A New Housing Focus: the LGBT Elderly

Jay Kallio, 59, looking through information from the SAGE LGBT Elder Housing Initiative. "This is a life saver for us," he said

Jay Kallio, 59, looking through information on an LGBT elder housing initiative. “This is a life saver for us,” he said. (Cara McGoogan/ NY City Lens)

In Mayor Bill de Blasio’s second “State of the City” speech on February 3, he focused on the importance of tackling the housing crisis head on. “Nothing more clearly expresses the inequality gap, the opportunity gap,” he said, “than the soaring cost of housing.”

At the same time, in a similar conference room in downtown Manhattan, an advocacy group called SAGE was announcing a housing initiative for one subset of those facing this opportunity gap—elderly members of the LGBT community around the nation. Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE announced that the initiative was dedicated to providing care for LGBT elders within the housing systems, including a pilot housing development in the Bronx. The launch at SAGE came ahead of an unpublicized national LGBT Housing Summit at the White House on February 10.

The need is not small. According to SAGE, conservative estimates show 3 million LGBT people over 55 years old live in the U.S. This number is set to double by 2030. A panel of speakers joined Adams, all from organizations involved in planning the initiative—the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Equal Rights Center, HELP U.S.A., Enterprise Community Partners, and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Together they announced a plan to build LGBT friendly elder housing, train housing providers, educate LGBT elders about their rights, and expand services that are LGBT friendly. They will also advocate for further policy change.

Though few specifics were available, the nationwide plan includes training and education in places like nursing homes and hospices, as well as the development of LGBT elder housing in the Bronx. Officials said details about the Bronx development—including where and when—will be available when the funding has been finalized.

“This is a lifesaver for us,” said Jay Kallio, 59, in the audience at the announcement. He hopes that the cultural competency training offered as part of this initiative will help people like himself. Kallio believes the only reason his partner, Eleanor Cooper, received compassionate care at the end of her life five years ago was because they were treated as a heterosexual couple for the first time. Jay (formerly Joy) had transitioned by then and finally looked male. “As long as we were LGBT we were going to be treated like garbage,” said Kallio. He said he had faced prejudice his whole life, first as a lesbian, then as a transgender person. Once he was thrown out of a job “for being a lesbian,” Kallio said. “Literally thrown out with my belongings.’

Many LGBT elders in New York, who have lived through the civil rights movement and the AIDs epidemic, say they now face one of their biggest battles yet—for a place to live out their final years peacefully and die with dignity.

Part of the problem is economic. In a national survey of nearly 6,500 transgender and gender non-conforming people across 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands reported 90% of those surveyed said they had experienced harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination in employment. The survey—Injustice at Every Turnwas a collaboration between National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Gender Transgender Equality. Nearly half of those surveyed said they had experienced under-employment and had been fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their gender identity. The figures of the 540 surveyed in New England were similar to the national numbers.

Kallio said he was 18 he met his life partner, Cooper. She had earned a masters degree in library science at Columbia University, but both found themselves working low-paid jobs with LGBT employers in order to get by. Both were involved in the Lesbian Feminist Movement in the 1970s, and in the mid-1980s, “AIDs hit and we were serial caregivers,” said Kallio. Unable to get health insurance, Cooper’s diabetes went untreated, Kallio said, and she suffered from a debilitating stroke at the age of 56. According to Kallio, in the 12 years that Cooper lived after her stroke, she experienced discrimination and abuse in the health care and elder housing system.

According to No Golden Years at the end of the Rainbow, a 2013 report by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “Over 55% of LGB people report being mistreated in a medical setting and 70% of transgender people report mistreatment when seeking healthcare.” They cite Lambda Legal’s 2010 book When Health Care Isn’t Caring: Lambda Legal’s Survey of Discrimination Against LGBT People and People with HIV as their source.

Cooper died five years ago, at 68. Two years later, in 2012, Kallio made headlines in New York—including the NY Daily News and the local ABC News—when Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act passed with a clause prohibiting discrimination against LGBT persons by healthcare professionals. This gave Kallio a chance to speak up about discrimination he said he had been victim of when diagnosed with breast cancer. Kallio told the Daily News and ABC News that the doctor didn’t immediately diagnose him, because of his male hormone levels.

“I have faced absolute rejection even as a cancer patient with a horribly aggressive cancer, of getting denied care by doctors,” he said in an interview at the SAGE conference last week.

This breast cancer eventually gave Kallio the means with which to complete his transition. “Many transgender people never transition at all, so I’m probably one of the lucky ones who managed to get diseases that allowed it,” he said.

Now, Kallio is living in the Robert Fulton Houses development and suffering from stage-four cancer. Since coming out to his housing development as a transgender person, he said he has experienced support and love, “It has been absolutely been the warmest most supportive community of people I have ever lived with.” He said he hopes to continue living at home in Chelsea with his cats, Mia and Clio. “I want to die with my cats,” he said.