MYA CHAMBERLIN tells a sad story: A client of hers in Friendly House's Gay and Grey program for LGBT seniors had a stroke and suddenly needed to find an adult-care home. Friendly House found a facility for the man, a veteran, but at the last minute got a call that the home "wouldn't be a good fit" because it was near an elementary school.
"They made the assumption that because this man was gay, he was some danger to children," says Chamberlin, director of Friendly House's senior services, who was invited last month to the first-ever federal summit on housing discrimination against LGBT seniors.
While the Obama administration is stalling on same-sex marriage and other gay rights' issues, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took surprising gay-friendly leaps forward last year.
Citing a study in which 19 percent of transgender people reported being refused a rental because of their identity, HUD announced last year that it would clarify its definition of "family" to include same-sex partners, pursue complaints about discrimination due to gender non-conformity, and launch the first nationwide study of LGBT housing discrimination. These new policies, which should go into effect this winter, will affect federal housing units nationwide. In Portland, federal funding makes up 27 percent of the city's housing bureau budget.
"For a federal government that's been unable to move on marriage equality, to say that discrimination based on orientation is unacceptable is a big deal," says Portland Housing Commissioner Nick Fish. "It's a big step forward for establishing the rights of a whole class of people."
The rule changes still fall short of reforming federal anti-discrimination law. Sexual orientation and gender identity won't be considered protected classes (like race or religion), although Oregon is one of 20 states (and Washington, DC) that ban such discrimination.
"Hopefully this is a sign that the federal government is moving in the right direction," says Moloy Good, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.
The Fair Housing Council doesn't get many complaints about discrimination against LGBT folks—they're outpaced by complaints of discrimination based on disabilities, race, and national origin. But Good says that's likely because of a lack of knowledge about Oregon's progressive laws and the subtle nature of housing discrimination, like being quoted higher rents and fees.
Over at Gay and Grey, Chamberlin says housing is a huge issue for LGBT seniors. "Portland, for all of its progressiveness, is just coming to terms with this issue," says Chamberlin. "We know a lot of elders who have been forced back into the closet when they go into public housing or long-term care facilities."
Gay and Grey partnered with Lewis and Clark College students to survey senior housing directors in Portland and found that only 40 percent said they think same-sex couples would have an easy time in their facility—15 percent said they would have a hard time and 45 percent said they just didn't know.