Nancy Valverde pulls out her jingling set of keys and unlocks one, two, three padlocks attached to thick silver chains on the door to her apartment. “They didn’t like lesbians” in her old East L.A. neighborhood, she says. Today, the 83-year-old finally feels at home at Triangle Square, a low-income housing development built especially for LGBT seniors. But having spent her whole life fighting to be herself — complete with stints in jail for wearing pants — she just can’t give up those locks.
If Valverde isn’t quite used to the idea of a safe space, one can forgive her — not least because the phenomenon of residences for gay seniors is proving a juggernaut. By some counts, there are more than 500 homes throughout the country, from liberal New Mexico to the more conservative woods of South Carolina, and demand is expected to surge: By 2030, there will be six million LGBT Americans over the age of 65, double the number now, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Though the residences fall along the economic spectrum, from pricey, upscale setups to government-funded facilities like Valverde’s, there’s little doubt they’re a boon for LGBT seniors. To move into “mixed” elderly homes, some fear, would shove them back into a culture that regarded homosexuality as sinful, illegal or bizarre. “We want to provide a place where our LGBT seniors can talk candidly about their lives and don’t have to be forced back into the closet,” says Tripp Mills, deputy director of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s senior services.
But the fledgling industry has some hurdles to overcome. Supply and demand are often mismatched, with some spaces difficult to fill up and others with thousand-person waiting lists. Marketing can be dicey too, since Fair Housing laws prevent the advertising of spaces as LGBT-only. Public housing in urban areas is already scarce, and many object to “set-asides” for certain groups.
Yet the need is there. Elderly people tend to rely on their families, “from driving them to the doctor to shoveling snow from the driveway,” points out Serena Worthington, a director with Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). But gay and lesbian seniors may lack such support. They’re four times less likely to have children than their heterosexual counterparts and twice as likely to live alone, according to the NGLTF. For many in their generation, coming out meant severing family ties. Other seniors may want nothing to do with government-funded homes — after all, they grew up in an era when laws criminalized their love lives.
But interviews with about a dozen residents suggest that those who do come to LGBT facilities find a kind of family they never had — one based on shared experiences and common understanding. Traditional elder-care homes are often fraught with homophobic encounters, they said, and economic discrimination in the form of skewed pricing and availability, according to studies. “We can have any conversation we want here and you just can’t do that in mixed groups,” says 76-year-old Jim Croyley, a former teacher who lives at Stonewall Gardens, an elegantly appointed private LGBT living community in Palm Springs.
We’re sitting at the communal lunch table, eating barbecue chicken and drinking tea, and the conversation is easy, full of laughter and teasing. For Matt Wilkinson, who is HIV-positive, the levity is particularly poignant. At his previous facility, he was advised not to disclose his status to other residents, and when one man found out, he refused to eat in the same dining hall as Wilkinson. “Older generations of straight people are not as well-versed in the mechanics of the disease as the gay community is,” Wilkinson says. At Stonewall, all of that is in the open — health, romantic histories, aversions to football.
But as sunny a paradise as Stonewall seems, with happy-hour outings to Toucan’s next door and palm trees dotting the courtyard, is not cheap — one-bedrooms start at $4,200. And the facility is struggling. Only 11 of the 21 units are occupied. Other posh private facilities are in similar straits. Fountaingrove Lodge, in Santa Rosa, California, is pivoting away from LGBT customers to earn more revenue. Senior facilities can be expensive: Many of these developments take years and upward of $20 million to launch. While Stonewall’s housing developer is committed to the long haul, other properties might not be so lucky.
Low-income housing faces the opposite problem: There aren’t nearly enough rooms to go around for all the LGBT seniors who want them. That’s especially true in urban areas. Once safe havens for gay mavericks, cities now face skyrocketing rents and scarce public housing. Take 55 Laguna, an LGBT-friendly residence in San Francisco. It received over 5,000 inquiries for 110 units. Triangle Square, back in Hollywood, has an ongoing 3,000-plus person wait list. Ed De Hay, a 79-year-old who was priced out of his apartment after his partner passed away, waited for five years until a spot opened up. “This is my family now,” De Hay says, referring to Valverde and the other residents at Triangle Square.
De Hay and Valverde are bonded together by more than their sexual orientation. The loss of their life partners left them alone until they found one another, they tell me — a friendship built on shared experiences in love and loss. Today, Valverde says she feels comfortable at her apartment knowing she is home. She might still carry a giant ring of keys, but now she has others to watch her back.