In my former life as a gay rights lawyer, I learned that lawsuits in response to tragedy can be a double-edged sword. I witnessed a familiar pattern no matter what the circumstance of discrimination: court action squeezes some justice out of a terrible wrong, encourages future wrongdoers to think twice, and provides a powerful reminder to policymakers about the need for systemic change.
But often the results of a lawsuit come too late to provide real relief to those who have been hurt. And occasionally the lateness of the result is so dramatic you can almost feel the pain--even without having any personal connection to those involved. This is the case with last week's settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Clay Greene and Harold Scull, an elderly California couple who experienced horrific discrimination at the hands of County officials. The decision holds both the great promise, and the cruel limits, of a court victory. And yet I wish it could be said that this couple's tragic tale was an isolated incident.
As the head of Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), I know that these stories about the gross mistreatment of the LGBT elderly occur far too often.
According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which joined with private attorneys in representing Clay and Harold, the couple lived together for two decades, named each other as beneficiaries in their wills, and did all the legal paperwork to make medical and financial decisions for each other when necessary.
Yet none of that mattered when Harold fell outside the couple's home and authorities came for help. It got ugly. Over the ensuing months, county officials ignored Clay and Harold's legal documentation, auctioned off their possessions, terminated the lease on their home, forced Greene into an assisted living facility, and prevented the two from seeing one another. Before these partners of 20 years were reunited, Harold passed away.
Clay and Harold's story is deeply sad on multiple levels. And for thousands of LGBT elders around the country, these stories of isolation and vulnerability are even more pronounced than you would think. Research indicates that LGBT older people are twice as likely their heterosexual counterparts to be single and to live alone, and they are four times less likely to have children. Without spouses and adult children to provide support, the backbone in most elders' lives, LGBT older people frequently live in isolation without social support. And if, like so many older Americas, LGBT elders have postponed putting their legal affairs in order, these situations become even more disastrous.
Even the relative advantages of coupledom and careful legal planning didn't rescue Clay and Harold from tragedy--because they encountered other challenges that frequently confront LGBT elders. For many, advanced age brings frailty and increased dependence, which often requires the support of family and loved ones. Yet LGBT older people are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to be estranged from their families of origin because of a history of discrimination. This reality leads many LGBT elders to rely on aging services from providers who are often ill-equipped to address the particular needs of LGBT older people. As a result, they frequently offer little help and sometimes make matters worse.
Ultimately, what can prevent these tragedies, and better support LGBT elders as they age, are public policies and programs that address their unique realities. Aging and health providers could benefit from training that increases understanding about LGBT elders--and LGBT older adults themselves need access to information that allows them to advocate on their own behalf and plan for their long-term care. Further, our country's safety net programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid, must address the built-in barriers that treat LGBT elders differently than their married heterosexual peers, reducing their financial security at a time when they most need support.
When SAGE launches the country's first federally-funded National Resource Center on LGBT Aging in the fall, we'll have these needs and stories in mind.
And we'll be thinking about Clay Greene, an elderly man who lost his life partner in the most tragic of circumstances--and decided the only thing left to do was to fight back.