This past October, the LGBT Elder Initiative came together with state officials, healthcare professionals, aging services providers and LGBTQ older Pennsylvanians at the 2018 LGBTQ Aging Summit. Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, the summit sought to address many of the issues facing LGBTQ elder communities and to share best practices for professionals working with LGBTQ populations. Summit content identified policy priorities related to LGBTQ aging and developed recommendations to improve the lives of LGBTQ older Pennsylvanians.
It was the first-ever statewide event in Pennsylvania dedicated to LGBTQ aging issues, and one of the first statewide LGBTQ aging events in the country. Numerous partners from across the state — including LGBTQ-serving non-profits, aging services providers and state agencies — joined together for the planning of the summit. With more than 300 people in attendance, it was inspiring to see the passion of individuals from across the Commonwealth dedicated to making LGBTQ aging issues a statewide priority.
A few months prior, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the formation of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, signing an executive order that made Pennsylvania the only state in the country to have a standing commission dedicated to LGBTQ issues. The role of the commission is to help coordinate efforts taking place across Pennsylvania for greater equality for LGBTQ people. Included among the 40 Commissioners appointed by the governor are several LGBTQ older adults and aging advocates.
Between the summit and the seating of this commission, there is great momentum for addressing the issues that impact LGBTQ older adults. There is also now an infrastructure in place to be better able to do so.
At its first meeting, the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs authorized the creation of an LGBTQ Aging Workgroup. The workgroup is being chaired by Commissioner Joanne Carroll and Heshie Zinman with support from the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, Todd Snovel.
The Aging Workgroup will be able to augment the work being done by the commission and be a voice specifically for LGBTQ older Pennsylvanians. Additionally, the workgroup will be able to provide recommendations to state agencies that are responsible for administering services to older adults, such as the Department of Aging, Department of Health and Department of Human Services.
Some of the issues that affect LGBTQ elders will require the passage of legislation. The Pennsylvania Fairness Act, for example, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the state’s nondiscrimination law, would need to be passed by the Pennsylvania House and Senate before it can be signed into law.
However, other issues can be addressed through changes to policies and procedures within state agencies. For example, a priority of the workgroup is to improve the ways that data on sexual orientation and gender identity is collected. Currently, most state agencies do not track data on sexual orientation and treat gender as a male/female binary. Beginning to collect data on sexual orientation and gender identities beyond the male/female binary would allow agencies to better understand the needs of LGBTQ people and how they are — or aren’t —receiving services.
Additional efforts can take place through influencing state agencies’ strategic priorities for community outreach, training, funding and service delivery. Every four years, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging prepares its State Plan on Aging, which acts as a blueprint for serving the Commonwealth’s older adult population, identifying priorities for enhancing programs, delivering services and allocating resources.
This year, the Department of Aging will begin crafting its State Plan for 2020-2024. The Aging Workgroup — along with organizations and advocates across Pennsylvania — will need to make our voices heard to keep LGBTQ aging issues on the forefront. Ensuring that the new State Plan sufficiently addresses the needs of our LGBTQ older adults will be an essential step in carrying on the great momentum that has been building over the past year.