January 23, 2001
Ontario Human Rights Commission
Policy and Education Branch
180 Dundas Street West 8th floor
Toronto M7A 2R9
We have been thinking seriously about the human rights issues facing older people.
The most pressing issue facing the OHRC, we feel – and have felt since “sexual orientation” was added to the Ontario Human Rights Code after repeated pressure in 1986 – is to educate the public in general and employers and service providers in particular about lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, about homophobia, about our right to exist in a society without prejudice. We appreciate that the commission’s resources are severely stretched. We feel that more funds should be allocated to the commission by the government.
One of the most obvious and least commented on stereotypes about lesbians, gays, and bisexuals is that we are all young. You will often hear people saying, “Oh, my parents’ generation couldn’t cope with that.” Yet we have no reason to suppose that there were fewer lesbians, gays and bisexuals in our parents’ generation and before. We have lesbian great-grandmothers, gay uncles, bisexual cousins. Principally what has changed is the number of people prepared to come out and be publicly identified.
One result of this is a twofold problem – there are older lesbians, gays, and bisexuals moving through the system now – in residential homes, using the healthcare and social services available, living in our neighbourhoods. Many of these will not come out and the willful ignoring of their needs as well as the homophobia they witness can convince them that they were right not to. On the other hand, there is a generation moving toward old age who have always been out and who think they have a right to access services free of homophobia.
The only way to eliminate homophobia is a from-the-top-down statement by governing bodies to healthcare and social-services workers that homophobia will not be tolerated and this must be made reality by anti-homophobia training. Otherwise homophobia will continue to manifest itself as it does now, on a continuum from a belief that lesbians, gays, and bisexuals do not or should not exist, through sneers and bad treatment, to physical harm.
This problem is particularly hard to deal with where community-based care initiatives involve the use of volunteers who are harder to regulate and do not always see themselves subject to the same regulations as paid staff.
Relationships recognition is a main factor for seniors in residential homes or living independently. We can still have a struggle to get doctors, caregivers, and other professionals to accept our partners as our spouses. Ontario’s bill 5 (October 1999) officially gives us the same status as common-law heterosexuals, but same-sex marriage is not yet recognized and no mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that we receive the rights the bill gives us. Something as simple as placing a photo of a spouse on the bedside table can bring about repercussions.
Our partner(s) and friends are often particularly important to us, given that we cannot depend on support from our families. Many families reject their lesbian, gay, and bisexual members or seek to impose antigay views or practices on their dependent relatives – lesbians, gays, and bisexuals must be protected from this.
When we create family structure of our own, these must be recognized in the terms in which we recognize them.
In the workplace, older lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are particularly prone to pressure to take early regiment schemes where employers do not want them in the workforce. Pressure from coworkers and daily encounters with homophobia can make us accept the offers which are not always in our financial favour. If the conservative government had not repealed the employment equity act, there would have been a clear way to implement anti-prejudice measures in the workplace and the onus would have been on employers to provide a prejudice-free workplace rather than on the individual worker, already suffering from the prejudice, to right the wrong.
For older lesbians and bisexual women, economic problems are often caused by having earned a “woman’s wage” all their working life. They cannot access the benefits of a husband earning a “man’s wage.” The average for women is still about 70 to the male dollar and it has been worse – this has an obvious impact on savings, pensions, etc. If women have left a heterosexual relationship, taking a child with them, problems can have been compounded by lack of support and maintenance from the father.
It is appalling that the commission is able to identify women as one of the two groups most likely to experience severe disadvantage – women live longer than men and form a statistical majority of the elderly.
For homo- and bi-sexual women and men, there can be the economic impact of lack of advancement in – or firing from – a homophobic workplace.
Of course the issue of multiple discrimination arises – for the double whammy already experienced by older lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, you have only to add racism, sexism, anti-semitism, discrimination against people with disabilities, etc, to produce an extremely unfortunate situation.
From 1993-97, CLGRO ran Project Affirmation, a survey project funded by Health Canada to assess the experiences of sexual minorities in Ontario’s healthcare and social services systems. It shows pervasive homophobia on all levels resulting in situations from mild neglect to faulty medical treatment. It also contains a section on the needs and experiences of older lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals – those over 54, born before 1941. Almost all (94%) of the older lesbians, gay, and bisexuals – and of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual population generally – agreed that healthcare systems must improve to better meet their needs.