In Rural California, LGBT Seniors Often Are Forced Back Into The Closet

Nov 1, 2016

The reality of aging is a hard pill to swallow for anyone, but for the LGBT population in rural places it can be an even rougher experience. And as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports getting older for LGBT seniors in Central California often means going back into the closet.


Early this year Van Vanlandingham had surgery.  For almost three months the 68-year-old rehabilitated in a nursing home in the South Valley town of Lindsay.  The staff kept asking him what was his wife's name.

"When I said Dustin, it went silent," Vanlandingham says. “That person that was really talking to me and trying to find out about me all of a sudden had no idea how to talk after that."

The situation got even worse at the nursing home when he was put into a room with two men on probation.

“They talked about gay men that they came across in the prison system and how they were treated physically and sexually,” says Vanlandingham. “It put a fear in me.”

"It's sort of like they checked the box, did the training and have no interest whatsoever in more broadly messaging out the importance of supporting LGBT elders in their community." - Lisa Cisneros

That fear is what a lot of LGBT people face when reaching the age where they may need someone to take care of them. Parts of Central California are known to be quite conservative and with that often comes anti-gay sentiment says Lisa Cisneros with the nonprofit group California Rural Legal Assistance. Even still she says fewer LGBT people are moving out of the region.

“With the increased cost of living and housing in these metropolitan areas I’m finding a lot of people moving to the Central Valley who identify as LGBT,” says Cisneros. “This is where we grew up and this is where we want to raise our kids and grow old.”

She says one way to overcome homophobia in places like nursing homes, doctors offices and assisted living facilities is for staff at places like this to go through cultural sensitivity trainings. Hilary Meyer with the LGBT senior advocacy group SAGE says by 2030 there’s estimated to be 3 million LGBT people 65 and older in the US. She says this problem is a big deal in rural places, and

SAGE offers resources nationally for LGBT seniors as well as local sensitivity training for groups interested.

“Unfortunately there are stories from all over the country about people really being fearful of being out of the closet in residential care,” Meyer says. “Definitely a national thing.”

Existing law requires adult residential care facilities and caregivers to go through cultural competency  training. One assisted living community in Visalia went through the process. But here’s the thing, they agreed to talk with me only if the director and the company weren’t named because they don’t want to be known as an outright LGBT friendly facility.

The director says he didn’t know there were LGBT people in his community until after the training.

“People still have very strong opinions,” he says. “I don’t want to fly a rainbow flag out front. I want to be accepting of everybody.”


Lisa Cisneros says she encounters that kind of mentality all the time in the Valley. 


“It’s sort of like they checked the box, did the training and have no interest whatsoever in more broadly messaging out the importance of supporting LGBT elders in their community,” says Cisneros.


And on top of that Cisneros says LGBT people in rural places also face language barriers, poverty and often don’t have family support.


The Terraces at San Joaquin River Gardens.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens in Fresno is a Christian based upscale retirement care facility. Director Jessica Lopez considers it a LGBT friendly place.  


“Yes, we do a lot of training,” says Lopez. “I don’t even like to call it sensitivity training but we teach our folks how to respect everyone.”


Michael Jordan and Gordon Goede recently moved into The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

A gay couple that live at the Terraces say they feel safe there. Michael Jordan and his partner Gordon Goede moved in a few months ago.

“We certainly had thoughts about would we be accepted from all levels,” Jordan says. “People have been very friendly, very open to talking with us, very open to dining with us. Inviting us to their table.”


They can afford to live at The Terraces. But most privately run facilities don’t accept state or federal funding like Medicare. And it can cost as much as $5,000 a month to live at one. For low income seniors that’s not an option and they may be forced to go into a nursing home or find another option.


One of the challenges in making elder care more friendly to LGBT people is data. We don’t even know how many LGBT people there are in the Valley. A new state law could change that, but results from demographic data won’t come in until sometime next year.


Since there’s not a lot of data, but a lot of support groups working with the LGBT community I decided I’d reach out to them myself. I met with a group of LGBT seniors last month at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Bakersfield.

The Gay and Lesbian Center of Bakersfield.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
"I have a pact with some female friends of mine, some lesbian, some not that we're going to take care of each other when get old." - Jan Hefener

Many of those who came aren’t actively thinking about aging. Jan Hefner is one of them.  “I have a pact with some female friends of mine, some lesbian, some not that we’re going to take care of each other when get old. It’s not something I worry about.”

The fifteen or so of us sat in a circle and chatted about their concerns when it comes to getting older as LGBT people. When the topic of end of life care come up they couldn’t agree.


“Everybody's got something in them that says don’t let me die,” one man said. Another man didn't like the idea of going on life support. “I don’t want to see money being spent to keep me alive as a vegetable, this is stupid. What’s the point?”


All that aside, I get the sense that before people can even deal with the idea of aging they have to address their loneliness first.