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San Francisco's Intolerance
on: Sep 24th, 2004, 3:12pm
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Gay seniors' home
By Renee Koury
Mercury News
Gay men and women flock to San Francisco for its progressive lifestyle, tolerant people and flourishing gay community.
But when it comes time to retire, many gay seniors say San Francisco lets them loose from its warm embrace. The Bay Area is so expensive that many gay seniors have to move elsewhere and suddenly find themselves snubbed and even hated outside the city's unique sphere of tolerance.
Retirement homes can be even more hostile, according to gay seniors and their advocates. Many nursing-home residents who grew up when homosexuality was considered a crime and a mental illness still look down on gay and lesbian peers. Some staff members reject and mistreat them, gay seniors say.
``I would be very uncomfortable at a home with mostly heterosexuals,'' said Stephen Kellogg, 84, who lives in a small room in the home of sympathetic gay friends. ``There are stigmas and hostilities and prejudice, and I would not want to live with that.''
Now an emerging non-profit organization in San Francisco is proposing to build the city's first community housing especially geared to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender senior citizens. Though some private developments for gay people exist already in Florida and New Mexico, most are expensive and profit-making. The San Francisco group would be the first non-profit organization in the nation to build subsidized housing geared for gay and lesbian seniors of low and moderate incomes.
``It's well past time that we do this,'' said Marcy Adelman, one of the founders of the non-profit Rainbow Adult Community Housing, which is working toward opening the gay senior housing complex by 2007. ``Gay people don't feel welcome in traditional mainstream services. There are some who live in retirement housing now, but the perception is, if they come out and identify themselves as gay and lesbian, they will be threatened in a way that's too risky, so they have to return to the closet. Even in San Francisco. This is a terrible price to pay.''
The Rainbow group recently received a $250,000 grant from the state to plan the project, a proposed $50 million, 225-unit development. Organizers hope to build it on a city redevelopment site on Octavia Street in San Francisco's Hayes Valley, the former Central Freeway site.
The state grant, combined with $45,000 from the San Francisco Mayor's Office, is apparently the first time government agencies have contributed to a senior housing program geared for gays.
The Rainbow organization also has received $50,000 from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund and $25,000 from Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights.
35,000 gay S.F. seniors
Rainbow organizers estimate there are at least 35,000 gay men and women in San Francisco who are over 60. And as baby boomers age, that number is expected to swell. The new project would serve a tiny fraction of those, but Adelman said she hopes the project can serve as a model for other communities across the nation.
Kellogg said he and his life partner, Malcolm McCay, might have benefited from the Rainbow senior housing, if only it had been open when they retired.
McCay suffered a paralyzing stroke eight years ago, and the couple had to separate. Now McCay lives in a ward at Laguna Honda Hospital, and Kellogg lives in his small room.
McCay can no longer speak. Kellogg still loves him. On June 3, McCay and Kellogg will celebrate their 42nd ``wedding'' anniversary from a hospital room at Laguna Honda, which has been supportive of gay residents.
``All we wanted to do was to grow old together like other couples,'' Kellogg said.
Many gay seniors have reported to Rainbow members how they have tried to hide their sexual identities to get along in mainstream retirement homes. Some said they hid pictures of their lovers for fear someone would figure out their secret. Others would not let their ``flamboyant'' friends visit them there because others would realize they were gay, said Jeff Golden, a Rainbow spokesman.
In a grant proposal to the Haas foundation, many gay seniors reported their experiences but withheld their names for fear of retaliation.
``I know if I become dependent on other people for my care, there is no way I will be `out' about being gay,'' a 65-year-old gay man wrote as part of a grant proposal to the Haas foundation. ``I was arrested when I was 20 for being in a gay bar where same-sex couples were dancing together. That was enough to make me afraid if I ever need help.''
A 71-year-old lesbian described in the grant proposal how she reverted to hiding her sexual identity after moving into a low-income senior housing complex. ``I am going deeper and deeper into the closet. . . . I don't feel safe to be who I am.''
Many retirement homes are run by faith-based groups whose religious beliefs forbid gay sex. Many seniors recalled being arrested for being involved with same-sex partners in the days when homosexuality was considered ``sodomy'' and therefore a crime.
Effort sidetracked
The Rainbow effort was begun in the late 1970s by an earlier group. But when the AIDS epidemic hit, the group turned its efforts toward helping to stop the spread of the disease. Since then, more gay people have moved to the city, but few programs have begun that serve gay elders.
Many of them don't have children who can care for them when they are older. Also, many retirement homes allow only married couples to live together, so if a gay person moves into a nursing home, a partner can't move in too. The Rainbow complex would allow cohabitation.
``We want to create an environment that says to gay and lesbian seniors that you don't need to go back into the closet,'' said Rainbow Executive Director Jim Mitulski. ``This is a safe place for you to live and love and make friends. Your lovers and ex-lovers form a network of friendships that are just as strong and life-giving and sacred as biological families. And we will be a whole community for the first time, taking care of our seniors.''
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