A 78-year-old woman has filed a discrimination complaint in Maine alleging that Sunrise Assisted Living denied her admission because she is transgender. “I just want to be treated like a human being,” said the woman, identified only as Jane Doe, in a statement put out by GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD.
Anecdotally, discrimination against LGBTQ+ elders is common, but legal action is rare. According to advocates, this is the first case of its kind in the United States.
“Transgender Americans are afraid they will not be respected for who they are, that they will not be treated with dignity and compassion,” said Ben Klein, a senior attorney for GLAD who is representing Doe.
Most residents of Sunrise Assisted Living have semi-private rooms, sharing them with a roommate of the same gender. The complaint alleges that Rhonda Chambers, the administrator for Sunrise Assisted Living, informed Doe’s social worker that they would not accept Doe as a resident, “due to her concern that Ms. Doe wanted to reside in a room with a female roommate.”
Chambers denies the allegation. “I’ve never spoken to this person, and I don’t know her,” she told the Portland Press Herald.
The case is only in its early stages. Klein explained the process: First, the Maine Human Rights Commission will investigate, to determine if it is reasonably possible that discrimination took place. However, the agency receives many complaints, and it may take some time to review Doe’s case. If the commission does not decide within six months, Doe will be able to file a lawsuit.
“We haven’t decided whether we want to do that yet,” Klein told The 19th. He said that his client not only wants a resolution to her own case, but that, “she really doesn’t want other people to experience the kind of discrimination she does.”
Still, the complaint itself is significant. “It’s a concrete piece of evidence that this type of discrimination is real, that it happens,” said Aaron Tax, director of policy at services and advocacy for LGBT Elders. Like many working in the field, he has heard many stories of discrimination or mistreatment, but few seniors feel safe or comfortable enough to come forward.
Tax also drew attention to the case’s implications for national legislation.
“In Maine, people have the tools to fight discrimination [against transgender people], but it’s not currently illegal in many other states. If we were to pass the Equality Act, this type of discrimination would be illegal everywhere in the United States,” Tax told The 19th. The Equality Act would extend existing non-discrimination protections to LGBTQ+ prople and other groups currently falling through the cracks.
He identified Sen. Susan Collins as a key vote in potentially passing the Equality Act. “Our message to [Sen. Collins] is if it’s good enough for Maine, it could be good for the rest of the country,” Tax said.
Klein is one of the lawyers representing Doe. He declined to share further details about Roe, citing client confidentiality. However, he did praise her fighting spirit. Klein is optimistic about the case and its potential impact. “Our hope is that this leads to both the resolution of her case,” he said, “but also a broader understanding among folks who operate assisted living and other long-term care facilities that they will have LGBT clients, and they need gain comfort if they’re uncomfortable with that.”