A Penny for her Thoughts: The power of one

by Penny Gardner

In the spring, you may recall, I helped to publicize the public hearings held across the state by the Area Agencies on Aging. You, dear reader, were encouraged to attend these hearings and offer testimony about the legal and social barriers we face seeking social services as older LGBT people.

On Aug. 20 at the meeting of the Commission on Services to the Aging, which I am a commissioner for, we reviewed for commission approval eight of the 16 AAA's, Annual Implementation Plans. (This month we will review the remaining ones.) In reviewing the plans, I searched high and low, as I am inclined to do, for the words "sexual Orientation, gender expression and/or identity, LGBT" - whatever. I knew full well not to look for "queer!"

When the first AAA summarized their plan before the commission, I asked the executive director and the staff in attendance, "What they were doing about serving old people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender?"

"Oh, everyone is treated the same at our agency," they assured me.

As a lesbian, I said, "I beg to differ. How you respond to me, how your agency serves me is all informed by discrimination and bigotry. Therefore, not everyone is treated the same." I also made a comment, after hearing their plan to include outreach to churches, that "depending upon churches for outreach activities and to help identify elder abuse and neglect, in many cases will not identify elder abuse and neglect of people who are old and LGBT."

In asking these questions and offering these comments, my intention was not to veto their plan. My intention was to utilize the opportunity of a teaching moment in front of all the directors and staff of the eight Area Agencies on Aging in attendance.

Further, as the next agency "on the docket" bragged about their collaboration with the Veteran's Administration for outreach and to provide services, I had the opportunity of another teaching moment. "With lesbians and gays being unable to serve in the military for many years, and with 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' assumed heterosexuality was the norm, which creates fear and resistance by members of the LGBT communities to access services through such governmental organizations. Going through the VA is fine as long as you also seek information from inclusionary agencies as well."

Well, when the third agency came to present their plan, they talked about contacting Equality Michigan and Perceptions as part of their outreach activities. As the ED spoke of these things, he winked at me. I smiled and smiled, and congratulated them on that inclusionary act. When I searched the AIP, I couldn't find where in the plan was commentary on this action. I asked him about it. And he said with a grin, "It isn't in the plan, I just wanted you to know we had done this." Everyone laughed. I, of course, got the card of the staff person who had made the contact and will follow-up with her. We both gave each other sly little grins.

Hopefully all this is of interest to you, dear reader. Just one more. I have saved the best for last.

When the Tri-County AAA (Ingham, Clinton and Eaton Counties) presented their Annual Implementation Plan, lo and behold, in the written testimonies given from the public hearings in the spring were comments from Bill Beachler, a board member of the Lansing Association for Human Rights. His comments were short, concise and indeed effective. An outcome of his testimony, written right into the plan, is a Cultural Competency training on the issues of old people who are LGBT, and how an agency serving all old people can be inclusive of who we all are.

In the social justice communities we sometimes hear about the Power of We. We are so very capable of creating change. And, might I add, it only took the power of one to add LGBT to the Annual Implementation Plan of an Area Agency on Aging. One person went to a public hearing, said about 10 sentences, and he was taken seriously and created change.

Never underestimate the power of one. Know that such an action will create ripples of change across the Office of Services to the Aging, and no doubt beyond.

Penny Gardner is a Lansing-based activist, commissioner of the Commission on Services to the Aging and teacher. Reach her at marydrpenny@yahoo.com.
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