By Colleen Zewe
After grieving the loss of her partner of 30 years, Marsha Wetzel, 70, moved into Glen St. Andrew Living Community, a senior housing facility in Niles in November 2014.
Wetzel signed a tenant agreement that guaranteed her three meals a day, laundry services and access to a community room. It also asked that she refrain from “activity that [St. Andrew] determines unreasonably interferes with the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants” or that is “a direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals.” All other residents signed a similar agreement, binding them to this code of conduct.
Wetzel, who identifies as lesbian, was open about her sexuality with staff and residents. But instead of a warm welcome, she received hostility, she said. Other tenants called her derogatory slurs and made violent threats against her and these threats soon became reality, as other tenants spit at her and struck her in the head.
Her wrenching story plays out through court documents in the lawsuit Wetzel filed in the Northern Illinois District against Glen St. Andrew.
In a video produced by Wetzel’s legal group, Lambda Legal, she describes the parallels between the harassment she experienced early in life and what happened in the home.
“It got out and I thought, oh, here we go again,” she said. “Gay hate.”
Wetzel reported the abuse to staff, but court documents indicate that staff “dismissed the conduct as accidental, denied Wetzel’s accounts and branded her a liar.”
“When is it going to stop?” Wetzel said in the video. “I look out the window and there’s a cemetery there. That’s when I’ll stop being made fun of because I’m gay.”
Wetzel filed a lawsuit against St. Andrew in July 2016, claiming they had broken the Fair Housing Act and failed to protect her from harassment. St. Andrew’s legal team argued that the home did not discriminate against Wetzel and instead offered medical care after Wetzel said she was pushed from behind while on her scooter. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois accepted St. Andrew’s argument that the staff did not discriminate, and the case was dismissed.
Nevertheless, Wetzel filed for appeal, and in August, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago reversed the district court’s dismissal. The Court found that after Wetzel complained about harassment, St. Andrew staff began to treat Wetzel unfavorably by relegating her to a smaller dining room and banning her from the lobby except to get coffee. These actions violated a tenant agreement Wetzel signed upon her arrival at St. Andrew.
Wetzel’s lawyer Karen Loewy said she was surprised the case was ever dismissed in the first place because she believes St. Andrew clearly violated the Fair Housing Act, which states that landlords must protect their tenants from discrimination.
“We felt strongly that the appeal would be successful because of the legal principles involved are pretty straight forward,” she said. “It has always been a principle of our anti-discrimination laws that whoever has the duty to ensure equal opportunity, they have to respond to known harassment by others.”
However, the uniqueness of the case caused confusion in the district court. Loewy said she thinks the courts focused on if the administrators themselves harassed Wetzel, even though the point of the case is that they failed to protect Wetzel from residents harassing her.
“Our claim was that the liability applies to [St. Andrew] because they were aware of the harassment she was experiencing at the hands of other residents,” Loewy said. “The court focused on if [St. Andrew] themselves were homophobic.”
The trial will begin in November 2019, and, if found liable, St. Andrew would likely pay damages, according to Loewy.
Glen St. Andrew denies the allegations. “Glen St. Andrew Living Community is committed to providing fair, safe and non-discriminatory housing, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sex or sexual orientation,” the facility said in a statement. “At this stage, the court was required to assume the factual allegations of the plaintiff’s complaint were true for purposes of determining the legal issues. Glen St. Andrew strongly denies the factual allegations of the complaint and will present its case in court at the appropriate time.”
As for Wetzel, she now lives in a home where she receives equal treatment, and hopes to get justice in the appeals court in November.
The AARP Foundation filed a brief as a friend of the court, which provided context on senior housing discrimination and the unique issues LGBT seniors face. AARP attorney Dara Smith pointed to research that shows LGBT seniors face unique health and discrimination problems, and modern seniors grew up in a time period where being out was unacceptable, so many of their peers in the home may feel uncomfortable with those who are out.
“What we discussed in our brief is that a lot of folks from older generations are a lot less comfortable with these issues and grew up in the closet or being very uncomfortable talking about it,” Smith said. “Part of the issue is that situations have changed, the culture has changed, and people have issues with that.”
The The The National Center on LGBT Aging reports that of the 2.4 million LGBT adults over age 50, 33 percent thought they would have to hide their sexual identities if they moved to a retirement home. LGBT adults are less likely to be married than their heterosexual counterparts, and many do not have children to take care of them later in life. Furthermore, LGBT people overall face unique health issues such as HIV and AIDS, and many struggle with depression and anxiety. In the past, most seniors weren’t out with their sexuality, so now many housing facilities are unprepared for the issues the population faces.
“I think there’s beginning to be some indication that senior housing centers are becoming more aware of this,” Smith said. “Training staff is a good idea.”
Smith said that staff need to know “what the stereotypes are, how the harassment comes about, and to be aware of it and take it seriously when it’s brought to their attention.”
Organizations such as SAGECare provide diversity training to those working with elders specifically, and since Marsha’s story came out, more senior living centers have gotten interested in training, according to Smith.
“Marsha’s story, aside from being very compelling, stands for the experiences for so many other older LGBT adults who were not able to do something about it,” Loewy said. “We wanted to engage this conversation in the courts to ensure that LGBT older adults know that this kind of harassment and discrimination is illegal, they don’t have to put up with it, and put facilities on notice that there is obligations to something about it.”
The overall hope is that in the future, LGBT elders will feel comfortable being out in their own homes.
“Being aware is the first step towards treating people how they deserve to be treated,” Smith said. “With respect and dignity as they age.”