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Celebrating Pride Month with Sage CEO Michael Adams

Published June 29, 2022

Show Notes

June is Pride Month, which is when LGBTQ+ communities and their allies come together to celebrate the freedom to be themselves. In recognition of Pride month, we are talking with Michael Adams, the Chief Executive Officer of SAGE (Advocacy and Services for LGBTQ+ Elders), the world’s largest and oldest organization—founded in 1978—dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ older people. Prior to joining SAGE, Adams was the Director of Education and Public Affairs for Lambda Legal and spent a decade leading cutting-edge litigation that established new rights for LGBTQ+ people.

A graduate of Stanford Law School and Harvard College, Adams is a professor, an advisor to leading local and national aging organizations, and prolific author of numerous publications on an array of LGBTQ+ issues.

Episode Transcript

Sue:

Hi, everyone. Welcome to This is Growing Old, the podcast that’s all about the common human experience of aging. My name is Sue and I’m the president and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. June is pride month, which is when LGBTQ+ communities and their allies come together to celebrate the freedom to be themselves. And in recognition of pride month, we’re talking with Michael Adams, the chief executive officer of Sage, advocacy and services for LGBTQ+ elders, which is the world’s largest and oldest organization. It was founded in 1978. And Sage is dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ older people.

Sue:

Prior to joining Sage, Adams was the director of education and public affairs for Land to Legal. And he spent a decade leading cutting edge litigation that established new rights for LGBTQ+ people. A graduate of Stanford Law School and Harvard College, Adams is a professor, an advisor to leading local and national aging organizations, and a prolific author of numerous publications on an array of LGBTQ+ issues. Today’s podcast also happens to be our 50th episode. Michael, I’ve admired your organization for a long time. And I wanted to introduce our listeners to a special guest for this occasion. The Alliance for Aging Research is an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. And we see you. Thank you so much for joining us today to celebrate pride month and this milestone with us.

Michael Adams:

Oh, Sue, it’s really great to be here. I appreciate the invitation and I look forward to the conversation.

Sue:

Me too. All right. So let’s get started. So Sage’s theme for pride month this year is we refuse to be invisible. Tell me more about why you picked this rallying cry and what it means to the people that you serve?

Michael Adams:

Absolutely. We grapple with something really challenging in LGBTQ communities sometimes. The generation of elders that in so many ways created our communities, that have fought the battles, that paved the way for the rights and equality and opportunities that the rest of us in the community enjoy, often our elders are not at the center of our community’s focus and not at the center of our priorities. And unfortunately, that’s not true just in LGBTQ communities. Obviously, that’s true in the country in general, as older adults are frequently marginalized and invisible. And so our motto for this year’s pride and really it’s Sage’s motto in general, we refuse to be invisible is our elder’s response to that and is the antidote to that. And the fact that our elders are still leaders. They are still central to our community and they insist on being recognized as such. And thus, we refuse to be invisible.

Sue:

That’s awesome. Thank you. I love it. Okay. So the pandemic has put a spotlight on older adult health and long term care experiences, as well as on social isolation. And Sage has done really groundbreaking work for LGBTQ+ older adults to address and prevent sexual orientation and gender based discrimination and harassment, both in senior healthcare and in direct services through your old and bold campaign. What do you think it means to be old and bold and what are some important policies and practices that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ older adults and set the tone for a welcoming culture?

Michael Adams:

So the old and bold campaign is a new campaign that is a very exciting next chapter in the work of Sage and our community to ensure that all programs, all spaces, all opportunities that are available to older folks in this country are equally accessible and welcoming to LGBTQ+ older adults. And the old and bold campaign specifically focuses on bringing to life and implementing a big legislative victory that occurred in Congress back in 2020 when Congress amended the Older Americans Act, which is the kind of guide and funding parameters for federally supported aging programs across the country. Congress amended the Older Americans Act to for the first time to make LGBTQ+ older adults a priority in the federally funded aging network for outreach, for services, for reporting and for data collection. That was a great victory, but as we all know, changing laws is just the first step and then implementation and bringing those changes to life is what’s key.

Michael Adams:

And so old and bold is a campaign by our elders and by their allies supported and sponsored by Sage to work with local area agencies on aging, state offices on aging, and the aging community more broadly to breathe life into that commitment to prioritize LGBTQ+ older adults in federally funded aging services. More broadly old and bold links right back to the conversation we were just having about we refuse to be invisible, right? It’s about our elders being in the lead to ensure that best practices are in place and best practices start with a commitment not to discriminate, a commitment to eradicate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And it continues beyond that to a whole range of affirmative steps that every program, that every provider, that every entity that works with older adults should undertake in order to ensure that they are fully welcoming of LGBTQ+ older adults. And Sage has a whole body of work in that area.

Sue:

And I imagine it’s also to let people in the community know that this change has occurred, because that takes a while. Right? And that’s probably been a long history of avoiding direct services and programs because you don’t feel like you would be welcome otherwise.

Michael Adams:

That’s right. That’s right. And what we see unfortunately among LGBTQ older folks is often avoidance of services and care because of a fear of mistreatment. And so, it’s very important that elders from our community know their rights, know about their protections, and also are aware of the providers that have made a commitment to lean into their responsibility to be welcoming to all older folks.

Sue:

Okay. All right. Now I saw a quote on your website from Amy Gotwells from US Aging, and I’ve known Amy for a long time. Amy said Sage’s National Resource Center on LGBTQ+ Aging, “Takes groups and professionals to the next level of cultural competency and they do so in a professional and sensitive way.” So I was wondering if you could tell us about the center and how people and how the Alliance can get involved.

Michael Adams:

Yeah, absolutely. So the National Resource Center on LGBTQ Aging is a partnership now more than a decade old between Sage and the federal government, between the Department of Health and Human Services and the administration on aging and the center has several priorities. One is per the conversation we were just having to provide technical assistance and support to the federally funded aging network in order to allow those organizations to do a good job and adopt best practices for working with elders from LGBTQ communities. The National Resource Center is also a resource for elders themselves and their caregivers to get the information, the resources, the tools that they need to maximize their opportunities. And we work with LGBTQ community organizations as well. I have to say, the resources available through the center are just extraordinary, very, very expansive, adapted to many different needs. And we’d love for everybody to check out the center at lgbtagingcenter.org and check out the resources that are available there.

Sue:

Terrific. That’s great. All right. Well now, let’s talk a bit about family caregivers and tell our listeners about the unique obstacles that are faced by LGBTQ+ family caregivers.

Michael Adams:

Yeah. So the obstacles that caregivers for LGBTQ older folks face in some ways mirror the obstacles of our elders themselves and starting with isolation. We know that older folks in LGBTQ communities often age in isolation, but our caregivers are more likely than caregivers in general to be isolated themselves in their caregiving role. And that’s because unlike in the traditional family caregiving environment, they’re often not part of a family network. They’re not sharing caregiving with siblings or other family members. Often it is perhaps a partner, but often a friend, a neighbor, an ex-partner.

Michael Adams:

And in many cases, they are the only caregiver for the elder they are working with. So the stresses and challenges that come with caregiving in general are even greater if the caregiver is themselves isolated as is often the case in our community. And then there are the challenges that come from the fact that because many caregivers for LGBTQ elders do not have a legal relationship or a recognized family relationship with the elder involved, there are additional obstacles and having to not only care for an elder that means a lot to you that you love, but also to have to battle at times to be recognized as the caregiver in important settings. And with the resources that have been created for caregivers often really are not tailored to the particular experiences of caregivers for LGBTQ+ elders and the specific challenges they face.

Michael Adams:

Even the concept of family caregiving tends to have implicit within it a certain vision of what that means. Although in our community, in LGBTQ communities, we know that we have chosen families, right? Families that we construct over our lives, but those com those families often look different than traditional family caregiving constructs.

Sue:

Yeah. So what can groups like mine and the disease specific groups in chronic disease, where you have older adults that have family caregivers within LGBTQ+, what can we do better to make people feel welcome at support groups, to utilize services, all of that? What could we be doing differently? Is that something we find at the center that you have, or do you have other suggestions?

Michael Adams:

Yeah, there are great resources available to help organizations, working in disease organizations, organizations like the Alliance. There are great resources available through our National Resource Center on LGBTQ Aging, best practices, handbooks, et cetera. I would say that the most important first step is to acknowledge the presence, the existence of caregivers for LGBTQ+ elders, and that their experience is different, right? To open up that invisibility, to make it clear that we recognize that those caregivers are in our midst and that their experiences may be different and are different in some cases than other caregivers. And then from there, there are a series of best practices that providers and organizations can utilize. And those best practices can be found at lgbtagingcenter.org.

Sue:

Terrific. Thank you. That is really helpful. So I’m curious, tell us one of your favorite stories from your time at Sage.

Michael Adams:

I have a lot of favorite stories from my time at Sage, but I’m actually going to share one that’s very fresh in my mind because it just happened this past Sunday. This past Sunday was the big annual pride march here in New York City. And it’s the first one in a couple of years because of COVID, which made it probably even more exciting and powerful and huge. And Sage always has a big contingent at the pride celebration. And it means a lot to our elders to turn out. The community shows a lot of love during pride for Sage and for our elders. And we were oversubscribed. We have a bunch of people that march, and we have a bus for folks that aren’t able to march. And we had more people than we realized, I guess the RSVP count was off.

Michael Adams:

And we had a gentleman in a wheelchair who was unable to get onto the bus, and it’s a long, long march route. And so we initially were talking with him about the fact that he might need to go home, watch from the sidelines. And he said, no, he was determined he was going to be part of the march. And so this gentleman in this wheelchair did the whole march himself, but obviously he was helped and pushed along by a volunteer, a colleague, but it ended up being a great experience watching him because he stood out. He got incredible reception from the crowd and he gave back so much. So I just love watching that. I just love watching his resilience, his determination that he was not going to be stopped, that he was going to enjoy this pride in the way that he had intended, and then watching him get so much love and support from the community. So that’s a recent, great Sage story for me.

Sue:

That’s a great story. And he really gave back by letting people help him. That’s definitely a gift. All right. Well, we have just scratched the surface on a lot of great content and expertise. And I just invite everybody to please check out Sage’s awesome resources at sageusa.org. Now, we have two closing questions we ask all of our guests. The first one is when you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Michael Adams:

Yeah, that’s a little bit of a complicated question for me in some ways, because when I was a little kid, I was very close to my grandmother and so I imagined growing old like she did, and very, very independent, very much on her own and surrounded by a really large, big family. And then as I got a little bit older and realized I was gay, I couldn’t quite figure out for a while what old age was going to look like for me. But at some point, actually in my early 20s, I attended an LGBTQ pride march in New York City. And many years before I ever came to work for Sage, I saw the Sage bus go by and I saw all of the elders on the bus and how fierce and proud they were. And I kind of realized at that point that what I could aspire to in my old age was a mix of what my grandmother had and what we have in terms of the support and opportunities in the LGBTQ community. So it kind of evolved for me as I got a little older and figured things out.

Sue:

That’s great. And so you found your way.

Michael Adams:

Yeah.

Sue:

I think all of us need to. And so what do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Michael Adams:

I think what I enjoy most about growing older now is I guess I would say the piece that comes from perspective. I’m of an age, I just turned 60 last October. And part of what that means is that in my 20s, I lived through the worst of the AIDs epidemic. And yeah, lost a lot of friends at that time. It was a really, really, really hard time, but you learn things from times like that, right? And you learn resilience. And as we go through difficult times, difficult challenges, the challenges our country faces now, the challenges in our communities, I do find a certain peace from the perspective of what I’ve been through over my life and what I’ve lived through. And I appreciate that. I think it helps me kind of hold it in the road so to speak as we look at some of the big, big challenges that we face as a community, as a country, and as a world right now.

Sue:

Absolutely. You’ve gotten a lot of perspective over your life. If I might, I just want to ask you, given the overturning of Roe V. Wade last week by the Supreme Court, what are you concerned about for LGBTQ+ community, the turning back of other laws? What is keeping you up at night?

Michael Adams:

Yeah, well, we are very worried about what’s happening at the Supreme Court and what’s happening in the country as a whole, recognizing that what occurred at the Supreme Court last week with the overturn of Roe V. Wade is not an accident or a fluke. It’s the combination of an effort over many decades by forces in this country that do not respect the individual rights of many people, including LGBTQ+ people and who believe that they should impose their own religious or moral view of the world on every person in this country. That’s a very scary proposition to know that those folks are now in control of the Supreme Court of this country and engaged in many other efforts to weaken our democracy and many other very dangerous things.

Michael Adams:

And so it’s a tough time. We’re worried about the rollback of LGBTQ+ rights, the potential for that. We’re worried about the attack on the rights of so many people, on women, on pregnant people. So much of what’s concerning and including even attacks on our variability to engage in political advocacy in this country and to vote so that we can push back on these things. So there is a lot that concerns us as an LGBTQ organization, as a social justice organization, as an organization that is committed to advocacy and democratic participation. There are red flags all over the place. And so we have a lot of work to do. And at the same time, one of the beauties of being in an organization where elders are at the center is that we’ve lived through a lot. Our elders have lived through a lot. We know how to fight back. We know how to push back and we’ll keep doing that.

Sue:

That’s right. That’s right. And we just really appreciate the opportunity to be with you today, Michael, and for joining us and for your inspiration.

Michael Adams:

Thank you.

Sue:

Absolutely. So for everyone listening, thank you for listening to our 50th episode of This is Growing Old. And if you’re enjoying the show, please subscribe wherever you get your podcast and have a fabulous day.