By Vaccine Uptake Initiative | July 26, 2023
The Michigan LGBTQ+ Elders Network (MiGen) kicked off its “Hottest Bodies” vaccination campaign with a free public reception and pop-up vaccine clinic.
Featuring snacks, beverages, and the unveiling of a spectacular photo installation, the kickoff was MiGen’s most well-attended vaccine event to date.
MiGen is one of 180 grantee organizations working to expand vaccine access nationwide through NCOA’s Vaccine Uptake Initiative.
It was a cool May evening at Affirmations LGBTQ+ Community Center in downtown Ferndale, MI, and things were hopping. There was wine and cheese, ear-to-ear smiles, and the hum of excited chatter punctuated by peals of laughter. People milled about against the backdrop of a colorful, larger-than-life photo installation. It showed LGBTQ+ older adults posing playfully in vibrant beachwear—living and aging out loud, unapologetically.
What was the occasion? The Michigan LGBTQ+ Elders Network (MiGen) was kicking off its spring vaccination campaign, “The Hottest Bodies on the Beach Are Vaccinated,” with a free public reception and pop-up vaccine clinic. This party was one with a purpose: to encourage older LGBTQ+ community members to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Usually, our older adults are expected to play it small and keep to the background,” said Angela Gabridge, MiGen’s Executive Director. “This was their opportunity to make a splash, and they did.”
It was a beautiful, diverse, multigenerational way to shake off yet another hurt and give themselves permission to celebrate Pride Month in pre-pandemic style for the first time since 2019,” Gabridge said.
MiGen is one of 180 grantees under NCOA’s COVID-19 and Influenza Vaccine Uptake Initiative—a nationwide campaign funded by the U.S. Administration for Community Living (ACL) to help more older adults and people with disabilities get the latest COVID and influenza shots. The campaign kickoff was MiGen’s most well-attended vaccine event to date, resulting in the highest vaccine uptake they’ve had at a single event. Its success also inspired the Oakland County Public Health Department to consider doing more evening vaccine clinics.
What made this event so significant?
The pandemic hit the LGBTQ+ community especially hard. One major reason, Gabridge explained, is that these populations are far more likely to rely upon families of choice (who live in separate households) for care and camaraderie. When those critical connections are severed, they cannot access their support systems. Consider these facts from The Williams Institute:1Older LGBTQ+ people were about twice as likely as non-LGBTQ+ people to have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.Thirty-four percent of older LGBTQ+ people of color and 20% of older LGBTQ+ white people personally knew someone who died of COVID-19.Older LGBTQ+ people were more likely to experience the negative health and economic impacts of the pandemic than any other group.
Although LGBTQ+ people are more likely than non-LGBTQ+ people to support COVID vaccination, vaccine uptake is still low. The “Hottest Bodies” campaign aims to change that—through pop-up clinics and innovative marketing with representation that resonates with these marginalized communities.
So far, Gabridge said, MiGen’s efforts are turning heads and changing minds. “Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Ageism is rampant in the LGBTQ+ population; it is exceptionally rare to see joyful outreach or advertising featuring older folks having a blast, living vibrant lives, or, heaven forbid, being a little sexy. This campaign was a throwback to the cheeky late ‘80s and ‘90s HIV campaigns that were sex-positive and fun. They encouraged real engagement and behavior change because they waved off the stigma of something that felt really taboo and heavy.”
Expanding access to affirming care for LGBTQ+ older adults
Beyond the immediate win of increasing vaccine uptake, the “Hottest Bodies” campaign aims to build MiGen’s capacity to create and deploy effective public health campaigns that target the LGBTQ+ 45-and-over populations.
LGBTQ+ communities—particularly older adults—already face challenges in accessing health care. They’re more likely to experience poverty, for one thing. Although poverty in LGBTQ+ communities dropped during the pandemic, the rate today is still higher than that of straight cisgender people. Financial hardship can severely hinder access to the resources and services LGBTQ+ people need to stay healthy.
Another barrier is fear of discrimination and being “outed” or outright denied services. Often, LGBTQ+ people are not provided appropriate treatment due to lack of knowledge about their communities. There is a deep sense of medical mistrust. Gabridge explained: “Oftentimes, we find that even well-meaning providers fail to ask questions that would assist in providing the best care possible to LGBTQ+ older adult patients, for fear of offending. This is one reason why provider participation in culturally responsive training is so important.”
As the only non-profit of its kind solely focused on LGBTQ+ older adults, MiGen is one organization that practices what it preaches. In addition to hosting vaccine promotion and community navigator programs, they deliver culturally responsive training and facility credentialing to care providers statewide. The goal is to help ensure LGBTQ+ older adults have widespread access to welcoming and affirming providers and facilities.
MiGen also offers an array of programs and services designed to make life better for these communities. These range from a food box program to weekly social events and art showcases.
Paving the way toward healing and change
Just a couple of days after the vaccine campaign kickoff, MiGen staff was back at Affirmations for yet another celebration. This time, Governor Gretchen Whitmer stood before the photo installation for a ceremonial signing of Senate Bill 4. The bill expands the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 (ELCRA) to provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Where most states are promoting cruel and ignorant policies, Michigan is showing the world you can lead with your values and be economically strong and be a state that actually fights for people’s freedoms,” said Gov. Whitmer at the signing.
The fight for equality is a marathon, not a sprint. But every win counts. It’s these smaller achievements that add up to big progress over time. And this resilient, passionate community has made it clear they’re in it for the long haul.
“The LGBTQ+ population is one impacted by trauma, discrimination, and violence,” Gabridge said. “But it is shaped by joy, camp, laughter, art, and, truly—love. This is a community that loves to be together, that loves to laugh, and loves to bring joy to others.”
Get vaccinated to protect yourself, and others
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older unvaccinated adults are more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is still circulating, and older Americans remain at high risk for getting seriously ill with this virus,” said NCOA’s Chief Customer Officer Josh Hodges. “The best ways to protect yourself and the people around you are keeping up to date on your vaccinations, wearing a protective mask, and seeking early treatment if you become ill.”
Want to find COVID and flu vaccines near you? Check our list of Vaccine Uptake Initiative grantees for local organizations that can help you get your vaccinations. You can also search by ZIP code at Vaccines.gov.
1. UCLA School of Law Williams Institute. COVID-19 and LGBT Adults Ages 45 and Older in the U.S. Found on the internet at https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/COVID-Older-LGBT-Adults.pdf