Lesbian resident at senior facility fights to be who she is
Marsha Marie Wetzel | YouTube snapshot

CHICAGO – A lesbian senior tenant is suing a senior living facility after it failed to protect her from harassment and abuse. Marsha Marie Wetzel spent 30 years of her life in a relationship with a woman named Judy. The couple adopted a child together and lived happily until Judy died of colon cancer and Wetzel was cut off by Judy’s family. The senior citizen claims that her partner’s family did not approve of their lifestyle and would not even drive her to Judy’s funeral.

After several years of financial struggles, and a difficult relationship with her estranged child, Wetzel was finally evicted from her home that she had shared with her late partner by her partner’s siblings, and was sent to live in Glen St. Andrews living community in Niles, Illinois. At first Wetzel found herself pleased to be making new friends. Soon, however, word got out about her previous relationship with Judy and several residents began displaying abusive and violent behaviors toward her.  In legal court documents Wetzel alleges that other residents began to harass her, physically attack her and call her names like “dyke,” “faggot,” and “homosexual bitch.”

Wetzel also claims that she attempted to report these incidents of harassment and abuse to facility administrators, but rather than taking action to address the ongoing discrimination, the staff marginalized and alienated Wetzel and retaliated against her for complaining about the harassment. It was at this point that Wetzel contacted the Lambda Legal Help Desk.

In July of 2016, Lambda Legal filed a complaint on her behalf under the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex as well as the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sex. The court originally dismissed the case on Jan. 18, 2017 without reference to the sex or sexual orientation claims, thereby broadening the question at stake to the assisted living facility’s general responsibility in protecting residents against resident-on-resident harassment and violence.

Lambda Legal appealed to the Seventh Circuit, urging them to hold Glen St. Andrew Living Community administrators accountable for failing to protect Wetzel from the harassment, discrimination and violence she suffered at the hands of other residents because of her sex and sexual orientation. In Chicago last month a three-judge panel reviewed the appeal, and will now make the determination that could send the case back to district court. If that happens, the lawsuit could set a precedent by clarifying that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

Wetzel’s attorney, Karen Loewy, insists that this case is more than just about one individual. “When we filed this lawsuit in July of 2016, we were thinking of the thousands of LGBT seniors, just like Marsha, who were experiencing discrimination in senior housing or who lived in fear of being their true selves, but this case is now much bigger than that,” said Loewy, Senior Counsel and Seniors Program Strategist for Lambda Legal. This decision has the potential to shift the framework of liability for all future senior citizens facing harassment in assisted living facilities, and addresses equal housing opportunity rights for marginalized elders.

In the meantime Wetzel waits in limbo for further action, “I’m not giving up,” she says. The senior was unable to attend the most recent court date due to health issues, but had been vocal about pushing forward in the case. The Lambda Legal team is confident about their client and the court’s upcoming decision, but in the meantime Wetzel has been moved from the senior living facility in Niles to a safer location. “The elderly deserve to be treated with respect and to feel safe no matter who they are or who they loved,” says Wetzel, “and I’m going to fight for us.”

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CONTRIBUTOR

Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias is a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias has invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. She has written and conducted research in several parts of the world; most recently Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she presented on disability awareness at the U.S. Consulate. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities. She considers her experiences a privilege, one that she hopes to use as a platform for spreading socio-political consciousness. In her spare time Michelle enjoys drinking pricey wines and watching old school zombie flicks.  

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