LGBTQ+ Americans across the country are in a critical moment as they face the impacts of a dual health and political crisis in the age of both COVID-19 and the Trump administration. The devastating effects of the intersection of these two crises on older LGBTQ+ individuals are happening in a profound way, desperately calling for our community to reimagine how we take care of our elders. In the later years of life, those pioneers who helped pave the way for LGBTQ+ equality are now finding themselves, yet again, on the front-lines facing the brunt of the physical, mental and emotional impact of the COVID-19 health pandemic, while at the same time LGBTQ+ rights are under attack from a discriminatory and bigoted Trump administration.
In Philadelphia, we just announced the first-ever, historic merger of two of our area's LGBTQ+ organizations designed as a new model of service to better support our LGBTQ+ community's older population. After a three-year planning phase, the Elder Initiative at the William Way Community Center (EI@WWC) becomes the Philadelphia metro area's largest clearinghouse for LGBTQ+ elder services, providing critical access to care and social services for LGBTQ+ older adults. This central hub will serve LGBTQ+ elders in need of wrap-around services ranging from access to housing and health care, as well as peer-led support groups, cross-generational mentorship programs, and social outings in a time of COVID-19 and advanced isolation.
Now more than ever, under-served LGBTQ+ older adults are in desperate need of support through direct services, advocacy, social engagement, and health care. The Elder Initiative at William Way will provide the greatest level of LGBTQ+ elder services ever seen in our region's history, and it couldn't come soon enough.
HIV-positive LGBTQ+ older adults, as well as those living with other chronic health conditions, are at an exponentially higher risk of facing more serious illness from COVID-19. And if the health concerns about the COVID virus aren't enough, LGBTQ+ older adults are likely to experience mental and emotional stress due to higher rates of isolation than the average senior population. Faced with bearing the brunt of continued discrimination at too many mainstream senior service organizations and entities, LGBTQ+ older adults are often left isolated and alone at a time when COVID-19 has already caused skyrocketing rates of isolation and loneliness among the general population to the point where they are now considered critical public health concerns.
COVID-19 has further driven social and health disparities already affecting the LGBTQ+ older adult community, where the numerous physical and mental health risks associated with loneliness have now been worsened by months of self-isolation. LGBTQ+ older adults also experience higher rates of disability than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, as well as disproportionately high rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer, increasing the severity and potential fatality of COVID-19 infection. Many LGBTQ+ people delay seeking medical care due to past discrimination in health care settings and may not have sought care until COVID-19 presented serious health complications. Data on sexual orientation and gender identity in COVID-19 cases is just beginning to be collected, meaning the full impact of the virus on the LGBTQ+ elder community may not be fully apparent for many months.
But COVID isn't the only devastating crisis our community's pioneers face, they are also being adversely impacted in a particularly cruel way by the hateful, politically motivated assaults on LGBTQ+ rights by the Trump administration. Over the last three years, the current administration has erased or undermined many of the Obama-era protections enacted to support LGBTQ+ people, including the LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. The administration has strengthened protections for medical providers and other professionals who refuse to serve LGBTQ+ people, using religious freedom as a license to discriminate in health care, housing, and employment (the latter bias now outlawed by the Supreme Court). Trump has vowed to veto the Equality Act and has appointed an alarming slate of staunchly anti-LGBTQ+ judges at every level of the judicial system. Those assaults on the LGBTQ+ community are difficult for all of us, but for LGBTQ+ elders the impact is being felt in a way that is particularly severe and harmful.
As a community, we have made a commitment to support and take care of the LGBTQ+ elder generation who fought many of our hardest fights. They are now engaging in one of their hardest fights, coming at the end of their lives, requiring us to make good on our commitment to rise to the moment and meet the challenges they are experiencing. As you can imagine, merging two LGBTQ+ organizations wasn't easy, but we never lost sight of the individuals we have a sacred mission to serve. LGBTQ+ elders are depending on all of us to step up the commitment we've made to them and we remain dedicated to fulfilling that promise, now more than ever.
Chris Bartlett is the executive director of Philadelphia's William Way Community Center & Heshie Zinman is chair of the LGBT Elder Initiative.