Like other gay men in their golden years, Jack Norris and Seymour Sirota had heard the horror stories.
An elderly lesbian couple is housed on separate floors of a nursing home and kept from seeing each other. A gay retired college professor feels compelled to keep his sexual orientation a secret after his roommate at an assisted living facility asks to be transferred.
“I thought, ‘We are not going to be in that situation,”’ the 67-year-old Norris says crisply. “This is not going to happen to us in our final days.”
That’s how the two New Yorkers, partners for 14 years, landed at Rainbow Vision, a just-completed senior community in Santa Fe, N.M. From the private dining room named after Truman Capote to the cabaret where '60s teen icon Lesley “It’s My Party” Gore was scheduled to appear this weekend, everything about the 146-unit retirement village was designed with the comfort of graying gays and lesbians in mind.
As the generation of gay men and lesbians who came out in the 1960s and '70s reaches retirement age, about a dozen specialized senior developments across the country are either up and running or in the works.
In such senior-heavy locales as California, Arizona and Florida, as well as less traditionally gay-friendly places like North Carolina and Texas, builders have found a market in a segment of the gay population that worries getting old will mean going back in the closet.
“In a retirement community, you want to be with people of like minds and like interests, whether it’s a golf community or a religious community,” said Bonnie McGowan, who is spearheading Birds of a Feather, a second gay senior complex in New Mexico. “Until I feel safe walking down the street holding a woman’s hand ... and not feel like I’m going to offend even one person, there is a need for this.”
Besides personal safety, specialists in gay aging issues offer other reasons why the so-called Stonewall Generation, named for the 1969 New York riots that marked the beginning of the modern gay movement, needs and craves places of its own to retire.
Among them are the years of stigma and isolation many gays who are over 50 experienced, that may have left them estranged from their families, financially insecure and childless.
“There is a real sense of disenfranchisement and also a sense of independence, of ‘I don’t want to be dependent on family, I want to be dependent on community,”’ said Judy Dlugacz, founder of the San Francisco-based lesbian travel company Olivia Cruises and Resorts.
Olivia is currently scouting land in the Palm Springs area for what Dlugacz hopes will be the first of several high-end resort communities geared toward mature lesbians who are looking either for a vacation home or a place to retire.
Joy Silver, developer of Rainbow Vision, also plans to expand to Palm Springs, a desert community already popular with gay tourists.
“Back in the day, we could identify each other because the only place to be gay was a gay bar,” said Silver, who views her Santa Fe property as somewhere for baby boomer gays to live their later years as residents of a majority.
“Now, we have more options and we may be more out, but it’s still going to be hard to find friends or partners,” she said. “It doesn’t help to live in a gay-friendly community without any other gay people.”
Sense of community
Along with second chances — Silver is planning to throw a prom party “for those of us who didn’t go to senior prom with the person we wanted to” — Rainbow Vision was designed to foster a sense of immediate belonging.
The fitness center was named after lesbian tennis pioneer Billie Jean King, for example, while services for those requiring ongoing medical care reflect lessons learned from the AIDS crisis. The 26 rented assisted living units comprise a section of the complex called The Castro, after the San Francisco neighborhood that has long been a center of gay culture.
“Just as we have set the trends in music and fashion, (gays and lesbians) will be setting trends for the redefinition of family and community,” Silver said.
Steven David, a postdoctoral psychology fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles who counsels and researches older gay men, said the concept of gay senior housing gets mixed reviews from his clients. He has spoken to some who think living in a gay environment sounds fun and others who think it sounds awful, “just like some straight people like retirement communities and some don’t.”
Meanwhile, some in his field oppose the idea of separate communities for gay seniors, which also have taken off in Canada and parts of Europe, as voluntary self-segregation. “There has been an argument of, ‘Should we be creating these places in the first place or forcing society to accept us?”’ he said.
For his part, Jack Norris says that battle can wait for the next generation.
He spent years in a job where he had to silently endure anti-gay jokes. Sirota, who is 80, did not tell his family he was gay until the two men got together.
Norris said even talking publicly about their new life at Rainbow Vision felt like a revolutionary act.
“Seymour was worried maybe we would be getting too much exposure,” he said. “But then I said, ’We need to be like Rosa Parks. We can’t sit in the back of the bus.”’