By Linh Ta reporting for the Des Moines Register
As society moves closer toward recognizing the concerns and needs of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population, the aging and elderly in the community are often left out of the conversation.
That's why the LGBT activism group One Iowa hosted its first-ever "Gay & Gray" Iowa Senior Summit at Grand View University on Saturday — focusing on issues the elderly population uniquely face, such as finding accepting senior living housing.
"They're afraid, they're vulnerable, they may not have the physical stamina they used to," said Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa. "If they're in assisted care or nursing facilities, they're going back into the closet, and these are the people that pioneered the movement."
Red Wing said she's heard from seniors in Iowa who fear they'll live out their days in a facility where they'll be discriminated against. Every few weeks, One Iowa is in contact with an elderly man in a southeast Iowa facility where Red Wing says the staff use homophobic remarks, causing him to be afraid and stay in the closet.
"There may be places that are welcoming and affirming, but no one knows who they are," Red Wing said.
While Iowa has laws in place to protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, state Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said there are issues regarding discrimination toward elderly LGBT populations, especially in more rural communities or religious-based housing facilities. McCoy was a keynote speaker at the event.
"The way partners are treated or gay and lesbian people are treated in nursing homes is undesirable for how we want to be as a state," McCoy said. " Being more open to families that are not traditional, I think, would be the piece that I would like to see Iowa move towards."
Barbara Satin, a transgender activist, also served as a keynote speaker and spoke about Spirit On Lake, an LGBT senior housing project in Minneapolis. The 46-unit affordable rental facility opened two years ago, and 60 percent of the housing development is occupied by LGBT senior citizens.
In the U.S., she said there are fewer than 500 housing spaces oriented toward LGBT seniors.
"There is a market there, but there's also a market for at-home LGBT affirming services," Satin said.
Robin White, 65, of Pella said she enjoyed listening to Satin speak. While she doesn't face issues regarding housing, she said medical issues are important to her as a transgender woman. She hopes there's more exposure about the medical assistance transgender people can receive, including benefits from the veterans administration.
"I'm still transitioning. I'm like in adolescence or a second puberty, which is really difficult at 65," White said.
Red Wing said LGBT seniors in Iowa are interested in a facility similar to Spirit On Lake. As elderly people face isolation or discrimination, she said there's a need for accepting and understanding housing facilities.
"Many would like to have a facility where there are a number of LGBT singles and couples, so they can age with people that understand them and know them and feel safe," Red Wing said. "I'd love for every facility to have training around inclusion and diversity."
By the numbers
One Iowa shared the results of its 2014 LGBT aging survey. Around 468 participants over 50 in the Midwest were surveyed.
• 52 percent felt they were in good health.
• 35 percent felt that senior-service providers would be sensitive to them if their sexual orientation and/or gender identity were known.
• 91 percent would feel more inclined to use existing senior health services if they knew staff members received LGBT sensitivity training.
• 39 percent reported their family is "very accepting" of their life as an LGBT person.