Creating a Safe Harbor for African American LGBT Elders

By Daniel Redman and Imani Woody

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders come from every community, and providing inclusive services for people in this population requires taking into account their race, class, gender, disability, religion and national origin.

In October 2011, Imani Woody (this article’s co-author) completed a study called Lift Every Voice that explored the unique experiences of African American lesbian and gay male elders. The study concluded that for this segment of the LGBT community, finding inclusive and welcoming environments can be very difficult.

African American LGBT people coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, in addition to the violence and terror surrounding the Jim Crow laws and societal backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, confronted discrimination based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or both. Some experienced anti-LGBT discrimination from within the black community. One participant in Woody’s study related his experiences with the Black Panther movement: “One of my issues being African American and [being gender non-conforming] was really when I came out in college in the late ’60s at the height of the Black Power Movement. I was distinctly told by a couple of black organizations at the time, ‘we don’t want your kind here’ … I knew exactly what they meant.”

Anti-LGBT sentiment was not universal, however. In a 1970 speech, Black Panthers founder Huey Newton rejected homophobia, stating, “The women’s liberation front and gay liberation front are our friends, they are our potential allies, and we need as many allies as possible.”

Discrimination in Accessing Services

Racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia continue to manifest in violence and discrimination against LGBT African Americans. One challenge for African American LGBT elders is finding a safe place to live or spend their days. Elder-focused sites can feel unwelcoming to LGBT people, while at the same time, LGBT community centers or events can feel unwelcoming to elders or African Americans. But some African American community settings (e.g., churches) can be exclusive of LGBT people, too. One study participant said: “You hurt … because you are black and gay—you can’t separate the two.”

African American LGBT elders are frequently cautious about where they seek services because they want to avoid discrimination. As one study participant said, “[It is important to me to] find out who else, as an African American, same-gender-loving person, has used the services,” before using a service provider, or attending a meeting or event.

Many black LGBT elders also experience barriers in facilities such as nursing homes. “It’s difficult enough to be a black gay man in a big city. I can’t imagine a smaller town than a nursing home,” said one 65-year-old African American gay man in a 2009 Philadelphia Gay News article, “LGBT Seniors: Out of the Closet, and Nowhere to Go.”

Creating Welcoming Spaces

There are broad, systemic actions organizations can take to indicate that they welcome everyone. One is to prioritize involvement with organizations and activists serving the particular interests of the African American LGBT community. Organizing in this community is not new: Us Helping Us, People Into Living (www.uhupil.org) was founded in 1985 to respond to the AIDS crisis in the Washington, D.C., African American community. Griot Circle (www.griotcircle.org) in New York City has served African American LGBT elders since 1996.

“First impressions count, and it’s important that the person feels welcome and accepted the moment they walk though the agency’s door, particularly if they are marginalized or stigmatized,” says Dr. Ron Simmons, president and CEO of Us Helping Us.

Aside from partnering with African American LGBT organizations, aging service providers can post notices and photos reflecting the diversity of the LGBT community on community bulletin boards, prioritize recruiting a diverse board of directors and managers, and ensure prominence of racially and age-diverse LGBT people in publications, marketing and program materials. It’s also important to pay attention to vocabulary. In the same way that many LGBT elders do not identify with the word “queer,” some African American LGBT elders do not identify with the terms “gay” and “lesbian.” Instead, some prefer the terms “same-gender loving,” “woman who loves women” or “man who loves men.”

It is also vital to make LGBT programs and community venues inclusive to all communities of faith. In a 2007 study, Legacy Denied: African American Gay Men, AIDS, and the Black Church, R. J. Miller found that 80 percent of gay black men who responded identified strongly with a faith tradition, and many were currently or had been involved in a church or religious institution.

Many have also faced rejection from such institutions. One participant said, “It was one of the deepest hurts I have had in my life, to be put out of my church that I have put so much love and energy [into].”

Despite this mixed history, “[v]iewing religion as an enemy … is not only an offensive stereotype; it is an ineffective strategy. There are many articulate progressive people of faith who know how to dismantle harmful and divisive religious strategies by sharing their vision of the equality of all citizens,” wrote Rev. Roland Stringfellow, director of Ministerial Outreach at the Berkeley, Calif.–based Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Sexuality, Pacific School of Religion, in The Huffington Post article, “A Clear Vision: Developing a Religious Strategy for Equality.”

Gaining Confidence, Strength—and Safety

Many African American LGBT elders have navigated discrimination and rejection for most of their lives—but for some this has given them a greater sense of confidence and “crisis competence” than their non-LGBT or non-African American peers. In a 2009 study, Ageism with Heterosexism: Selfperceptions, Identity and Psychological Health in Older Gay and Lesbian Adults, Meisner and Hynie reported that “successful transition to one stigmatized status—of being a lesbian—may contribute to future successful transition to another stigmatized status—of being old.” My co-author’s study findings concur, showing that “challenges based on racial or gender oppression made it easier to deal with oppression based on age.”

Creating welcoming services for LGBT elders—building that safe harbor for all the elders in the community—must be a top priority for providers. By being mindful of the intersecting effects of racism, homophobia and transphobia, we can work toward a day when all LGBT elders receive comprehensive services in safe, inclusive environments


Daniel Redman, Esq., is an attorney in the Elder Law Project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, San Francisco, Calif.

Imani Woody, Ph.D., is chair of SAGE Metro DC and an LGBT and aging consultant for IWF Associates, LLC, in Washington, D.C.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the July/August 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.