents are being set up in the city’s hospital parking lots, a massive convention center is being turned into a COVID-19 hospital, and the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort is heading to the Big Apple to help with the medical crisis.
It’s a particularly scary time for our community’s elders because they were highly vulnerable even before COVID-19 entered the picture. Our elder pioneers are burdened with unique health challenges, including significantly higher levels of HIV infection (which weakens the immune system) and higher levels of smoking (which compromises the lungs). Additionally, our elders are often isolated and live with only the thinnest of support networks. Over the last week, I’ve spent a lot of time making sure my parents are safe — if you have elderly parents, I bet you have done the same — but most LGBT elders are not parents and therefore don’t have kids to check on them. Plus, compared to older Americans in general, they’re much more likely to be aging single and living alone. And to top it off, LGBT elders are still subjected to widespread discrimination, a situation that has gotten worse over the last three years thanks to persistent efforts by the Trump administration to license anti-LGBT discrimination.
Still, despite these challenges, we have a lot to work with. While the rapidly changing landscape of COVID-19 feels like unknown territory to most Americans, the reality is eerily familiar for LGBT people who are old enough to have lived through the beginning of the AIDS epidemic 40 years ago. The truth is, we’ve already shown the world what it looks like to take care of our own during a uniquely threatening public health crisis. Our community suffered unspeakable losses due to AIDS, but we also learned a great deal.
When our government was disorganized and driven by discord during the darkest days of AIDS, our folks created a new model of community. When health care providers were overwhelmed and didn’t know how to respond, our community picked up the slack with boundless love and extraordinarily creative volunteerism. When fear of infection led to widespread stigma and discrimination, we were the voices of calm and reason, and when reason wasn’t enough, we fought back with everything we had. When nobody else was able or willing to step up to the plate, many community organizations — including SAGE, which was founded just a few years before the AIDS epidemic exploded onto the scene — stepped up and made the difference.
I recount this history not as a collective pat on the back for our community (though that would be richly deserved), but as a reminder that while our elders are vulnerable, they also are resourceful and resilient. Our community, like our country, is in crisis. But we know what we need to do, and we will once again be leaders. We know how to organize ourselves as effectively and as lovingly as possible to respond to an unprecedented health crisis. We know how to take care of those in need. We know how to model calm and love in the face of panic and backlash. We know how to fight back against stigma and discrimination and how to push aggressively for the policies that will make things better while opposing regressive policies that are grounded in ignorance and fear.
As this country’s national organization for LGBT older people, SAGE is guided by the collective wisdom and experience of our community’s elder pioneers. In the weeks and months ahead, we will lift up the voices of our elders and those who our elders have trained to help our community and our society step up to the plate and ultimately defeat COVID-19. We will model the kind of leadership that our elders showed us during the worst of the AIDS epidemic. We will share this knowledge and insight where it will be most helpful in the fight against COVID-19.
For many of our community’s elders, this fight will literally be a matter of life and death, which means they need our support now more than ever. Unless our community takes the initiative, many of the 4 million LGBT older people living across the country will be alone in this uniquely threatening and scary time. SAGE, along with our 30 affiliates and scores of partner organizations across the country, stand ready to provide the support that LGBT elders need. As I write, we’re providing homebound elders with meals so they don’t go hungry. We’re on the phones helping thousands of our community’s pioneers who are in trouble. We’re leveraging technology to make sure our folks stay socially connected. And much more.
In the weeks and months ahead, as the COVID-19 pandemic grows worse, we’re going to need your help to use everything we know and keep our people safe. Together, we can deploy the treasure trove of wisdom our community has amassed in order to take care of our own. Please get involved. Go to sageusa.org to learn what you can do for our LGBT elders, who have done so much for our community over the years.
Michael Adams is the CEO of SAGE: Advocacy and Services for LGBT Elders.