Creating a Safe Harbor for African American LGBT Elders

Article excerpt

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, lmani Woody (this article's co-author) completed a study called Lift Every Voice (gradworks.umi. com/34/81/3481368.html) 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. Elderfocused 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, "|lt is important to me to] find out who else, as an African American, samegender-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 ( was founded in 1985 to respond to the AIDS crisis in the Washington, D.C., African American community. Griot Circle ( 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. …