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    Lessons Learned From LGBT Elder Advocacy During COVID-19

    By Daniel Redman–

    In 2020, as the COVID-19 lockdown began, a group of LGBT elder advocates and government officials began meeting to keep track of concerns and needs arising, share information, and organize to protect our communities. One year later, the result was impactful: almost one million dollars in grants approved, a groundbreaking study of the impact of COVID-19 on LGBT elders, and important educational outreach to the community.  

    We learned some important lessons from this:

    • LGBT elder advocacy requires collaboration to be effective—our communities and our issues don’t fit into neat disciplinary or topical boxes.  
    • Second, if you know what you’re doing, don’t wait for permission to organize.  
    • Third, don’t wait for someone else to do the work you know needs to be done.  
    • And finally, a handful of committed people who trust each other and don’t care about taking credit can make important policy happen.

    In 2012, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors named a dozen people to the LGBT Aging Policy Task Force. We had 18 months to produce recommendations for how the city could better support LGBT elders, and then the task force concluded. There were advocates from a variety of backgrounds (legal matters, mental health, housing, community-building, health care policy, etc.).  You can learn more about the task force at

    As the COVID-19 lockdown in San Francisco began on March 16, 2020, former task force members and other advocates knew that our community would be hit hard. LGBT seniors are 20% as likely to access services as straight seniors. They’re half as likely to have biological family members to help them. They are more likely to be poor than straight seniors. And trans seniors in particular have faced serious obstacles to accessing care. An isolating pandemic was a perfect storm.  

    Within days, former task force members and other advocates were informally re-grouping to identify problems across the range of policy areas: access to care and services, housing, educating the community, legal equality, and thinking through ways to gather the empirical evidence that drives policy. Shireen McSpadden, who is head of the San Francisco Department of Disability and Aging Services, was on board immediately, as were representatives from Supervisor Mandelman’s office and Senator’s Wiener’s office, and leaders from half a dozen crucial nonprofits.

    Within weeks, McSpadden and leaders from Meals on Wheels, Curry Senior Center, Shanti, Openhouse, and the City’s Office of Transgender Initiatives were presenting through Manny’s online speaker series on their work and taking questions from the community. 

    Just a few weeks later, as President Trump and other politicians ramped up hideous anti-Asian and anti-disability sentiment, group members and other LGBT leaders signed on to an open letter to the Bay Area Reporter pledging solidarity with the AAPI and disability communities, drawing connections to our own community’s experience of hatred and violence in the first decade of the AIDS epidemic.

    The key goal of the group was to be as flexible as possible—to hear any concern, loop in any expert, and consider every possible solution. We didn’t know where we could be helpful, what was possible, where money might be available, what would be needed, or what curveball the virus might throw at us. But when we found solutions that seemed actionable, we pounced.  

    First, we knew we needed data to drive any policy changes. Dr. Marcy Adelman sprang into action getting funding and lining up experts to conduct a survey of LGBT elders during the pandemic. The groundbreaking study confirmed what we had all feared: more isolation, more suicidal ideation, insufficient access to support and services, and a serious “digital divide” that kept isolated seniors from the telehealth services and community activities that could alleviate loneliness and provide health care continuity.

    Drawing on this data, we were able to identify three key policy goals. 1) The number of clients at the major LGBT elder organizations had doubled as a result of the pandemic, so we requested funding for three new staff members. 2) The need for LGBT culturally competent low-cost/no-cost mental health care exploded, so we requested funding for a groundbreaking program to better provide it. 3) There was a need for digital devices and training to give our elders access to the internet, so we requested funding for a staff member to supervise the roll-out and money for purchasing devices for 500 low-income seniors.  We were proud when the city granted our funding request (almost $1m).

    As the pandemic recedes from public view, crises continue for low-income LGBT elders: housing insecurity and homelessness, food insecurity, isolation, services lacking cultural competency, and so much more, but we must also celebrate our progress and success because they show us what works and how to fight for the next goal.  

    Throughout LGBT history (and our communities have had many names over the decades), the lesson we’ve learned again and again is that no one is going to do the work for us. Pick up the phone, hop on the Zoom, call up your friends, and get to work. We can do it.

    Daniel Redman is a partner in the estate planning department of Sideman & Bancroft LLP. From 2012 to 2014, he served on the San Francisco LGBT Aging Policy Task Force where he chaired the legal committee.

    Special Section Aging in Community by Dr. Marcy Adelman
    Published on May 4, 2023