Op-Ed: Unemployed LGBT Seniors Face Many Obstacles

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The dream is recurring. I'm in a panic because I don't have a job, and I question if I've ever worked. I'm sure that I'm too old to find meaningful employment, but I need money. I eventually become conscious that I'm dreaming, and I remind myself that I've had a personally rewarding career, and that I don't need to work.

Greg Kabel

Perhaps the dream is prompted by my struggle with the idea of retirement, or having been fired for being gay at age 26, or almost always working for myself, or maybe it's because it took many years before my father and mother accepted that educating others on LGBT issues was a real job. It's a bad dream that takes me a while to shake.

Yet, for many people my age and younger, there is no waking from the bad dream, and there is no shaking off the emotional toll it takes. Being unemployed, and needing money, are the most pressing issues of their lives. They fear running out of money before they die, and ending up being dependent on others to survive.

The people who live these nightmares most often are older workers who, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have watched the depletion of their savings, and the diminished value of their skills. They have either lost, or fear they soon will lose, their jobs because of profit loss, automation, or their inability to keep pace with information technology.

If these unemployed older people are LGBT, their situation may feel more precarious. In addition to feeling less needed, they may also feel less wanted. If they're closeted, they may be seen as lacking the fortitude to face the challenges of the ever-changing workplace. Closeted LGBT people, I suspect, are rarely unknown, and often disparaged as unable to lead.

If they're out of the closet, they may fear that being out will be a factor in their not being kept or re-hired. Despite how many corporate promises are made about not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many people feel that the promise only counts in the war for talent when the gay or transgender employee is seen as exceptional in what they do. Additionally, most states allow for such workplace discrimination.

If, indeed, your nest egg has been depleted because the value of your house has depreciated, you've had unexpected health care costs, or your pension was cut, you have no alternative but to find work. But what work? How does the 55-year-old gay man find work after his money-making "companion" dies, and leaves the bulk of his assets to his children and grandchildren? The single lesbian near retirement is not seen as being as needy of steady income as the man who has dependents. If she is let go in downsizing, how does she find work to make up the lost income? And, what if you're an older person who is transsexual? Where does the average, senior, transgender person find work unless he or she is extraordinary at what they do?

The old career development resource book, "What Color is Your Parachute" and every similar book published since, tells us that our best chance of finding a job is knowing someone who can help. Job hunters are encouraged to make lists of the people they know who might be able and willing to pull strings or make introductions.

What good connections do older LGBT people have? What if they have pulled back from straight family and friends because they wanted to be out and proud? Are their gay or straight friends comfortable putting their reputations on the line by making a call or giving them a letter of recommendation? Will the names of younger LGBT employees be on the list of possible connections? Do younger LGBT employees relate to, or even like, their older counterparts? Are corporate LGBT Employee Resource Groups (ERG), headed by younger workers, aware of the struggles of Baby Boom gay and transgender employees, and do they see such issues as worthy of their attention, and of inclusion in their limited budget?

In the corporate world, finding allies who understand and support your issues is critical to having your needs championed. While older workers, in general, can feel alienated by the attitudes of younger workers, it can be particularly disenfranchising for a senior LGBT worker. To hear the offensive word "queer" used as a proud self-description by younger LGBT employees, and to see that there is no awareness on the part of youth of the many sacrifices that have been made to create such a welcoming work environment for them, can prompt senior workers to pull away from ERGs. Younger workers can be seen as ungrateful upstarts who are competing for the jobs needed to secure the older worker's sustainability. Older employees can be seen as stubborn and out of touch with cultural advances, and as obstacles to promotions.

If older LGBT workers hope to secure the support of younger LGBT workers, attention must be given to changing attitudes. Older transgender workers are sometimes seen by many younger transgender job seekers, not as pioneers, but as sad vestiges of the time when people felt forced to pick one gender over the other. Today's youth are far more fluid in their queer identity, and feel less the need for full transition surgery. Closeted older, LGB workers can be seen by some younger LGB employees as roadblocks to the success of equal treatment in the workplace, especially in regional offices and foreign countries. Focusing attention on the issues facing LGBT seniors requires corporate ERGs to ask seniors questions about the challenges they face, and about how best to be allies.

Outside the workplace, unemployed gay and transgender seniors, like their heterosexual peers, can find support in their search for work from AARP, the American Association of Retired People. AARP has a 17 percent success rate in finding work for its members. But unemployed older LGBT people can also get training and guidance from SAGE, Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders, a national organization with regional affiliates. They have a 25 percent success rate in helping senior clients find employment.

That still leaves 75 percent of the LGBT seniors who have sought help from SAGE, and the many more who haven't heard of, or tried to get such help, living daily in the nightmare that only occasionally visits me in my dreams. If young LGBT activists are looking for the next cause to take on after marriage equality, the bread and butter issues of LGBT seniors is an issue needing immediate attention.    


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