Special Report

'We're going back into the closet': LGBTQ seniors wary of being 'out' in long-term care facilities

Gay seniors say they face a hard choice - hide who they are or deal with inferior health care and discrimination because of homophobia in long-term care facilities.

Gay seniors say they face a hard choice - hide who they are or deal with discriminatory backlash

Ben Murray, 59, is a trans man living in Ottawa. Murray works with staff and volunteers in seniors facilities to help make them aware of the discrimination faced by LGBTQ seniors. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

LGBTQ seniors who were part of the long battle against discrimination and who've been "out" for years are now worried they'll have to hide their sexual orientation as they face the need to move into long-term care facilities.

By 2024 almost a quarter of the population will be 65 years and older. There are no firm statistics or comprehensive studies, but anecdotally LGBTQ seniors say they have to make a hard choice at the end of their lives: Go "back into the closet" or accept inferior care and discrimination.

"As a trans man, I've experienced a fair bit of transphobia from health care professionals," says 59-year-old Ben Murray of Ottawa, who works with staff and volunteers in long-term care facilities to help make them aware of discrimination faced by LGBTQ seniors. 

"Fortunately, for the most part I've been able to stand up for myself. I believe I'd face the same or even higher levels of discrimination in a long-term care facility, at a time when I'd presumably be much more vulnerable. And that scares me."

The National sent Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja to speak with LGBTQ seniors about going into care. Here are excerpts from their conversations.

WATCH — Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja's feature from The National about LGBTQ seniors and their fears of going into long-term care:

Many of Canada's LGBT seniors fear discrimination in elder care, believing they'll have to once again hide their pride to avoid prejudice. 7:15

David Bzdel, 73

David Bzdel, 73, is retired. His health is starting to fail and he expects he will soon have to go into care. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

David Bzdel: My name is David Bzdel and who am I? Well, I am an older gay man and I am having a hard time making that transition from being young to being old.

In my dreams I am young. I don't see myself as being [old]. Mentally I feel young. But physically, no. And I look at myself in the mirror, I'm not young anymore.

Going into a seniors home is not gonna be easy.- David Bzdel

Nick Purdon: When you look in the mirror what do you see?

David: I see an old man. I see someone I didn't want to become.

I am not afraid of dying. What I am afraid of is the time from now until the time when I do die.

The way I see it now, going into a seniors home is not gonna be easy. It's not gonna be any fun.

Do you worry that people might treat you differently because you are gay?

David: I do. And I think it would be unjustified.  

What is the worry?

David: Isolation. I think that's the biggest thing. That they won't accept me.


Lezlie Lee Kham, 64

Lezlie Lee Kham is an LGBTQ activist. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Lezlie Kham: My name is Lezlie Lee Kam and this is Lilly [holding up her cane].

Nick Purdon: Why does your cane have a name?

Lezlie: Because when you have a mobility device you become invisible. It happens to seniors too. So I name my cane so people see me. I like to take up space.

Do you remember in Canada, back in 1969, when it was illegal to be gay?  

Lezlie: Oh yes. Police used to raid the house looking for underage women because they thought we were pedophiles. They thought we were recruiting young women. So the legal age [of consent] back then was 21, but if you were lesbian or gay it was 25.

Tell me about the work you do with gay seniors.

Lezlie: I call myself an advocate and an educator — also an agitator, because I go off to the policymakers to say 'this is what's happening out there.'

We are going back into the closet. Many of us are in isolation. Many of us are invisible. Many of us are afraid, because we have been so stigmatized for so many years, and those of us who are 55 years old or 60-plus are still afraid to speak out. So it's my job to advocate on their behalf.

Those straight people who were harassing us and beating us back then are now our ages too, right? Now we are the same age in long-term facilities together ...- Lezlie   Kham

What happened when you went into the hospital?

Lezlie: This one nurse came in and said to me, 'look at you, you're a mess. It's bad enough that you are one of those and now I have to come and clean you up.'

It was humiliating, because I had no control and I had to totally depend on her, and for the whole time she was cleaning me she kept making homophobic remarks. She kept saying, 'you don't have a husband and you don't have children and where do you think you're gonna go in life?'

It's bringing tears to my eyes thinking about it.

What do LGBTQ seniors worry about when they go into long-term care?

Lezlie: We are worried about the care we are gonna get.

We are worried about being treated badly.

We worry about actual physical harm happening to us. Not only from staff, but from other residents, because remember, those straight people who were harassing us and beating us back then are now our ages too, right? Now we are the same age in long-term facilities together. That kind of hatred doesn't just disappear.


Brian Hobbs, 69

Brian Hobbs, 69, is a retired public servant in Ottawa. He volunteers with the Ottawa Senior Pride Network, where he runs seminars for staff and volunteers at long-term care facilities about how to treat LGBT seniors. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Brian Hobbs: During high school, those were the darkest years of my life.

I was the kid who in Grade 9 tried to sit with other kids and I was rejected — 'we don't want you here.' So what I wound up doing was sitting on the periphery of the cafeteria, on a chair against the wall, and having my lunch alone every day for five years.

Nick Purdon: What was that like?

Hobbs: Nobody looked at me. Not even the teachers. They walked past. It was like I didn't exist.

How does what you went through in high school inform the work you do today?

Hobbs: I am 69, so maybe when I am 79 I might have to go into a residence. What if the same thing happened in a residence? What if people didn't welcome me? What if I was the one sitting alone at a table at 79?

That happened to me as a teenager, but I sure don't want it to happen again as a senior and in care. That's scary to me. And that scares a lot of other people my age.

What we want is to be treated with the same dignity and respect and kindness that is accorded to everybody else.- Brian Hobbs

When you do your training, what would you say are the main things you are trying to impart?

Hobbs: Everybody who is in our audience are health care providers to the elderly. And so you as a health care person, we want you to know you may have some gay clients. There could be complications from that.

I had some friends who were an elderly gay couple — around 80 years old — and eventually one of them became ill and had to be placed in a long-term care facility. And one of the things they asked me was, 'could you stand in the doorway and if a personal service worker nurse goes by could you signal us, because we don't want to be seen holding hands or embracing on the bed.' They were afraid if the nurses caught them doing that, they would discriminate against them.

What does that say to you?

Hobbs: For people who are senior gays, it says to me that they are still afraid of discrimination and they are afraid to come out of the closet.

People sometimes say to us 'OK, so what do you gays want?' And what we want is to be treated with the same dignity and respect and kindness that is accorded to everybody else. Nothing more than than that, but nothing less.