This Elder Lesbian Was Harassed at Her Senior Home, Now She Wants Justice

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In Niles, outside of Chicago, elder lesbian Marsha Wetzel is at the center of a groundbreaking lawsuit which claims that the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community for seniors did nothing to stop harassment against Wetzel for being a lesbian. Lambda Legal, who is filing the suit on her behalf, says that Glen Saint Andrew and its administrators had heard Wetzel’s complaints about “persistent verbal harassment, threats, intimidation and three separate assaults, at the hands of other residents” as well as homophobic slurs and physical violence because other residents knew that previous to living at Glen Saint Andrew Wetzel had lived with her partner of 30 years, Judy Kahn. Wetzel told the Chicago Tribune “she feels unsafe living at the facility and unprotected by its administrators.”

Lambda Legal senior attorney Karen Loewy says the lawsuit is the first of its kind; none other that she’s aware of regards a senior living facility failing to protect one of its residents from harassment. The suit’s claims are based on the Fair Housing Act and the state of Illinois’ Human Rights Act, arguing that the senior living center’s actions constitute discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation. Illinois is one of the US states that does include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination legislature, making the state a solid one for a lawsuit like this. There’s hope that this lawsuit could set an important legal precedent and create a pathway for stronger legal protections for LGBT elders.

A legal precedent regarding discrimination against LGBT elders would be timely; as the Boomer generation continues to age, we can expect to see increased numbers of LGBT seniors moving into senior living facilities. Although LGBT-specific housing is an option for some — in NYC, the Ingersoll Senior Residences and Crotona Senior Residences will have almost 230 units for LGBT elders and staff trained in LGBT cultural competency — for the majority of LGBT elders, it’s not feasible. Most LGBT elders will face housing options with a majority of straight residents and with staff that may not be knowledgeable about or respectful of their experiences, which creates fertile ground for discrimination — something which can be compounded if a senior doesn’t have a strong support network of family or friends outside of their living facility. In 2014, the Equality Rights Center and Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) found that housing discrimination against LGBT elders means that many LGBT elders aren’t even able to access housing in the first place, or feel that in order to do so they must stay in or return to the closet.

Wetzel tells the Chicago Tribune that she became estranged from her son around the same time as the death of her partner, Judy, three years ago. She says that for her own sake and for the sake of the LGBT community, she wants to fight to not be treated “like a ghost, like vapor, like I don’t exist,” at a place that should be her home. The lawsuit asks Glen Saint Andrew to end the discrimination Wetzel is experiencing, train its staff and put policies in place that would prevent future discrimination, and to award Wetzel damages for what she’s endured.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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8 Comments

  1. I had to put up with all sorts of abuse just as a caregiver in such facilities. Everyone is always concerned (rightly) for the residents, but very little consideration is given to staff. I’ve been called every kind of slur imaginable, groped, cat-called, whistled at, and assaulted in other ways with no recourse.

    I’ve worked in three states and the general attitude is always the same, “Well, they don’t know what they’re doing” or “What are we gonna do about it, right?” or “You know how their generation is”. The misogyny is rampant, the LGBTphobia, the racism too. I’ve seen people of color get fired left and right because of unfounded allegations of abuse and sometimes the residents whip right around and tell me they don’t like brown people. I’d march right to the managers with those statements every time to protect my peers, but it was still a constant thing. Men of color have to deal with that aspect particularly.

    I hope this resident’s attorney is able to pulverize this facility’s owners and administrators because long-term care is so terrible exploitative and difficult on residents and caregivers alike. We need serious regulation and far more government involvement. Most of the companies care only about the bottom line.

    Residents and staff alike deserve to be able to live and work with dignity and in a respectful environment. Residents deserve to be protected from staff and each other, just as staff deserve to be protected from residents and other staff.

    I’m not excusing abuse or neglect either, but when you get a bunch of people living in poverty, pay them anywhere from minimum wage to just a couple dollars an hour more, fire or threaten them if they ever call in sick or have to take care of their kids… and then they subject themselves to these environments and take care of people day after day, year after year… yeah, a lot of abuse and neglect happens. It’s not excusable, but if we gave a damn about people in poverty too and actually made sure caregivers had a livable wage for a job very few people can do, we might see far better conditions and far less abuse and neglect.

    Basically… there’s a lot that needs to be done. Get involved and help! I’m not even in healthcare anymore, but I take every chance I can get to talk to my local and state legislators about these issues.

    • There’s also too many employees in the system who abuse drugs or have records. I’m all for second chances (and third, fourth, fifth…) but long-term care is really not the best environment for those. Everyone deserves better.

      It’s a multi-faceted intersectional issue and it’s just not on that many people’s radar. At most, people want to tackle a few things (usually regulations that aren’t needed or don’t address the intersection of things going on). Everyone is quick to throw the book at cases of abuse, but neglect is far more likely in the stressful, demanding environment where someone is trying to stay focused but came into work with the flu because they’ll get fired if they don’t. A lot of people, residents and staff alike, feel trapped and overwhelmed and there’s just no one to turn to. The few solutions there are tend to be black and white and either don’t address the full problem or don’t do anything at all.

      Please folks, get involved. Volunteer! Activities Departments are always looking for help. Get to know the companies and owners. Know the local issues. Help advocate for vulnerable adults and struggling caregivers.

      • Wow, thanks for this comment! It seems you could point to pretty much any LGBTQ issue in the world and find that capitalism makes it much, much worse.

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