Silver Lining

Ashley M. BiggersOctober 1, 2016
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Cities with dedicated
or planned housing
for LGBT seniors:

Fort Myers, Florida

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Boston, Massachusetts

New York, New York (planned by SAGE USA)

Palm Springs, California

Santa Rosa, California

It was just one day, a few minutes really, in Jim Brooks’ and Bob Campbell’s 15-year relationship. But the incident at the Sunflower Retirement Community’s pool in Marana changed the way they lived and felt about their home. After relocating from Florida and a brief stint in Phoenix, the couple purchased their Tucson-area home in 2014 so Campbell could receive care from the Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs clinic. In May 2015, two months after suffering a stroke, Campbell, now 73, ventured to the community pool lap lanes for walking therapy – a use Brooks says he cleared with the neighborhood association.

“Bob was having a hard time. That meant I was having to touch him, to support him to get him in the pool and help him with his exercises. I feel like that’s what antagonized them. Maybe they would have been OK if we had acted as if we were straight,” remembers Brooks, now 60. A group of seven or eight people began yelling at the men about walking in the swim lanes and told them to get out. At one point, the group completely surrounded Brooks on the pool deck, yelling at him. A person who stated he was a former police offer said he would have Brooks arrested. Campbell struggled to get out of the pool and fell on the deck as he attempted to reach his knee brace. Though Brooks says several people saw this happen, the group continued its onslaught.

Brooks and Campbell certainly aren’t alone. Although HUD believes fair housing violations far outpace those reported, an Equal Rights Center study found that 48 percent of older same-sex couples experienced differential treatment when searching for dwellings. Arizona doesn’t have laws prohibiting housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity to protect these individuals, and there are few facilities nationwide that cater to LGBT seniors – none of which is in the Valley, a retirement capital. (The 2008 housing crash felled a planned community, Marigold Creek, in Surprise.) “It’s surprising that Phoenix doesn’t have a lot to offer [in terms of housing] with how LGBT-friendly the city is at large,” Phoenix Pride program manager Dani Logan observes.

For the 3 million LGBT seniors nationwide, orientation compounds the stresses of aging. Because of a lifetime of discrimination, LGBT people often enter their retirement years with high rates of economic insecurity. Often ostracized from their families and without kids (90 percent of LGBT seniors report being childless, according to an Equal Rights Center study), LGBT individuals have greater needs for caregiving and companionship outside bloodlines. While many seniors find secure housing, support and friendship in specialized facilities, LGBT elders struggle to find acceptance. Logan says after lifetimes of fighting to live authentically, Pride members often fear having to go back into the closet or, in the worst-case scenario, be separated from their partners to receive a high standard of care.

Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders (SAGE USA) recognizes the need for more LGBT-accepting facilities, and via SAGECare trains and certifies caregivers at facilities across the country. Not all LGBT seniors want to live in dedicated facilities, after all. Arizona doesn’t have any certified providers, requiring LGBT seniors to roll the dice when buying or renting homes. 

After the incident at the pool, Brooks and Campbell felt shunned and were fearful to go out in the community. “We tried to believe it wasn’t about being gay,” Brooks says. However, when the neighborhood association failed to follow up on Brooks’ concerns and found him in violation of the community’s code of conduct, the couple felt the issue was sexual orientation. (The Sunflower Retirement Community neighborhood association did not return requests for comment.)

“We’re not trying to offend anyone. We’re just trying to live our lives. When you face things like that when you’re already facing things like getting older and illness… well, no one should have to go through that,” Brooks says. 

After living at the Sunflower Retirement Community for another eight months, Brooks and Campbell sold their home at a loss – not unusual these days, though more difficult to recover from later in life – and moved closer into east Tucson, where they have found a more welcoming neighborhood.