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Guest Opinion: LGBTQ seniors grapple with COVID

by David Chiu

Assemblyman David Chiu. Photo: Courtesy Assemblyman David Chiu's office
Assemblyman David Chiu. Photo: Courtesy Assemblyman David Chiu's office  

In 2015, my first year in the Legislature, working alongside Equality California, I introduced Assembly Bill 959, the LGBT Disparities Reduction Act. To address major inequities impacting our LGBTQ+ communities, AB 959 required for the first time the collection of voluntary, self-identified information on sexual orientation and gender identity, or SOGI, by the state agencies responsible for health care services, public health, social services and aging. Without this data, our LGBTQ+ communities have been essentially invisible to the state and effectively excluded from government funding and services that address health disparities and the effects of stigma and discrimination. As I often said, you can't fix what you don't know.

While then-Governor Jerry Brown signed my bill in 2015, the agencies involved pushed back the initial implementation date to 2018. Unfortunately, today, implementation is still in early stages, and we don't have all of the data we need. Earlier this year, state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and I discovered that SOGI data related to COVID-19 patients was not being tracked. The pandemic and recession have shone a bright spotlight on so many unprecedented challenges that our diverse communities are grappling with.

This has been particularly true for our LGBTQ+ seniors. Seniors already experience pre-existing conditions, comorbidities, and underlying health conditions that put them at great physical risk, but there are many other impacts during these times. With shelter-in-place orders, the mental health impacts of social isolation only grow more acute, and with the holiday season upon us, the inability to gather with our biological or chosen families only exacerbates those impacts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recent data show increases in substance abuse, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among the broader community during the pandemic. For LGBTQ+ seniors, the isolation is more intense due to two other factors. Unlike their heterosexual counterparts, LGBTQ+ seniors have a higher likelihood of not being parents with adult children to check in on them, and have a higher probability of being estranged from their families. As these circumstances create additional mental health challenges amidst this period of social isolation, we need to do a better job at assessing needs and providing innovative resources such as tele-mental health.

Along with the physical and mental health challenges of this time, we have seen dramatic strains on our social safety network for LGBTQ+ seniors and long-term HIV survivors. Essential activities such as going to the pharmacy and the grocery have become more difficult with the risk of COVID-19 exposure, and seniors living on fixed incomes are food insecure and at risk of eviction. During the summer, during an intense debate on how to balance a $54 billion state budget deficit, I led the fight to prevent cuts to senior programs such as Multipurpose Senior Services Programs and Community-Based Adult Services, and also authored AB 2520 to make it easier for low-income Californians to apply for programs requiring medical records. Our Legislature passed my AB 3088 bill to establish an eviction moratorium for those facing COVID-19 economic hardships until February 1, as well as my AB 2377 bill to stave off closures of adult residential facilities that care for residents experiencing severe mental illnesses and other chronic conditions who would otherwise become homeless.

But as we head into the winter months of what will likely be the most dangerous time period of this pandemic, our work continues. We need to extend the eviction moratorium through next year, and provide rent assistance to stabilize the situation of struggling tenants and mom-and-pop landlords hanging by a thread. We need to ensure the stability of culturally competent nonprofit service providers that address the physical health, mental health, substance abuse, and food security needs of the most vulnerable in our city. We need to ensure through data that we are addressing — and closing — the disparities impacting our LGBTQ+ seniors and others in our communities.

Harvey Milk reminded us that "hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness." The silver lining during these dark times is that at our nonprofits and senior centers, the food pantries and the health clinics, our Legislature and City Hall, I see countless people coming together to make sure that those most vulnerable are lifted up. Working together, we will get through this.

Assemblyman David Chiu, a straight ally, represents San Francisco's 17th District. He will be contributing op-eds on a quarterly basis to the Bay Area Reporter.

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