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LGBT Housing Helps Seniors Stay Connected

Nov 21, 2012



This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the duo of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is breaking down barriers in rap. They talk with us about their music and its message in just a few minutes.

But first, we look at a project that's transforming how many people think of home. This is the time of year where many people look forward to spending time with their families, maybe seeing relatives they haven't seen since last holiday season. But for others, this is not a time of joyful reunion, but a painful reminder of estrangement.

For many in the first generation of lesbians and gay people who were open about their orientation, isolation from their families has been long-lasting. One consequence we're only now becoming aware of: Decades after the beginning of the gay rights movement, LGBT seniors are left without a family to support them in their retirement. In that spirit, a new affordable housing project for LGBT seniors recently broke ground in Philadelphia. It's called the John C. Anderson Apartments. Mark Segal is longtime gay activist and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. He's leading the effort to build these apartments. And Don Carter is also a gay activist. He hopes to live in the community. He was also present at the groundbreaking of the Anderson apartments, and they both join us now. Welcome.

MARK SEGAL: Thank you.

DONALD CARTER: Hello, Celeste.

HEADLEE: So Mark, you've kind of gone from one end of the spectrum to the other. You founded Gay Youth, and you've been a gay rights leader for decades. What inspired you to now help seniors instead of youths?

SEGAL: Well, when I was 18 years old and a member of Gay Liberation Front, we created the Gay Youth because we noticed that people my age at that time who were 18, 19, 20 and younger were having many, many problems dealing with their sexuality. They were endangered youths.

Living in New York, we saw many many kids on the street, due to the fact that their families had tossed them aside. We saw children who were being bullied. And when we came to GLF, the older people in Gay Liberation Front couldn't relate very much to their problems. And so we called that ageism, of course, and we created Gay Youth.

And now that I am about to be 62 years old and now a senior, and probably the first generation of gay activist to go from youth to seniors, I noticed that some of the people who were my brothers and sisters, pioneers from that period, '69 to '71, literally don't have the money month-by-month to have places to live. These are the people who grew what we now call a gay community. It was their idea to create gay community centers. It was their idea to create health centers. It was their idea to take care of our endangered youth. And now no one is taking care of them.

HEADLEE: So let me ask you, Donald Carter, there's a very active and thriving gay community in Philadelphia - Center City, obviously, doing quite well. Why do LGBT seniors need this kind of housing?

CARTER: The fact that about 60 million baby boomers are going to be entering the Social Security pool creates a nexus that impacts on the LGBT community. I, at 62, am the proverbial baby boomer. And as Mark has said, I represent the generation that's gone from in the streets protesting everything from the '60s, to now needing the safety net. And if you're going to have a safety net, then what you need within that is affordable housing. And that intersects also on affordable health care, and you can go on so many other issues from that. But...

HEADLEE: OK. But let me interrupt you for just a second. Mark, that's typical of any senior, right? I mean, couldn't...

SEGAL: You're...

HEADLEE: I mean, doesn't any senior need that kind of support? What would be the difference between a regular retirement community and an LGBT retirement community?

SEGAL: Celeste, you hit it exactly on the nail. It's the same as any other. But here is the difference. You've heard of Presbyterian homes. You've heard of Catholic Charity homes. You've heard of Jewish Federation homes. All of those people are brought home to their community to live inside their community with dignity. We also have the issue of: How are they being treated in Catholic Charity homes? How are they being treated in Jewish Federation homes? Are they allowed to be out? Are they allowed to show the joy of their relationships of 30 years? Chances are they're not, and that's the stories I've been hearing over and over for the last year as we've worked on this project.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about senior housing for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Our guests are Mark Segal, a backer of the new LGBT senior housing project, and prospective resident, Donald Carter.

And let me ask you, Donald, you're African-American. Do you think there's a greater need among black LGBT senior citizens to be welcomed in a community like this, or does it really matter?

CARTER: You have to give me a moment to give you a politically correct answer here. And this is an interesting fact, because being the black, gay Republican, political correctness is not usually my forte. However, within the African-American community, there has been a long-standing vein of homophobia. This is a given. It's not anything, you know, that's a surprise to anybody.

I mean, there's a whole lot of that down-low aspect that came in along with issues about HIV in the African-American community. But as one gets older, there's only two supports you can have: your family or your community. And in a lot of African-Americans' case, family is not an option, because they usually are not out to them.

And then the community - and Mark will hold me up on this. The community has often been as reflective of the social mores in that black - and people of color - LGBTs often feel that they are not particularly included in all of the hype of the community. So, yes, on both scores. Yes, there is a need. And I feel like I'm an anomaly, in a sense, on one hand because...

HEADLEE: I think you are, Donald. You're correct.


CARTER: Because I have a wonderful and embracing family. My brother just was here for a medical conference, and the family got together and there was introductions all around. And everybody was like hey, hey, hey. But I have - I suffer a disability, so that's going to be a reflection of how my housing situation - which I'm in now - is going to be as I get older.

HEADLEE: Well, you know, obviously, the country is a little different place as of the election. Many people saw the election in November as a major turning point for the LGBT community. Mark, do you think perhaps in a generation or two, we will still have the need for LGBT senior housing such as this one?

CARTER: Always.

SEGAL: Well, I really don't know that. I think - I mean, we still - there still is racism in the world, and we still have a need for African-American affordable housing, because people want to be in their communities. So I think - you've got to remember that 40 years ago, there was no such thing as an LGBT community. There were gay people who maybe met in apartments. They might have met in bars that often got raided, but there was nothing else. Now we have a community.

A community means bricks and mortar. It means having a community center. It means having youth centers. It means having health centers. It means having bands and sports teams and everything that any community have. We started developing that in 1969. The only thing we haven't developed to this point is something to take care of our seniors. And many of the people who fought to create the community - which primarily started with GLF in New York in 1969 - I could tell you of three members of GLF that I know personally who literally need affordable housing. These are our pioneers, and we're not treating them with respect and dignity that they deserve. They shouldn't have to scrap for food and a place to live every single day.

HEADLEE: I wonder, how are you getting the funding for this, and has it been difficult? You know, statistics tell us that among the gay community, they tend to have more disposable income than the rest of the country. That may change. It's true right now. Has that been an obstacle in fundraising?

SEGAL: In the fundraising for this project, we're very lucky to be in the most gay-friendly city in America. We're able to do this...

HEADLEE: You're going to go on record saying Philadelphia is the most gay-friendly city in America?

SEGAL: Would you like me to do it by the numbers?



CARTER: You would not want Mark to go by the numbers.

SEGAL: Yes. I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is the gay-friendliest city in America.


SEGAL: New York City, which has an openly lesbian city council president, couldn't do this project. San Francisco, it's still on the boards. Yes, every other city in America, a good deal of their gay organizations are in the red. Every one of them are in the black here. We have three gay pride events. I mean, if I went by the numbers, Philadelphia is, by far, the most gay-friendly city in America.

So being in Philadelphia, that was - you know, gave it to us very quickly in the sense that we were able to go to city leaders on that level and get their support, and that was bipartisan support on a city level. We then went to federal, and then back to state. On all three of those, we were extremely lucky.

Along the way, we had to change some laws in order for this to fit. You'll notice that it's being called an LGBT-friendly community, not an LGBT community, because one cannot discriminate. One of the lucky things - and you touched on it earlier, which is very important - is the political climate. We were at the proper time in the political climate. The Obama administration embraced this project. This is a White House champion project. HUD embraced it. In fact, I believe that we're the model that will go around the nation to build these kinds of communities.

HEADLEE: All right. So one does it actually open? What's the date?

SEGAL: We'll be open by the end of 2013. December 2013, we will have our first guest move in, and we will do ribbon-cutting in January 2014.

HEADLEE: You just heard Mark Segal. He's the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, chief of the DMH Fund, which is leading the construction of this new LGBT senior housing community in Philadelphia. And Donald Carter, we also spoke with, longtime gay activist who hopes to live in that community. They both joined us from Philadelphia. Thanks to both of you.

SEGAL: Thank you.

CARTER: Thank you, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.