The power of data is showing researchers what older LGBTQ+ Americans actually need

The power of data is showing researchers what older LGBTQ+ Americans actually need
Photo: The Minnesota 2022 LGBTQ Aging Needs Assessment Report

A recently published study from the University of Minnesota, the third in a decennial series first undertaken in 2002, is an essential and fascinating look at the needs of LGBTQ+ older Americans, including the wave of Baby Boomers now entering retirement and the Silent Generation that preceded them.

The Minnesota 2022 LGBTQ Aging Needs Assessment Report surveyed hundreds of LGBTQ+ older adults in the state to gain insight into the community’s experiences with services, caregiving, discrimination, employment, chosen family, and a host of other metrics describing their lives.

The results, according to the report’s authors, indicate that “we’ve come a long way, but have much further to go” in addressing the harmful disparities between LGBTQ+ older adults and their straight peers.

LGBTQ Nation spoke with Rajean Moone, the report’s principal investigator, to learn about the progress the studies have recorded over 20 years and where they indicate room for improvement.

In Part 1 of our interview, Moone described the strides made in LGBTQ+-affirming healthcare, a direct result, he says, of sensitivity training employed by healthcare organizations in the state. In Part 2 of our conversation, I ask Moone to describe the hurdles facing different generations as they age.  

“There are relatively accepted dates that define generations, with the Baby Boomers, 1946 to 1964, and the Silent Generation, 1945 and before. And there are clear differences in the experiences of older generations of LGBTQ people. All you have to do is look at the demographic statistics on the number of people publicly acknowledging that they’re LGBTQ. That number just exponentially goes up the younger that you get.”

“But that in itself is a factor of aging,” says Moone. The Silent Generation and older Boomers grew up when being LGBTQ+ was considered “immoral and illegal, and either a mental illness or a health care diagnosis. And so, my thought is that actually, the number of LGBTQ people across the population is likely the same, but because of the historical experiences of LGBTQ older adults, there are just exponentially more that are in the closet that have denied it, and will take that secret to their grave, because of their experiences.”

“If you’ve been kicked out of your church, or you’ve been fired for your work because they thought you were LGBTQ,” those fears remain.

I brought up a new Gallup poll which found that the portion of U.S. adults identifying as LGBTQ+ has doubled over the last decade, from 3.5 percent in 2012 to 7.2 percent in 2022.

“I mean, it’s not surprising,” Moone says. “The reality is, we’ve always taught sexual orientation and gender and sex either incorrectly, or at a very superficial level. Saying that there are binary sexes, you know, the attitude of, ‘God created the two sexes,’ when in reality, that actually — scientifically — is not true. Sex is even a spectrum itself. And so as science and moral philosophy start to come together, I think you’re just going to see more and more living in the spectrum rather than living in the binary.”

In the foreword to the study, Moone says it’s vital that Minnesota supports data collection regarding sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. I ask what the status of collecting those metrics is in Minnesota and at the federal level. 

“This is sort of a foundational issue in making the case for targeting services and supports to LGBTQ older adults,” explains Moone. “Data just do not exist, and data are very powerful and compelling in sharing a story of health, economic and social disparities.”

“But if we don’t collect data on people, we can’t determine what those health, economic and social disparities are, and therefore we can’t target interventions to mitigate them. And so, when we don’t ask questions about sexual orientation or gender identity, we lose the ability to make those comparisons and understand a population,” he says.

“With these bills and legislation related to “Don’t Say Gay” for instance, not having data is problematic because we lose the picture. We lose the picture of the experiences in order to help people that may be minoritized or experiencing oppression or whatnot.

“And so one of our calls in this report was, ‘This needs assessment is very helpful. It provides us with some great narratives and great information, but it can’t be used in place of large quantitative data sets that are able to really dive into numbers and really look at disparities.'”

I told Moone it reminded me of efforts by the gun lobby to quash federal studies of gun violence.

“Exactly. I mean, data are powerful. And, you know, it’s only so long that you can call something fake news and try to cover things up when you’re collecting data.”

Moone added, “There are some large studies. At the University of Washington, Karen Fredricksen Goldsen has had a long-time, large quantitative study, which provides great insight into data. But how amazing if we just universally asked these questions — like in our Older Americans Act-funded services, in our Medicaid program, and our Medicare program — to be able to understand what are the unique challenges and issues experienced by sexual and gender minority older adults in comparison to their peers?”

One sign of progress: In 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau added questions about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) to its experimental Household Pulse Survey, assessing the pandemic’s mental health toll on U.S. adults 18 years and older.

Still, if and how data is collected and to what ends is an issue with starkly different outcomes depending on where you are and where you stand in the United States in 2023.

Minnesota has come “leaps and bounds” from the state’s flirtation with a same-sex marriage ban in 2012 to “enshrining protections in state law” today, says Moone. But it seems like “we currently are in a country that sort of has two different ways for looking at LGBTQ rights. You have those that are enacting dozens and dozens of laws and statutes limiting the freedoms and protections for LGBTQ people, and then you have states like Minnesota, which are expanding those protections.”

I ask Moone what the subsequent study’s outcomes may look like in 2032.

“Over time, I think there will be radical changes in the results of the study,” Moone predicts. Some findings “may stay relatively the same, right? So when you look at LGBTQ older adults, they’re more likely to be a caregiver. They’re less likely to have a caregiver, less likely to have children, more likely to live alone. Some of those statistics will continue through the Baby Boomer generation. But my generation — Generation X, the generations following us — likely will be very different.”

“In 2032, if we are privileged to be able to do this again, we likely will see some shifts in that. But those shifts aren’t going to occur just magically. We can’t just put on the rose tinted glasses and say, ‘Time is just going to change everything.’ That will change through a result of active advocacy from the community.”

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