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Ada Bello and John Butts receive Spirit of CARIE award, serve as models of lifelong LGBTQ activism

April 7, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Diane Menio, the executive director of CARIE (Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly).
Like so many other nonprofit organizations, we at the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE) have had to cancel a much-anticipated April event in Philadelphia because of the coronavirus pandemic.

We looked forward to a benefit reception at which we would honor two people deeply dedicated to improving the lives of the vulnerable elders and members of the LGBTQ community — John C. Butts and Ada Bello. Honoring them seems more appropriate today than we could possibly have imagined when they were selected to receive the Spirit of CARIE award.

That’s because the experience of surviving a pandemic, and the road from denial to panic to hope and cure, isn’t new to elderly members of the LGBTQ community who lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, as a frightening new virus spreads through the population, this one posing a particular threat to older adults, the elder LGBTQ community looks at this challenge with experience and hard-earned insight.

Elder LGBTQ individuals are survivors. Many of them had to take new precautions and adapt in the face of an earlier epidemic. They navigated their own vulnerability and stayed hopeful as medicine caught up with the disease.

It is estimated that there are approximately 2.7 million LGBTQ adults aged 50 and more in the United States, 1.1 million of them 65 or older. Many of these older individuals have overcome lifetimes of discrimination and barriers to accessing basic needs resulting in present challenges  in addition to those posed by the coronavirus.

Health, well-being and social connections are vital elements for successful aging, and these basic needs can be elusive for LGBTQ elders. Denied the right to marry throughout most of their life, many LGBT elders lack the legal and financial benefits of wedlock. Many have faced discrimination in housing or employment contributing to long-term financial strains.

Nearly one-third of LGBTQ adults age 65 or older live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, compared to a quarter of non-LGBTQ older adults.  They may encounter stigma and discrimination in senior living facilities. Elderly LGBTQ individuals may be estranged from families that ordinarily would provide support. Loneliness and isolation can be pervasive.

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In the current crisis, those who are able to provide wisdom and support for the vulnerable are rightly seen as heroes. Our 2020 award recipients, honorees even without an event, have done that throughout their work and their lives advancing the rights of elderly members of the LGBTQ community.

John C. Butts has a long history of working in behalf of social justice issues including diversity and inclusion affecting the LGBTQ community.  In addition to serving on CARIE’s board he has served on the boards of Action Wellness and Mercy Neighborhood Ministries of Philadelphia. Butts also founded Cocktails for a Cause (formerly Dining In), an event that raises money to support critical services for those living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses. In addition to his work with Action Wellness he has initiated, participated in and supported numerous volunteer programs through other prominent community service initiatives in Philadelphia.

Ada Bello has been a key activist in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ movement since immigrating to the United States from Cuba in 1958. She became a founding member of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis and its succeeding organization, the Homophile Action League (HAL). In the 1960s, Bello covered a series of early LGBTQ+ protests for the HAL newsletter before serving on the board of the Gay Community Center and the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Task Force. As an organizer of the first walk-a-thon for AIDS funding, she is also a founding member of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Elder Initiative. For 19 years, she was a long-term care ombudsman for CARIE.

These two, and many other heroes, bring lessons for today’s fearful moments.

Experience shows that social precautions do make a life-saving difference, and other lessons from the past are valuable today. That stigmatizing has no upside. That the infected deserve our care, not fear. That people should be generous but careful in making charitable donations. That misinformation is everywhere, phony claims of cures or treatments that play upon hopes. That it’s important to trust official sources, not clickbait and robocalls.

Medicine inevitably will rise to this challenge. Older adults have experience and wisdom to share. And old or young, no matter how we may differ, we must remember we’re in this together.

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