Lesbian widow fights alleged anti-gay abuse at senior living facility

Seventy-year-old Marsha Wetzel is suing Glen St. Andrew Living Community (GSALC) in Niles, Illinois for negligent and discriminatory practices, after allegedly suffering untold abuse because she was a lesbian.

Wetzel, whose case is being supported by Lambda Legal, told ThinkProgress in an exclusive interview that she was “hit physically” and “called every name in the book.”

“They brought up my son, they brought up my wife. I felt like a little ball in a pinball machine and they were all the bumpers,” she said.

Wetzel had already been through the ringer before arriving at GSALC: her partner of 30 years, Judy Kahn, died of colon cancer in November 2013. Though they had held a commitment ceremony back in 1983 and raised a child together, they could not legally marry before Kahn passed. After her death, Kahn’s family proceeded to evict Wetzel from the home the couple had shared, and Wetzel became estranged from her son, who struggled emotionally with Kahn’s death. She had nothing when a social worker finally helped set her up with GSALC.

Wetzel spent the first week at GSALC recovering from pneumonia. She described the facility as “nice” and “clean” and recalled feeling thankful to have a home. After she had recovered, she met some of the other women living there, and over the course of a conversation about kids and grandkids, she revealed that she had raised her son with a same-sex partner.

“Once it got out that I’m a lesbian, I had to be on my toes,” she recalled. “There were quite a few individuals that did not approve of homosexuality. I didn’t care, I stayed away from them, but they wouldn’t stay away from me.”

Wetzel describes her bullies as “gay-haters.” She’d hear what she politely called “dirt” as she went down the hall. “I’d go to my room and shut the door. That was my solitude, being able to pull my brain back together and say my prayers, wondering what I was going to do because of this,” she said.

According to Wetzel’s complaint, one resident, a former police officer named Bob Herr, repeatedly harassed her, calling her slurs like “fucking dyke,” “fucking faggot,” and “homosexual bitch.” He allegedly told her that if she ever had sex with a man, she’d never want a woman again. She also claimed that there were physical altercations, such as one where Herr managed to tip Wetzel’s scooter over, causing her to fall off a ramp and bruise her arm. He also allegedly turned the other residents against her.

“He was leader of the pack. He was terrible,” she claimed. “I went to the executive director and said, ‘You got to help me.’ There were staff members and other residents that saw this and heard this but they didn’t want to hear [from] them. They started calling me a liar, a gossip, they took some of my privileges away.”

Wetzel remembers being scared and miserable, barricading her door because she didn’t feel safe at night. Because the staff allegedly did nothing to protect her, she became paranoid that she couldn’t trust them either.

The staff was aware of the gay haters and they never evicted a one. I got punished when I complained. I was told, ‘If you don’t like it, you can always leave,’” she said. “That I can’t understand: how an institution that takes care of elderly and disabled people can feel that way and be in existence. I just don’t understand it.”

GSALC’s alleged indifference toward Wetzel and others is apparent in its court documents. As Lambda Legal summarized in its response brief, “Defendants attempt to convince the Court that Wetzel’s complaints concern nothing more than…’bickering’ between ‘ornery,’ ‘cranky,’ ‘cantankerous,’ and ‘crotchety’ senior citizens.”

Lambda noted that these are all terms commonly used to “negatively label and/or describe older men and women.”

Wetzel’s case was originally dismissed, but Lambda Legal appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which heard oral arguments last week. During the hearing, GSALC dismissed the ongoing abuse as “on-going squabbles” and “a couple of isolated incidents.” The facility claimed no responsibility for addressing it.

Looking back, Wetzel still can’t believe how toxic it was living at GSALC.

“I love being a lesbian. I loved Judy; I still do,” she said. “And then to have to be judged! I don’t know where they thought they were better than me. I don’t know where people get that idea. We’re all the same, we are human, we are God’s children. But they think they’re better — like homosexuals are nothing and they can do what they want.”

She added, “We have feelings. We love, we eat, we drive cars, we vote, we love children, we raise children. What is their problem? Why do they have to make a homosexual miserable? I don’t know.”

It’s possible that none of this would have happened if Wetzel and Kahn had been allowed to marry; that legal recognition may have protected Wetzel from Kahn’s family and her eviction. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed marriage equality legislation into law a mere week after Kahn’s passing, but the law did not take effect until June the following year.

We were going to get married,” Wetzel explained. “We planned that. We were going to get married, but she couldn’t hang on.”

Despite this, Wetzel still describes Kahn as her wife and insists they were married, even if not in the eyes of the law.

She’s been gone going on five years and I still miss her. I miss her everyday. I talk to her, I know she can hear me. I really feel she can hear me,” she said. “It keeps me going. I’m doing this basically for her. I know all of this would break her heart, what her family did to me and how they let the house fall to shambles. It would break her heart what I went through at St. Andrew’s. And it’s uncalled for. It’s all uncalled for.”

Wetzel hopes her case will be a “breakthrough” that ensures gay residents in other senior living facilities can be “treated like everyone else.”

“Judge not and you won’t be judged — but they don’t follow that, no. All my life I’ve been judged…. I’ve had people that accept me, and it’s a breath of fresh air. I’ve had people judge me and think me garbage. It’s misery,” she said. “They don’t have the right. I’m going to do this for Judy and for all the homosexuals I can help.”

Wetzel no longer lives at GSALC, where she said she felt like she “had a tail and two horns.” These days, she’s very happy to be in a facility where there are other residents and staff who identify as gay.

You get someone to talk to. You feel that you can breathe,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It doesn’t feel like you’re in some kind of a homosexual hell. You feel you’re a person. You feel like a person.”

She added, “I know Judy’s happy that I’m here. I know it, I can feel it. And so am I. I’m happy too.”