Discrimination lawsuit sparks awareness campaign around senior living LGBT issues

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Mary Walsh, left, and Bev Nance pose at their 2009 wedding in Provincetown, MA. (Photo courtesy of Mary Walsh)
Mary Walsh, left, and Bev Nance pose at their 2009 wedding in Provincetown, MA. (Photo courtesy of Mary Walsh)

A new federal lawsuit alleging discrimination by a Missouri senior living community has sparked a public awareness and education campaign by a national advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older adults.

Wednesday, the National Center for Lesbian Rights; law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax; ACLU of Missouri and attorney Arlene Zarembka took legal action against Friendship Village Sunset Hills in St. Louis on behalf of a married lesbian couple who say they were denied a unit at the faith-based, not-for-profit continuing care retirement community in July 2016 because they are a same-sex married couple.

Friendship Village Sunset Hills, the lawsuit alleges, told Mary Walsh, 72, and Bev Nance, 68, that it would not allow them to move in because the company followed the “Biblical definition” of marriage and “defined marriage as between a man and a woman.” The rejection, according to the complaint, came after Walsh and Nance visited the community several times, had “extensive” conversations with staff members and put down a $2,000 deposit.

“Friendship Village was repeatedly advised for several years by its former management company to abandon their discriminatory policy but refused to do so,” Joseph Wardenski of Relman, Dane & Colfax said. “By bringing this lawsuit, Mary and Bev will help ensure that other same-sex couples are not subjected to illegal housing discrimination.”

The complaint, in which Friendship Village's parent company, FV Services, also is a defendant, maintains that the denial of a unit to Walsh and Nance violates the federal Fair Housing Act and Missouri Human Rights Act.

Neither Friendship Village Sunset Hills nor FV Services responded to a request for comment from McKnight's Senior Living.

LGBT elder advocacy group SAGE is using the lawsuit as the basis for an expanded national awareness and education effort, the organization announced Thursday.

“The horrible discrimination experienced by this older lesbian couple — for something as basic as senior housing — is a stark reminder of the challenges that many LGBT elders face,” SAGE CEO Michael Adams said. “We know that this story is far from unique,” he added.

A 2014 study by the Equal Rights Center found that 48% of LGBT older adults have faced at least one form of rental housing discrimination.

SAGE said it is expanding its Care Can't Wait campaign by asking supporters to sign a pledge to stand with Walsh, Nance and all LGBT older adults in the face of discrimination. The campaign will encourage additional forms of action and activism in support of Walsh and Nance and in opposition to discrimination as the lawsuit progresses, the organization said.

SAGE also offers the SAGECare training program for organizations interested in increasing their cultural competency related to LGBT issues.

A spokesperson for LeadingAge, which counts nonprofit, faith-based senior living providers among its members, told McKnight's Senior Living: “We are aware of the filing. At this point, it is a local and state issue. We trust our members are complying with all legal obligations related to state and federal laws on discrimination.”

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