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For LGBT People In Rural Areas, A Tough Transition To Retired Life


Moving to an assisted-care facility can be tough on anyone - but especially LGBT people in rural areas. Sometimes, they go back into the closet. Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero reports from Fresno, Calif.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: In early 2016, Van Vanlandingham had major surgery. For almost three months, the 68-year-old lived in a nursing home in the tiny, central-California town of Lindsay. During that time, various staff members kept asking him for his wife's name.

VAN VANLANDINGHAM: When I said Dustin, it went silent.

ROMERO: The situation went from uncomfortable to downright bad when he was placed in a room with two men on probation.

VANLANDINGHAM: It put a fear in me. They talked about gay men that they came across in the prison system and how they were treated physically and sexually.

ROMERO: Vanlandingham felt threatened. No physical harm came to him, but he was gripped with fear and became quiet about his sexuality.

VANLANDINGHAM: It put me back almost to a feeling of what I felt, like, maybe 50 years ago. I had no progression. I had no future hope. That's how I felt when I was younger.

ROMERO: That fear is what a lot of LGBT people face when reaching the age where they may need someone to take care of them. The irony in Vanlandingham's case is that he actually leads trainings for how caregivers can be more sensitive. He does it through the LGBT senior-advocacy group called SAGE.

VANLANDINGHAM: How's everybody doing now?


VANLANDINGHAM: We all awake?

ROMERO: Today he's training a group of mental-health professionals that work in the rural California county of Tulare. It's estimated - by the year 2030, there will be 3 million LGBT people over the age of 65 in the U.S.

VANLANDINGHAM: What we want you to realize is we want the same thing you do. We want our career. We want a home. We want family. We want that relationship. Is that any different than anyone else?

ROMERO: He tells the more-than-20 attendees that it won't take that big of a change to make LGBT people feel welcome.

VANLANDINGHAM: You know, you could have a flag all the way across the back at the wall. But you could also just have the little symbols, you know? Rainbow patch - Advocate magazine.

LISA CISNEROS: I think those efforts are not necessarily uniform at this point.

ROMERO: Lisa Cisneros is with the nonprofit group California Rural Legal Assistance. She recently heard about an assisted-living facility that's gone through trainings like Vanlandingham's. But that facility doesn't want the public to know because it doesn't want to be seen as the gay nursing home. She says that's a perfect example of what she sees on a day-to-day basis even in a state like California that has strong anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

CISNEROS: Under the law, it's important for them to extend services in a nondiscriminatory way. But they don't want that more broadly known within the community because the culture is still very much homophobic.

ROMERO: And on top of that, Cisneros says some older LGBT people don't have a lot of family support. The problem here is that the friendlier, long-term care facilities are usually very expensive. That's not an option for low-income people. And, in part, it's why Vanlandingham leads workshops training a variety of people who work at a range of places, from nursing homes to health clinics. He says this is all about creating safe spaces for LGBT people.

VANLANDINGHAM: You've got to be able to let them know all about you to be able to get the proper care. But if you keep something back, how are you going to get the proper care that you really need?

ROMERO: And that's why Vanlandingham said it's important for LGBT people to be accepted on their own terms, so they don't have to leave the places they're from to be out and respected. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Fresno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.

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