Sonoma County Settles Gay Elders Lawsuit

On Friday, July 23, Sonoma County agreed to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of Clay Greene who was forcibly separated from his partner of 20 years, Harold Scull, after Harold suffered a fall. Having lost their home and all of their belongings, Harold died three months later without Clay by his side. Sonoma County will pay Clay and Harold’s estate $600,000 for its role in their ordeal. The nursing home where the County sent Clay against his will is to pay $53,000. Thanks to the incredible work of the National Center for Lesbian Rights which represented Clay in the lawsuit, a measure of justice was achieved. But this egregious case of LGBT elder abuse and discrimination is a chilling example of why LGBT seniors remain reluctant to reach out for the help they need as they age.

In April 2008, Harold Scull 88, was frail and in poor health but still living at home with his partner Clay Greene, 77, when he was hospitalized after a fall. Ignoring their 20 year relationship and the legal documents giving Harold’s power of attorney to Clay, the Sonoma County public guardian’s office went to court and won the right to make decisions on Harold’s behalf. The guardian’s office then terminated the lease on the home they shared, auctioned off all of their belongings and had Clay placed in a nursing home against his will, separated from Harold. Clay was denied the right to see Harold who died in August 2008.

The trauma experienced by Clay and Harold is a harsh reminder to LGBT seniors everywhere that despite having legal protections in place and living in a supposedly more accepting society, they are still extremely vulnerable to mistreatment and discrimination at the hands of people and institutions that are supposed to help. Clay and Harold’s story reinforces the chronic stress carried by so many LGBT seniors as a result of years of stigmatization and their own experiences of discrimination. This “minority stress” increases social isolation for LGBT seniors, leading many to stay deeply closeted and steer clear of programs and institutions designed to help all seniors. In fact, LGBT older adults are only 20% as likely as their heterosexual peers to access needed services such as senior centers, housing assistance, meal programs, food stamps, and other entitlements. Not surprisingly, about one-third of lesbian and gay male Baby Boomers identify discrimination due to sexual orientation as their greatest concern about aging.

All seniors are vulnerable to mistreatment, social isolation and discrimination. But the vastly different life experiences and gross inequities in legal protections between LGBT and non-LGBT seniors combine to create greater challenges for LGBT older adults. To address those challenges we must continue to look out for cases like Clay and Harold’s and prosecute to the full extent of the law. We must continue to work to change the law so that LGBT seniors are better protected and more financially secure. And we must reduce barriers to housing, care and support services in order to promote healthy aging for LGBT seniors. Through our housing, services and community programs, we are working everyday at Openhouse to reduce those barriers. We are working to ensure that LGBT seniors can age with dignity and grace in the place they call home and never have to experience the trauma that Clay and Harold endured.


Seth Kilbourn


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