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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.