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2017-07-09 10:35:03
Retiring: Fighting for L.G.B.T. Rights in Retirement Communities

At the New Jewish Home, a retirement community with affordable apartments in separate locations in the Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester, a male resident has won the right to wear the silky nightgowns he favors, and another, once denied the privilege of painting his fingernails, is being supplied with nail polish and help applying it.

Neither achievement is what Audrey Weiner, the chief executive of the New Jewish Home, would call earth-shattering. But they would not have happened 10 years ago, never mind a few decades ago, she said.

These changes, Ms. Weiner added, represent real progress in what she described as a sad situation for older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including early pioneers in the pride movement who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

“It’s become abundantly clear that there are a lot of elders who feel they have to go back in the closet when they enter nursing homes or any care facility,” Ms. Weiner said.

That’s changing as the population shifts: According to a 2017 study by Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, a University of Washington professor, 1.1 million Americans who are 65 and older currently identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and that number is expected to double by 2060.

The New Jewish Home is among hundreds of retirement communities whose employees have been certified in recent years by organizations like Sage, a nonprofit that provides services to older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, such as working for the right for them to live in the section of a sex-segregated facility that they identify with, rather than the one that conforms to their sex at birth.

Sensitizing nursing home workers is not the only avenue to improvement. Since 2010, several independent living communities designed for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender retirees have opened.

“There are at least a half-dozen that are up and running, and maybe another half-dozen far enough along in the development process that we can confidently say they’re going to open,” said Michael Adams, the C.E.O. of Sage. The nonprofit is building one retirement community with subsidized rents in the Bronx and another in Brooklyn, he said. Market-rate communities, he added, are scattered across the country.

“There are always a couple of these places that are a little more luxurious in the works,” Mr. Adams said. At least two — Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa, Calif., and the Resort on Carefree Boulevard, a community for older lesbians near Fort Myers, Fla. — are thriving. Others have not been financially successful, he said, because they operate on the notion that older adults will have the equity to buy into them. “It’s something of a myth that L.G.B.T. people have more resources or wealth than others,” he said.

Regardless of income, Mr. Adams said, “we know anecdotally and through research that finding a place that’s going to be welcoming to you as an L.G.B.T. person is quite a challenge.” The research includes a 2014 study by the Equal Rights Center, a Washington nonprofit, that found that 48 percent of older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples looking for housing experienced adverse treatment. The anecdotes are populated by bullies. “Often these stories we hear are about peers,” Mr. Adams said. “They’ll mistreat, ostracize and marginalize their L.G.B.T. neighbors.”

Such problems for older people are, sadly, not surprising, he said, because “if you look at research, you find that the older a person is, the more likely he is to harbor bias.”

The two new Sage buildings — the 145-unit Ingersoll Senior Residences in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and the 82-unit Crotona Senior Residences in the Bronx — were financed under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 10-year housing plan aimed at creating and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing. Both are expected to open in summer 2019 and to have long waiting lists.

More than 1,000 people have already expressed interest in becoming among the first to move in, Mr. Adams said. A lottery to determine the first batch of residents will open in January 2019.

“We know for sure that the demand for these apartments is going to outstrip the supply,” he said, which seems to be a common problem across the United States.

When the John C. Anderson Apartments, an affordable six-story building with 56 units in Philadelphia, opened in 2014, the waiting list was capped at 100, said Ed Miller, an on-site social worker. The building, named for a local City Council member who died in 1983, features framed photos of the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York in the hallways and a mural in a common space depicting the history of Philadelphia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement.

A sign on the front of the building reads “L.G.B.T. friendly.” Events like a community birthday party to celebrate residents born in a given month are held regularly to promote neighborly bonding. As is customary in affordable buildings devoted to this community, residents pay varied rents, not in excess of 30 percent of their income.

“We say it’s L.G.B.T. friendly, not L.G.B.T. exclusive, because the apartments are federally funded,” Mr. Miller said. He estimated that 85 percent of the residents are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Chicago’s Town Hall Apartments, another six-story building with 79 units, also opened in 2014. About 400 people applied. “And we still get calls every single day,” asking if apartments have opened, said Britta Larson, the senior services director there.

Ms. Larson said Town Hall was the second affordable retirement home focused on this community to open in the Midwest and the fourth in the country.

“Which is surprising but it’s not,” she said. “The L.G.B.T. movement tends to be youth focused. Older adults are less visible.” With less visibility comes more vulnerability, she added: “People forget that this is a population that faced a lifetime of discrimination. They’ve had unequal access to health care because of workplace discrimination. And many of them don’t have children, so they’re aging alone.”

Often, the new communities make up for that. Ms. Larson has seen neighbors cooking for one another and driving one another to the hospital in lieu of family members.

Despite San Francisco’s reputation for openness and acceptance, it only recently started to offer affordable housing to its older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population. Openhouse Community, a 40-unit building with 50 residents, opened in December. It had been in the planning stages for over 20 years, said Karyn Skultety, the executive director of Openhouse, one of the nonprofits behind the building.

“But that’s normal for one of these communities, unfortunately,” she said. “There are so many twists and turns.” They mostly revolve around cutting through the red tape that goes along with establishing funding for affordable housing.

If the process of building is slow going, the process of filling the units can be dizzying. When Openhouse Community’s application window was open for seven days last year, 1,800 people applied; all but the 50 current residents were turned away. Construction is expected to start this summer on a second Openhouse Community in San Francisco, with 79 more units. But that won’t be enough.

“There really is a severe housing crisis for L.G.B.T. elders,” Dr. Skultety said. “It’s incredibly sad.”

Those fortunate enough to secure an apartment in one of the new retirement communities, like Michael Palumbaro, a 74-year-old retired nurse, often cannot believe their luck.

“Is it paradise? No,” said Mr. Palumbaro, who was the second person to move into the John C. Anderson Apartments. “You’re still living in a building with other people, and like anywhere else, you’re not going to like all of them.” Still, Mr. Palumbaro has made valuable new friends, including a fellow Buddhist and two transgender men.

“The people in this building have become my family of choice,” he said. “It’s a like-minded community. We all feel the same way: Who ever thought somebody would build affordable housing for L.G.B.T. seniors?”