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National Perspective | CULTURE

In Retirement, Gays and Lesbians Forging New Communities

Housing developments that cater to the groups are taking shape in several states. Buyers are attracted by a chance to live in safety and freedom.

July 16, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — As the largest ever group of senior citizens now barges into old age, it's clear that things are going to be mighty different. On the leading edge of that generation are gay and lesbian senior citizens who are helping to define the new rules, starting with the basics: housing.

Nationwide, there are the beginnings of a move to develop and build retirement communities for older gays and lesbians, a generally well-heeled segment of the senior population.

"Part of what's driving this, as lesbians and gays are getting older, they're looking for community," said Terry Kaelber, director of Senior Action in a Gay Environment, a New York City social service agency. "Community is important.

"This generation lived in a time when they were labeled as sinners by the church, criminals by the legal system and sick by the medical establishment. What they have learned is that society does not value them. Our senior community has had to age with that."

The construction of gay and lesbian senior communities is underway in traditional retirement havens from Florida--where the country's first such facility has been in business for more than a year--to California, future home of Our Town, where, a brochure says, "we can laugh at our own jokes, love who we want, and be accepted for who we are."

Such communities have existed in de facto forms for years. The Phoenix area is home to a handful of trailer and RV parks that cater to lesbians with a "don't ask, don't tell" type of arrangement.

The same sort of unofficial gay communities exist in Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama--the front-line states for senior migration. Mostly, state and civic leaders are delighted to accommodate retirees, but this new wave of identified gay and lesbian housing developments sometimes clashes with local mores.

A lesbian trailer park in nearby Apache Junction is one such example. For years, women have been living together quietly in the development, which is nestled next to the larger city of Mesa, the hub of the state's largest Mormon population.

The lesbian and gay retirement community poses a potential problem for Arizona: Along with its warm weather, moderate cost of living and pro-growth development climate, Arizona harbors a deeply conservative populace. Its cultural clash is echoed around the country. A lesbian commune in Mississippi was burned out when locals learned of its existence.

Bill Laing expected some local turbulence a few years ago when he began to build the Palms of Manasota on 22 acres in Palmetto, Fla., near Sarasota. It is believed to be the nation's first gay and lesbian retirement village. But Laing, a former clinical psychologist, said there was no trouble once it became clear that he would be a good neighbor.

"We haven't encountered any homophobia, none," he said during a telephone interview. "Everyone knows what we're doing here. The City Council, the zoning commission--I've been in and out of there all the time for permits, and they know what I'm doing.

"I believe you change people's opinion about us not by parading, but by doing. I say, 'Let it be known.' I want people coming here, proud of themselves. I want people who aren't hiding from themselves or society."

Laing plans three phases of construction, from two- and three-bedroom homes for active seniors to homes designed for assisted living. About a third of the 21-unit first phase has sold, at prices from $116,00 to $132,000.

Niche marketing always has been a feature of retirement communities. For decades there have been Jewish retirement villages, Catholic retirement villages, Lithuanian and Polish and Scottish retirement villages. Sociologists report a natural tendency for older people to seek the familiar and the safe.

Yet generations of social taboos have driven the current class of gay and lesbian senior citizens underground. Many don't identify themselves as gay or lesbian. So, the very group that is being targeted for these retirement developments is the most difficult to find.

Veronica St. Claire is the CEO of GLARP, the Gay and Lesbian Assn. of Retiring Persons, which formed a year ago in Los Angeles. The service organization is planning a gay and lesbian retirement community in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs.

"We found that, like many segments of society, there is a need among gays and lesbians to congregate with their own," St. Claire said, noting that older gays and lesbians are likely to be deeply closeted. "There are many older people who never use the G-word or the L-word. You just don't. These people have a large circle of friends, and they all know who they are. There's never been any need to define it."

When word does get out about the new communities, it can bring life-changing results.

"I've had people calling me, jumping up and down for joy," said the developer of a lesbian-preferred senior housing complex in Florida who asked that neither she nor her facility be identified. "The sense of community is overwhelming.

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