Federal lawsuit targets housing discrimination against LGBT seniors

Marsha Wetzel

Marsha Wetzel

Update (January 18, 2017): The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted Glen St. Andrew Living Community’s request to dismiss the Marsha Wetzel’s lawsuit. Lambda Legal plans to appeal the decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

A wide array of research has documented continuing housing discrimination against older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

For example, a survey of LGBT adults living in long-term care settings by Justice in Aging, a legal advocacy group, found that a majority believed they would face discrimination from housing staff if they were open about their sexual orientation. The report captured hundreds of stories of problems encountered by LGBT seniors with housing staff, ranging from harassment to refusals to provide basic services or care.

Housing is one of the most important emerging retirement issues for older LGBT Americans. Along with the nation’s broader age wave, the number of LGBT adults over age 65 will total four million by 2030, according to Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE), an advocacy organization for LGBT older adults. Research shows LGBT seniors are more likely to be single, without children or not have biological family members on whom they can rely for support as they age.

That means they will need the support of senior living facilities ranging from independent living quarters to assisted living and nursing home care. But mainstream retirement housing for this community has been problematic. SAGE and others have started to develop LGBT-friendly housing, but that’s a drop in the bucket; the fact is, most gay seniors who need senior housing will be living in mainstream facilities in the years ahead.

Now, a gay resident of a senior living facility in Niles, Illinois has filed a lawsuit in federal court charging that she has been subjected to a barrage of verbal and physical abuse by a small group of residents. In the suit, Marsha Wetzel accuses the housing center and its managers of failing to protect her from hostile residents who have insulted and verbally abused her. The suit says that she has been pushed, shoved and spit on, and that she was injured, including bruises on her arm, a bump on her head and a black eye.

The lawsuit accuses Glen St. Andrew’s management not only of failing to meet its responsibility to stop the harassment but of retaliating against her for complaining about the abuse and seeking to push her out of the facility.

If successful, Wetzel’s lawsuit could set a legal precedent establishing the responsibility of housing providers to actively address discrimination based on gender orientation and sexual identity under the federal Fair Housing Act. The law states — vaguely — that discrimination based on “sex” is prohibited.

“It’s one of the first opportunities for a court to apply the Fair Housing Act to the kinds of harassment that L.G.B.T. people experience,” said Karen L. Loewy, a senior lawyer at Lambda Legal, which brought the case.

I explore the issues, and tell Marsha’s story, in my Retiring column this weekend for The New York Times.

Also see other RetirementRevised.com coverage of the retirement and aging challenges facing aging LGBT Americans.


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