Lambda Legal and AARP Partner to Advance Justice for LGBT Seniors

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October 24, 2019
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Leading Lambda Legal’s work addressing the legal needs and protections of LGBT seniors and people aging with HIV has given me the opportunity to collaborate with a wide range of local and national aging organizations. While the vulnerabilities of LGBT older adults are distinct in many ways from the broader aging population in light of the roles of discrimination and family rejection throughout their lives, the need to access safe and supportive housing, health care, and social safety nets unites our efforts with those of organizations serving many diverse aging populations.

They have also been the basis of Lambda Legal’s partnership with AARP, whose public policy efforts focus on these areas of commonality.

Our earliest collaborations began with an emphasis on fighting housing insecurity. Lambda Legal joined an amicus brief to the Supreme Court authored by AARP Foundation’s Litigation Section in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, in which the Court reaffirmed decades of legal precedent interpreting the Fair Housing Act to include disparate impact claims. As AARP’s brief recognized, disparate impact theories have been critical in protecting people with disabilities, seniors, and families with children from the discriminatory effects of zoning laws and other seemingly neutral housing policies. As Lambda Legal emphasized, these kinds of barriers to housing dramatically affect older LGBT people and people living with HIV, as well as LGBT families with children.

AARP Foundation’s legal team also provided critical support for Lambda Legal’s litigation on behalf of Marsha Wetzel, a lesbian senior who alleged harassment and discrimination in her senior living community. In Wetzel v. Glen St. Andrew Living Community, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a groundbreaking decision holding that a landlord may be held liable under the Fair Housing Act for failing to protect a tenant from known, discriminatory harassment at the hands of other tenants.

AARP’s brief in the Wetzel case not only highlighted the prevalence and impact of housing discrimination and harassment experienced by LGBT seniors, but also the clear ability of senior housing providers to take corrective action to stop harassment in the ordinary course of their business. The sheer weight of AARP’s presence in this case cannot be underestimated, but neither can the importance of their deep expertise. These arguments were featured during oral argument and undoubtedly played a role in the positive outcome, which continues to help people facing discriminatory harassment in their homes across the country.

Recognizing the need for education about the generational experiences and unique challenges of the LGBT aging community, Lambda Legal and AARP have also teamed up to provide a series of community and online forums, sharing our expertise and partnering with elder law clinics and community organizations. Just this week, our two organizations convened a panel discussion about the economic insecurity faced by LGBT elders and what national and local organizations are doing to address it.

As a national sponsor, AARP also supports Lambda Legal’s work on behalf of LGBT seniors and people aging with HIV more broadly.

Beyond our housing work, Lambda Legal continues to ensure equal access to safety net benefits for LGBT older adults, from our work on behalf of Robina AstiKathy Murphy, and Dave Williams ­– who were denied survivor benefits because the Social Security Administration (SSA) did not recognize their marriages after their spouses’ deaths – to our current litigation on behalf of Michael ElyHelen ThorntonAnthony Gonzales, and Fred Colosimo – challenging the SSA’s denial of survivor’s benefits when same-sex couples were barred by discriminatory marriage laws from meeting the statutory requirements. We also work to ensure equal access to health care and retirement benefits, and dignity in death for LGBT seniors and their survivors.

Through our collaborations, Lambda Legal’s work to address the legal and social disparities that prevent LGBT seniors from aging in health, security, and dignity will continue to expand. We are grateful for the support of partners like AARP that helps us advance this important work.

Seniors, Seniors