As the iron gates to the White House grounds opened at 8:45 on Monday morning, July 13, the assembled group of delegates to the 2015 White House Conference on Aging began joyfully streaming toward the security stations, the preliminary steps in gaining access to the hallowed halls where aging issues and policies for the next 10 years would be discussed.
I was thrilled to be a part of that bedraggled yet excited group—the rain had been falling softy on participants as we waited—and I was eager to take my place as one of four* designated LGBTQ delegates to the Conference. As a trans woman activist and an old person (I turned 81 two days after the conference), I felt a special responsibility to give the reality of trans aging, our issues and needs, a high profile.
You have to understand the importance of the White House Conference on Aging to fully appreciate why the 200 of us who were invited to attend viewed this as an opportunity of a lifetime.
The WHCOA is only held every 10 years and is designed to be a guiding element for the Older Americans Act which Congress enacts to provide policies and resources for the care and support of seniors over the coming decade.
So those who are currently old and in need of care as well as those who will be reaching that touchpoint over the next 10 years will be counting on the OAA to provide direction and financial support to their local senior care agencies and organizations.
Shortly after the sessions began, we were honored by the presence of President Barack Obama. The audience was delighted by the visit and his presentation focused on the progress that has been made in providing critical services and care to seniors and the work that needs to be done to preserve and strengthen the key elements of that progress—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The day was packed with panels: some large, some small; some long, some short; some really good, some only fair; but most of the information was valuable and translatable to our work on aging issues.
The format of the day’s schedule, however, didn’t lend itself to the kind of interaction and dialogue that many of us had looked for and expected. If panels ended their session with time to spare, there was an opportunity for questions or comments. But most sessions ran long and there were only a few chances for audience response.
We did have an opportunity to address the need for culturally competent training for senior caregivers around LGBTQ seniors’ issues and needs.
A member of our delegation, Sandy Warshaw, a lesbian activist from New York, was able to articulate the need for the Older Americans Act to require training of senior care providers around the particular concerns and fears of LGBTQ old people.
Did having four LGBTQ representatives in the audience change the world for our communities? Some. But we were a presence that was new to this gathering and first steps are always followed by more steps.
The unsettling part is that the White House Conference on Aging happens only every 10 years, so progress and dialogue can be fretfully slow. And, sadly, the Senate reauthorized the Older Americans Act just days after we gathered in DC and that iteration reflected the same elements of the old bill without any acknowledgment of the LGBTQ senior community’s needs.
All of the proposed progressive additions and changes that were included in the OAA version that Senator Bernie Sanders had proposed in 2014 were absent and the existing version of the law was adopted with no consideration of our communities. Whether the House of Representatives will even consider the bill is questionable.
So the White House Conference on Aging was not the revolutionary gathering that some of us would have hoped for. But we were an LGBTQ presence and our community was acknowledged during the sessions. Now we look forward to the next steps to build on the fact that the needs and concerns of LGBTQ seniors were at least on the lips and minds of some of the others in the room.
For myself, the opportunity to be in that gathering was a significant step forward in a march to equality that is maddeningly slow for LGBTQ seniors.
Too many of us are currently living in apprehension and isolation, and those who will be joining that aging constituency over the coming years and will come with different expectations—and demands—than their current “Silent Generation” cohort.
Our work must continue: there is no other option for justice.
Originally published by the National LGBTQ Task Force; Photo provided by the National LGBTQ Task Force