A Place Of Their Own

When Judy Newdom and Val Filipski began planning their retirement, they worried about more than finding the perfect weather or a topnotch golf course. Devoted partners for 25 years, the two women had heard tales of retirement homes where same-sex couples weren't allowed to share an apartment, much less a bed. After finally adjusting to life as an openly gay couple, they feared they might not be welcomed by a traditional retirement community. So when Newdom heard about the Palms of Manasota, a Florida retirement community for gays and lesbians, she could hardly wait to move into one of its airy Mediterranean houses. Even though Newdom, 54, and Filipski, 50, hardly seem like senior citizens, the two packed their bags and moved from suburban Boston. "It just kept calling to us," says Newdom. "I thought, 'If that's where you want to live, why wait?' "

Newdom and Filipski are leading a wave of openly gay and lesbian baby boomers just starting to ponder their golden years. Demographers estimate that there are already 1 million to 3 million gay and lesbian seniors--a number expected to skyrocket in the next 15 years. While the majority of straight seniors are cared for by spouses and children, gay seniors often lack those family ties. "We are particularly vulnerable as we get older," says Terry Kaelber of Senior Action in a Gay Environment (SAGE), an advocacy group for gay seniors.

Because many gays have grappled with discrimination throughout their lives, they worry the problem will be even worse when they retire and grow less independent. Robert Daley, an artist who lived at the Palms until his death in 1999, often spoke of the isolation he felt during a stint in a straight retirement home, recalling how people stopped talking to him once they realized he was gay. "If you are out and proud... you can suffer terribly because you are trapped," says David Buckel of Lambda Legal Defense, who notes that gay nursing-home residents often hide or destroy personal photos that could out them. While gay retirees of the World War II generation have sometimes had to duck back into the closet to cope, the Stonewall generation won't be so willing to compromise. Like baby boomers everywhere, they're intent on inventing a retirement of their own, one that celebrates being part of a like-minded community. Just as niche retirement villages have begun catering to African-Americans and other ethnic groups, a half-dozen gay-friendly retirement projects from Boston to Palm Springs aim to open their doors within the next few years.

Until recently, retirement was a low priority among many gays. For years, the gay community put such a premium on youthful looks and lifestyle, says the Rev. Ken South, a policy fellow at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, that some gays actually became prejudiced against anyone old. For gay men, the AIDS epidemic made old age seem dismally unlikely anyway. "We didn't have the sense that we would have a future," says South. Few gays bothered to plan for their middle age, much less retirement. But with the future now more secure, and aging an undeniable reality, gays are determined to put their own stamp on it. The new communities envision chic city settings and gourmet dining rooms that serve dinner until 10 p.m., well after the early-bird set has usually turned in for the night. One complex, the Arbours, plans to revitalize the forlorn downtown in Cathedral City, Calif., by adding its own nightclub, theater, shops and spa. Peter Lundberg, a San Francisco developer, muses about theme nights: leather night, country-Western night and, best of all, drag night. "Can you see all of us in our wheelchairs and our wigs? We joke, but we're going to have a good time," Lundberg says.

So far, only the Palms of Manasota has made the leap from blueprints to bricks. The cluster of 21 single-family houses outside Bradenton doesn't seem much different from other Florida developments. Modest two- and three-bedroom homes surround a palm-lined pond with a bubbling waterfall; later, builders will add an assisted-living unit to provide full nursing care. These days, residents wander to each other's porches for coffee and gossip. "It's not like we have the gay flag up. If people don't stop and ask, they don't know," says Terry Cox, 51, who moved to the Palms with his partner, Charles Showard, 79. But this is not your father's retirement home, either. Same-sex couples hold hands and stroll around the pond without feeling that everyone's staring. And no one blinks at an explicit nude calendar hanging over one man's computer. "We don't have to worry about what we say, how we act, what we do," Cox says. "There's no pressure about having to be on your guard all the time."

But if gay retirement communities are a hedge against discrimination, some worry that they could be a bigger target for homophobic violence. So far the Palms has suffered only one minor incident: a carload of kids once yelled slurs and left an anti-gay placard on the lawn. Residents are hypervigilant, keeping track of every car that drives through. Eric Newdom, Judy's 28-year-old son, fleetingly wondered whether it was safe for his mother to move to the Palms, but soon changed his mind. "What's the opposite?" he says. "Hide and be afraid people will find out?" Nervous neighbors initially circulated a petition to try to stop the Palms, but most are now tolerant, if not supportive. "What they do when they close their bedroom door is no concern of mine," says Tom Garvey, a construction manager who lives across the street.

Despite the Palms' apparent success, some gay advocates charge that gay and lesbian retirement communities will be too exclusive. They favor pushing for better treatment in existing retirement homes. Critics of the gay-friendly projects also complain that most are luxury complexes that will cater only to the wealthy. While homes at the Palms run $140,000 to $175,000, other developments in pricier urban settings will start at $250,000--a figure well above the average price for straight retirement villages. David Aronstein, a Boston developer, hopes to create a charitable foundation that could subsidize some units.

If the Palms is any indication, the new complexes could fill up quickly. Newdom and Filipski have already settled in, though neither one has quite retired. Newdom still works as a consultant for IBM; Filipski also does high-tech work. For years, as she moved in and out of the closet at the office, Newdom had suffered from migraines. "It's a very high-stress way to live," she says. "I can't imagine doing that in retirement." Now she won't have to.

A Place Of Their Own | News