Elder advocates challenge White House Conference on Aging

December 13, 2005

Roberta Sklar, Director of Communications

Download the Audio Press Conference - Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2005 (m4a file, 53kb, 56 minutes)

Elder advocates challenge White House Conference on Aging today for refusing to include sexual orientation and gender identity in resolutions and for oppressively rigid procedures that have stifled serious discussion of critical aging issues

‘There has been a concerted effort to limit discussion and control the outcome.’
— WHCoA delegate Terry Kaelber, SAGE executive director

Counter summit earlier this week spotlights personal testimony from elders facing discrimination and marginalization — vital issues ignored at the WHCoA

Task Force senior strategist Amber Hollibaugh, SAGE volunteer Garrison Phillips, and Griot Circle's Regina Shavers speaking at today's press conference in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 — Elder advocates challenged the White House Conference on Aging (WHCoA) today at a press conference for refusing to include sexual orientation, gender identity and other vulnerable populations in its resolutions. In addition, critics — including WHCoA delegates — said rigid conference procedures and vague resolutions are preventing substantive discussion of critical aging issues, such as improving the cultural competency of service providers; providing adequate funding for the implementation of elder care services; and bolstering the economic security of a diverse aging population.

“The amount of control over this conference is appalling,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “It’s outrageous that, in 2005 at the White House Conference on Aging, LGBT issues are not only excluded, but that there is no opportunity to officially introduce these issues into the discussion whatsoever.”

WHCoA occurs once a decade to make aging policy recommendations to the president and Congress. More than 2,200 delegates attended the 1995 conference, which allowed for resolutions to be submitted by delegates and considered on the floor. 2005 conference procedures permit no such input from delegates, whose numbers this year have been restricted to just 1,200. Sexual orientation was included in a 1995 resolution. Sexual orientation was included in a 1995 resolution. Sexual orientation and gender identity were not included in any resolutions this year — nor has there been any opportunity for such inclusion — at WHCoA, which concludes Wednesday, Dec. 14.

Terry Kaelber

Official WHCoA delegate Terry Kaelber — the only delegate invited from an LGBT organization — slammed the WHCoA at today’s press conference at the WHCoA site in Washington, saying there has been a “concerted effort” by the administration to “limit discussion and control the outcome” at the WHCoA.

“The process has been to exclude, not include,” said Kaelber, executive director of Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). The New York delegation fired off a letter to the WHCoA policy committee — whose members are appointed by the president and Congress and in essence runs the show — questioning the integrity of the entire process. The letter was unanimously adopted by the delegation late last night and sent to the committee. The California delegation also expressed similarly strong criticism of the undemocratic process at the WHCoA.

Speakers at the press conference said government’s failure to officially acknowledge the existence of LGBT elders means many of that population’s particular needs will continue to go unmet.

Those concerns include the creation of an accepting climate among senior service providers so that LGBT elders are not forced to compromise their sexual orientation or gender identity in order to receive medical care and services; need for caregivers who are properly trained in working with LGBT seniors; the need to strengthen the legal recognition of LGBT relationships, including more equitable taxation, the ability to make medical care decisions and hospital visitation rights; and the need for meaningful participation in planning, policymaking and leadership in elder services.

Many of those issues were highlighted at a counter summit and hearing on the eve of the 2005 WHCoA.

National summit and hearing on eve of WHCoA spotlight inequities

Elders and their advocates converged on the nation’s capital for Make Room for All: A National Summit and Hearing on the Recommended Priorities for the WHCoA: Diversity, Cultural Competency and Discrimination in an Aging America. Sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the event highlighted the growing diversity of the country’s aging population, as well as the challenges that diversity presents to policymakers and service providers.

Make Room for All was backed by the American Society on Aging and its constituency groups, the Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network and the Network on Multicultural Aging; National Association on HIV Over Fifty; SAGE; Older Women’s League; and Griot Circle, among others.

Summit keynote speaker Dr. Norma B. Thomas, director of the Philadelphia-based Center on Ethnic and Minority Aging, said, “We are not ready for the increased diversity.” She added the notion that all Americans have the same opportunities is pure mythology. “And Hurricane Katrina exposed another mythology: that race does not matter in America.” Victims of Katrina were largely people of color, the elderly, and those of more modest economic means.

Said Thomas: “We need a revolution in thinking and action.”

Official WHCoA delegate and summit keynote speaker Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at UCLA, told the summit crowd that the United States can only become greater by acknowledging and embracing its growing diversity.

Make Room for All is as patriotic a slogan as one can come up with,” he said to much applause. “This is what makes America strong.”

Kim Acquaviva

During the hearing, the Lesbian and Gay Aging Issues Network’s Kim Acquaviva presented the nightmarish scenario of someone being denied access to a dying partner in the hospital because the couple was not legally considered to be a family. Tragically, she said, this happens far too much.

Regina Shavers

Regina Shavers of Griot Circle, an LGBT people of color elder advocacy organization, said no one should attempt to “put one of those pink dresses on me,” should she have to go into a nursing home. The statement evoked laughter and underscored the everyday concerns of LGBT elders and the need for culturally competent caregiving.

Korean War veteran Garrison Phillips, 76, spoke of losing his partner to heart failure a couple years ago. The doctor, he said, was respectful of the relationship. “I was fortunate, but could this have happened in a red state?”

Garrison Phillips

He also spoke poignantly of his physical struggles with aging, in particular, the weakness he often experiences in his legs. Twice, Phillips confided, he has resorted to “butt-climbing” the stairs of his sixth-floor New York City walk-up. However, as the legs get weaker, navigating the stairs becomes increasingly difficult. But, Phillips testified, finding an affordable apartment with an elevator in New York seems virtually impossible. “Why isn’t the government addressing affordable housing?” he asked.

All speakers stressed the need for policymakers and service providers to immediately begin addressing these issues. “We know that the decade ahead will see a continued increase in the number of seniors across this country. We can also anticipate an increase in the number of LGBT adults who are not only part of the baby boomer generation, but who also came out of the post-Stonewall era of increased visibility and openness about their sexual orientation and gender identity. We cannot expect that this positive experience of pride and self-acceptance must be put aside as we age,” said Perry Wiggins, senior services manager at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County, Calif.

Amber Hollibaugh

Task Force senior strategist Amber Hollibaugh, the nation’s premier specialist on LGBT aging issues, says Make Room for All and the relationships fostered with supportive delegates and community groups is a first step toward ensuring that LGBT issues are never again excluded from the WHCoA.

“In ten years when we come back, we’re not going to be sitting outside pleading and hoping that someone in power on the inside is going to listen to us,” she said. “The next time, we and all those we are working with will be on the inside, at the center table, speaking in our own names about all our aging futures.”

The Task Force expresses its gratitude to the Allan Morrow Foundation: The Task Force's LGBT Aging Initiative is made possible by the generous support of the Allan Morrow Foundation and an annual "Allan Morrow Award Community Service Award" has been established in his memory. Make Room for All is dedicated to the memory of Allan Morrow, a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS, homophobia and anti-Semitism who died in 1994. Allan was a board member of Gay Men's Health Crisis and supported many other charitable causes, including early childhood education and the Long Island Jewish Medical Center.


The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.