I pride myself on being able to empathize with those who are marginalized by society, those who don't fall into lockstep with the majority.
But recently, I was presented with a scenario I hadn't thought of or imagined.
There are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people entering or already living in nursing homes who fear being mistreated because of their sexual orientation.
That blew my mind.
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A recent online, non-scientific study suggests that 78 percent of LGBT adults in assisted-living centers said they would not or could not be open about their sexual orientation for fear of being harassed by staff or other residents and of receiving less-ardent attention to medical needs or their legal rights. The study, "LGBT Older Adults in Long-Term Care Facilities: Stories from the Field," was sponsored by the National Senior Citizens Law Center.
Most of those relating their stories had been on the forefront of the battle for equal rights and were now forced to go back into the closet.
I'm sorry to say I had never considered such a possibility.
Because I am not alone in that blindness, JustFundKy gave a $5,000 grant to Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass to revise its patient bill of rights and train its staff to be more in tune with issues that gay residents encounter.
Sherry Culp, executive director of Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency, said the story of one resident quoted in the study struck home.
The gay man said that because he had to share a room with another male resident, he dreaded having to hide his true self out of fear of ostracism.
"These adults are losing their independence, their privacy, their home, everything, and then they have to lose that, too?" Culp said. "That is a part of your identity. They spent their youth fighting for these rights, and now that they are older, those rights are not guaranteed."
JustFundKy is a non-profit corporation founded by former Urban County Council member Debra Hensley and Fayette Circuit Court Judge Ernesto Scorsone in 2006 to have sustained funding available for programs and agencies fighting discrimination statewide against those who are not heterosexual.
That endowment, overseen by the Bluegrass Community Foundation, is now $1 million, thanks to four years of fund-raising and a $500,000 matching gift from Louisville's Cliff Todd, a retired businessman and a champion of equal rights.
It was through the earnings from that endowment that 10 agencies, including the nursing home ombudsman program, were given Cliff Todd Endowment grants last week totaling $30,750.
"Ernesto and I have been asked to do a lot of crisis fund-raising," Hensley said, and they were very successful. "In that process, we kept saying, we've got to find a way to help organizations besides the crisis-type stuff. We needed different streams of revenue."
They settled on an endowment. The principal wouldn't be touched, but the earnings could then be used to help non-profits throughout the state.
"We wanted it to be used for education," Scorsone said. "We wanted to deal with some issues and with some of the barriers that exist."
Some of those issues, he said, were in the areas of health care, bullying and teen suicide. Not just individuals but entire communities would be helped, he said.
In Kentucky, Lexington is a "bright spot" for the acceptance of gays and lesbians, as evidenced by openly gay leaders, Scorsone said. In rural areas, though, there are "tremendous unmet needs," he said.
Rev. Marsha J. Charles, pastor of the Bluegrass United Church of Christ, said some of her members drive into Lexington from as far away as London, seeking acceptance and greater diversity in her congregation.
"We have an open and affirming church," Charles said. "All kinds of diversity is valued."
Charles, who co-chaired the recent "Celebrating Decades of Justice" annual fund-raiser at which the grants were given, said young people in rural communities are of particular concern.
"I was raised in Pikeville ... the youngest of eight children in a working-class family," she said. "I know first-hand what it means to grow up gay, especially in rural areas, and, frankly, in Kentucky, where it is not always seen as the most progressive state in terms of any number of social justice issues.
"As a local minister — with dual standing in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ — I also have a keen understanding of how critical education and awareness is toward changing our overall culture," Charles said.
In addition to the ombudsman agency, grants, which ranged from $2,500 to $5,000, were awarded to the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning; Kentucky Fairness Alliance; Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, Lexington; Statewide Fairness Coalition; Pandora Productions in Louisville; Eastern Kentucky University; the University of Louisville; Project Speak Out; and OUTLAW, a University of Kentucky College of Law organization.
The best help we can offer, however, is to open our eyes and our minds to issues that our relatives, friends and neighbors deal with daily.
"The key remains, do you know a gay person?" Scorsone said. "No matter what the issue is, if you do, then you can relate."