My immigrant mother sits silently in a room the size of a small kitchen. Earlier this year, she survived multiple failures of the heart, kidneys, and limbs over the course of six weeks. She is seventy-three, uses a wheelchair, and for the first time in her life is surrounded by white people who do not speak Spanish, in the only nearby nursing home my parents can afford. In turn, my father drives through the days confronted by three omnipresent realities: hour-long daily visits with my mother, a night shift to keep him mentally and financially afloat, and a mailbox flooded with health care bills, insurance disputes and the complexity of navigating Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers. When I speak of health reform, queer rights, or racial and economic justice, he gazes at me solemnly. He survived a lifetime of racial discrimination, fought in two wars and lived through the ensuing decades with a cacophony in his psyche. At seventy-eight, nearly blind and deaf, he will hear nothing of systems and reform. More often than not, these days we sit in silence.
This silence haunts me as an advocate who works at the intersection of aging and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) rights. The aging and LGBTQ advocacy fields often propose policy solutions that are too narrow to address the complexity of how all marginalized people—including heterosexual people of color such as my parents, members of the LGBTQ community, and more—experience the process of aging. We need social transformations that address the intersecting forms of oppression that older people face—and that can make sense of the chaos and silence that shroud my parents. This has become especially clear to me through my work as the director of a national policy program devoted to improving the health and well-being of LGBTQ older people.
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Working at the Intersection of Class and Identity Politics
In the aging and long-term care field, the hardship of aging is often articulated through conceptually limited silos that omit how discrimination affects the economic wellness of older people’s lives. Mainstream LGBTQ rights leaders remain largely mute on economic injustice, instead seeking strategies for legal equality and minimizing justice approaches that envision more expansive economic systems of support. And while many queer thinkers have outlined an economic vision animated by queer liberation, this framework remains largely absent in most activist spaces central to my work.
The organization where I work advocates for public policies that acknowledge LGBTQ people in critical programs such as Social Security and Medicaid (as two examples) and that expand government funding, services, and research for queer elders nationwide. We confront the cultural attitudes and media representations fueled by ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, gender binarism, structural racism, and HIV stigma. This multi-issue, intersectional approach to queer rights and healthy aging means that I work at the crossroads of some of our country’s most pressing and contested issues—from health and health care access, to aging and long-term care, to housing and unemployment, and more.
It also means that we witness how systemic inequities collide in later life to destabilize millions of older people without the income or supports to age in dignity. Of note, we observe the specific effects that discrimination and income inequality have on queer people as they age. Research shows that many LGBTQ elders enter their later years with reduced earnings; are single, childless, and with a more fragile personal safety net than their peers; and deal with persistent discrimination in all aspects of their lives. The right-wing attack on our social safety net and on the lives of poor people, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people exacerbates these conditions.
Despite my best attempts to convey the multiple obstacles facing queer elders (and the overlapping systems that should unite all of us across movements), I regularly confront three...