Understanding Deterrents and Barriers to Supporting African American/Black and other People of Color Aging In the LGBTQ/SGL Community and Finding Solutions

February 2016 | Dr. Imani Woody

““How can we have more people of color, particularly more African America/Black elder clients in our programs? They want to know how they can get more Black people to be on their Boards or Coalitions. Or state “We’ve tried to recruit African American/Black people and cannot find any qualified candidates."”

I have been working in the multicultural, diversity and inclusion, and cultural humility field for more than 25 years; so it’s no wonder that I’m often approached by non-people of color who direct lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/same-gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) organizations who ask variations of these questions, “How can we have more people of color, particularly more African America/Black elder clients in our programs? They want to know how they can get more Black people to be on their Boards or Coalitions. Or state “We’ve tried to recruit African American/Black people and cannot find any qualified candidates.

I wonder, do they get it? IT being the knowledge and awareness of who the people are they are trying to reach—a genuine knowledge combined with a caring and a historical content and context. Yep, it is additional work, but you have to KNOW to KNOW. IT also includes a level of cultural competence, an awareness of one’s own personal biases and internal isms and a willingness to self-correct and implement that consciousness across the organization, from the mail room to the Board room, from the staff to the clients, in advocacy to policy to research.

General Knowledge

My research1 and subsequent research has shown that African Americans generally are closely connected psychologically and culturally within their racial and ethnic communities’ and feel supported for her/his racial identity but feel invisible and possibly not supported for his/her sexual orientation and gender identity. Accordingly, the risk of losing one’s support from the African American/Black racial and ethnic communities because of perceived lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning identity and orientation can be devastating and lead to isolation and depression.2 Additionally, African American LGBTG/SGL elders are exposed to at least one ism - from mainstream culture and the African American heterosexual community.3 Within the mainstream communities they can face ageism, heteronormativity and racism; within the African American/Black communities they can face ageism and homophobia, and within the LGBTQ/SGL communities they can experience racism an ageism.

Historical Case– Doll Study (directly impacting African American elders)

The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Case was won in part because psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed, conducted and presented a series of experiments known colloquially as “the doll tests.” Children, 3-7, were asked to identify which doll they preferred and the race of the doll. Most of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. Sixty years later, the study was replicated and expanded to include white children by University of Chicago child psychologist, Margaret Beale Spencer.4 She found white children appeared biased toward their race and 70% equated African American/Black with ugly, mean, bad. African-American children were shown to have a more positive attitude toward children of their own race. Random studies using the doll study abound. The results remain similar.

Ageism, Racism, Sexism and Heterosexism are Systemic. Microagressions, Not So Much.

Many of us are aware that ageism, racism, sexism and heterosexism are systemic, i.e., structured into political and social institutions. Such structure causes disparities in health care, gaps in wealth and education, and discrimination in housing and employment. As individuals, most of us would never discriminate against another person based on the race, color, religion, sex (regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. But what about our unconscious biases? What about those microagressions (brief, daily assaults) that can impact African Americans and other people of color from participating in or fully utilizing the very services that could provide support. Statements like the following are considered microagressions:5,6

• “We can’t find any qualified African Americans candidates.”

• “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”

• ‘‘You people are so inspiring.’’

• To a woman of color: “I would have never guessed that you were a scientist.”

• “People of color are generally not as intelligent as Whites.” 

• “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”

• “America is a melting pot.”

• “I don’t believe in race.”

• Asking a Black person: “Why do you have to be so loud/animated? Just calm down.” To an Asian or Latino person: “Why are you so quiet? We want to know what you think. Be more verbal.” “Speak up more.”

• Denying the experiences of clients by questioning the credibility /validity of their stories.

• Being forced to choose Male or Female when completing basic forms. 

• Show surprise when a feminine woman turns out to be a lesbian.

I invite you to take the Implicit Race and Gender tests provided by Harvard to get a baseline of what some of your biases may be. See link: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/research/

 Can You See Me? Can I See Me?

African American/Black LGBTQ/SGL elders have a shared history of not being safe and not being welcome in very broad and very narrow strokes as evidenced by the racism and research in the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis, to separate but equal Jim Crow laws, to the increase of murder of Black trans women, to the considerable documented evidence of LGBTQ/SGL people incurring prejudice and harassment in trying to access medical, social support and other community-based programs.

For example, in a recent study, 67% of the doctors surveyed reported that they personally knew of an instance where an LGBT person had been denied care on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Some of this evidence, of not feeling safe and actual experiences with discrimination, may be why they are not participating in your programs or sitting on your Boards.

Another may be what some of us in the business call, “there can be only one”. Check out what Bobby, a 62 year old gay Black man has to say on this topic:7 

     Again it comes down to do I disclose that I am a [same] gender loving person. They can see I’m Black. What  happens sometimes is again a feeling of isolation and loneliness of ... if I feel like... clearly being the only Black sometimes in a group is not always comfortable. For example, I’ve been going to ___________ meetings and sometimes I’m the only Black person there. It just feels weird because whenever they want diversity, it’s me, or they expect me to identify some others for them.... I[am]... a token Black person. [However]... we can make it known, “No, I don’t want to play that role.” That’s what I do. And sometimes I do play that role, but I let them know that that’s what [I’m doing]. I say, “Oh so this is what you want me to do?” Make them uncomfortable. If I think it’s important enough to play that role I’ll do it, but I’m being very clear that that’s what I’m doing.

How can you send the message that your organization is safe and affirming for LGBTQ/SGL people of color? What are some elements that could be in place to show that you genuinely care and have concern for this population?

• How about including LGBTQ/SGL people of color in the planning. Do you have Advisory Boards that solicit opinions?

• Does your website and other marketing material have pictures that are inclusive of people of color, African Americans /Black people specifically?

• Are LGBTQ/SGL people reflected on your forms, e.g. “What pronoun would you like us to use?” (he/she/they,)” “Are you single, married, or in a domestic partnership?”

• Do you have pictures of same-sex couples/people in your marketing materials or rainbow insignia prominently displayed in your offices?

• Do you have a zero tolerance policy of bullying and sexual harassment?

• Do you have gender neutral bathrooms?

• Do you participate in culturally competent training with staff that includes age, race and gender identity/sexual orientation competencies?

• Does your client orientation include information on the affirmation of LGBTQ/SGL clients?

• Are you an ally, and do you use your personal and organizational privilege on issues that matter during intense moments of crisis for people of color, e.g., Black Lives Matter or Immigration Equality? 

In Closing

Working in this field for as long as I have reminds me of a quote from President Barack Obama. He said, “A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things.” I know that to be true. I have seen the changes. I work with people without enough resources - money and otherwise. And we work hard, digest new ideas and learn best practices to create quality environments to make the world a better place for all, including our LGBTQ/SGL elders of color!

Want to learn more about supporting LGBTQ/SGL elders of color? Check out these resources:

 Diverse Elders Coalition

 GRIOT Circle

 Health Equity & LGBT Elders of Color


Dr. Imani Woody is the founding director and CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults, creating LGBT friendly residential housing in Washington, DC. She has a PhD in Human Services specializing in non-profit management. Her thesis: Lift Every Voice: A Qualitative Exploration of Ageism and Heterosexism as Experienced by Older African American Lesbian Women and Gay Males when Addressing Social Services Needs. Dr. Woody is currently working as a diversity consultant working in the field of health, aging and issues affecting the LGBT and people color communities. Dr. Woody is a mayoral appointee to the DC LGBT Advisory Council, a member of the newly formed National LGBT Elder Housing Initiative, and is the Program Officer for the Older Adults Advisory Council for the Metropolitan Community Churches. Dr. Woody also serves as the Chair and Program Executive for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) Metro DC. She has served many boards including the Mautner Project and the Women in the Life Association.
Dr. Woody has been a life coach for more than 10 years and is the founder and principal of Living Life Like It’s Golden, a six-part program that empowers people to live their lives more fully through visioning. She lives with her wife of fifteenyears and their adopted feral cat in Brookland, WDC.


1. Woody, Imani (2015). Lift Every Voice: Voices of African American Lesbians  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10894160.2015.972755?af=R&journalCode=wjls20

2.  A study by Strom, Carter, and Schmidt, African Americans in Senior Settings: On the Need of Educating Grandparents found that, the African American culture of their subjects, 22 grandmothers and 17 grandfathers, ages 49-92 years—is highly influenced by African values that emphasize collectivity, sharing, obedience to authority, beliefs in spirituality, and respect for elders.

3. Woody, Imani (2011). Lift Every Voice: A Qualitative Exploration of Ageism and Heterosexism as Experienced by Older African American Lesbian Women and Gay Males when Addressing Social Services Needs. http://phdtree.org//pdf/25930155-lift-every-voice-a-qualitative-exploration-of-ageism-and-heterosexism-as-experienced-by-older-african-american-lesbian-women-and-gay-men-when/

4. CNN funded the pilot study. http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/index.html?hpt=C2

5. Capodilup, Nadal, Corman, Hamit, Lyons, & Weinberg, (2010). The manifestation of gender microaggressions. In D. W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamic, and impact (pp. 193-216), Hoboken, NJ:John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

6. Adapted from Sue, Derald Wing, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Wiley & Sons, 2010.

7. A pseudonym, 69 year old gay Black man.