Lesbian Senior Has Her Day in Court; Faces Senior Living Facility that Failed to Protect Her

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February 6, 2018

Today, Lambda Legal urged the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to hold Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois and its administrators, accountable for failing to protect lesbian senior Marsha Wetzel, from the harassment, discrimination and violence she suffered at the hands of other residents because of her sex and sexual orientation.

The appeal was filed after a federal trial court dismissed her complaint and is being closely watched by both LGBT and housing rights advocates.

“When we filed this lawsuit in July of 2016, we were thinking of the thousands of LGBT seniors, just like Marsha, who were experiencing discrimination in senior housing or who lived in fear of being their true selves, but this case is now much bigger than that,” said Karen Loewy, Senior Counsel and Seniors Program Strategist for Lambda Legal.

“In today’s arguments, Glen Saint Andrew argued that they have zero obligation to keep any of their residents safe from discriminatory harassment. Though it is particularly appalling to hear that argument from an entity that specializes in caring for seniors, the rights of all tenants to hold their landlords accountable when they are denied equal housing opportunity is at stake here.”

“I am not giving up,” said Marsha Wetzel. “I felt completely scared and helpless when the people in charge at Glen Saint Andrew would not protect me, but the idea that they don’t think they have to protect anyone is shocking. The elderly deserve to be treated with respect and to feel safe no matter who they are or who they loved and I’m going to fight for us.”

Glen St. Andrew Living Community is a for-profit senior living facility in Niles, Illinois. Marsha moved into the facility after being evicted from the home she shared with her late partner by her partner’s siblings. After she disclosed to other residents that she had been in a 30-year relationship with a woman and that they had raised a child together, some residents began to harass her, physically attack her and call her names like “fucking dyke,” “fucking faggot,” and “homosexual bitch.”

Marsha reported these incidents of harassment and abuse to facility administrators, but rather than taking action to address the ongoing discrimination, the staff marginalized and alienated Marsha and retaliated against her for complaining about the harassment. Marsha contacted the Lambda Legal Help Desk after the facility did not address her complaints.

In July of 2016, Lambda Legal filed a complaint on Marsha’s behalf under the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex as well as the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sex, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The court dismissed the case on January 18, 2017 without reference to the sex or sexual orientation claims, thereby broadening the question at stake to the assisted living facility’s general responsibility for protecting residents against resident-on-resident harassment and violence.  Lambda Legal appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

Hostile Homes & LGBT Seniors: Marsha's Story