Tommi Avicolli Mecca came out as a queer man in South Philadelphia in the 1970s, a young revolutionary fighting social intolerance through his work in the Gay Liberation Front.
Four decades later, Mecca, 61, is a senior activist in a graying gay community that is largely invisible and struggling with a new set of challenges.
San Francisco is home to an estimated 25,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) elders aged 60 years or older, a demographic expected to double by 2030 as baby boomers age. It’s a generation under study by a new city task force.
Unlike their straight counterparts, elders in the LGBTQ community are more likely to be single and childless, estranged from their biological families and afforded less protection for their chosen partners and families through wills, Social Security and Medicaid.
The stakes were different back when Mecca, now a tenant advocate for the Mission District’s Housing Rights Committee, came of age in the movement. “You didn’t exist to most people if you were gay. If you did exist, you were seen as the most vile human being imaginable,” he said. “Coming out back then was an act of bravery.”
Today, Mecca and the LGBTQ community are less likely to face outright bigotry, due to anti-discrimination legislation and increased social acceptance. But for his generation, a new set of challenges — and at times a bleak future — await.
“This generation of LGBT seniors came of age pre-Stonewall, before the LGBT civil rights movement,” said Bill Ambrunn, 50, a LGBTQ estate-planning attorney. “They were young adults in a time when the police were rounding them up, putting them in jail. For the next 15 or 20 years, the system is going to be serving a lot of LGBT seniors that are not comfortable being out.”
To address the growing challenges of this demographic, San Francisco has joined cities like Chicago in creating a task force aimed specifically at improving the needs of LGBTQ elders. The task force, approved by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, will meet for the first time in late October and work for 18 months to provide recommendations for legislation, according to District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener.
“This is definitely the most comprehensive [effort],” Ambrunn said. “San Francisco is really poised to make a huge impact on this issue if we use the resources we have to develop a model system of care for LGBTQ seniors the same way [the city] was able to create a model system for care for people with HIV.”
According to Mecca and Ambrunn — who sit on the task force along with 13 appointed members — the biggest challenges include fighting the stigma of aging, providing affordable LGBTQ-friendly housing, creating open-minded health care facilities, fighting housing discrimination against elderly living with a disability, redefining legislation to address different lifestyle choices and increasing elders’ overall independence.
“LGBT folks are estranged from families. So you don’t have your biological family and maybe your own chosen family members are dead,” Mecca said. “This is especially [true] for elderly gay men; a lot of your gay male friends have died of AIDS.”
Mecca strongly supports the idea of a community land trust or co-op for LGBT seniors. The Board, he suggests, could donate a city-owned vacant property coupled with fundraising to bring the building up to code.
San Francisco’s first LGBTQ-specific affordable housing development is already underway. The 110-unit project, part of a larger development of UC Berkeley Extension’s former site at 55 Laguna St., is fully entitled and construction is expected to begin early in 2013, pending funding, according to Wiener.
For transgender task force member Jazzie Collins, 54, the city is taking positive steps to address the unmet needs of an often ignored demographic.
“There’s policy with no enforcement, just policy on a piece of paper. We want to go beyond [that] with something that can be turned into resolution,” said Collins, who is also head volunteer at Senior Action Network. “In a city that is the mecca of gay people, there’s still obstacles standing in the way.”
Task force member Daniel Redman, an LGBTQ elder advocate for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, will bring his legal expertise to the table and hopes to make life-planning documents more accessible to LGBTQ seniors.
“While I’m not a senior myself, the type of LGBT community that I want to be a part of has room for all of us, and is inclusive of all queer people of all ages,” Redman, 31, said in an email. “Ageism is a destructive force throughout our society, and this task force has great potential for making inroads against it.”
Another challenge facing the task force is numbers. Because few surveys or service providers ask about sexual orientation and fewer about gender identity, it’s difficult to pinpoint, for example, where LGBTQ elders live, or how many are battling breast cancer and HIV/AIDS, according to Ambrunn.
But in addressing the needs of LGBTQ seniors, the task force will inevitably affect the city’s entire aging population, Mecca said.
“Threats to Social Security and health benefits … have robbed seniors of our golden years,” Mecca said. ”So I want [self-determination] for all the people like me out there. And when they need the help, we provide the help.”