This two-part series will examine the issue of LGBT senior housing and the unique challenges gay seniors face entering their retirement years.
Part I will examine its history in Seattle along with the initial attempt to build an affordable, gay-affirmative senior housing complex on Capitol Hill.
Part II, appearing next week, will examine the current attempt to revive this vision and the creative solutions seniors have come up with given the dearth of affordable and inclusive senior housing options.
In 1996 David Schraer had a vision - to build a non-profit, community run LGBT Community Center that included affordable, gay-affirmative senior housing. As a result, he founded the Queen City Community Development Corporation.
"Queen City identified elders as the least served major group in the LGBT community," Schraer said. "We decided that we should find out what they needed [and] that was the impetus for the year-long Elder Initiative."
Together with three other like-minded groups, Queen City held a series of forums over the course of a year to discover the needs and priorities of gay seniors in Seattle. Then, the groups approached senior service providers to discuss those needs and priorities. From this Elder Initiative sprung an idea nearly unheard of at the time.
"The Elder Initiative in 1997-98 led to the capital campaign to build senior housing and a community center in 1998," Schraer said.
The idea of gay-affirmative senior housing, let alone one attached to a community LGBT resource center, sparked great initial interest. Queen City quickly raised $45,000 at the start of its $10 million capital campaign. Unfortunately, their initial good fortune would not last.
David Haack, the current chair of the Department of Social and Health Services LGBT Advisory Board, completed a feasibility study for Queen City. Its ultimate conclusion: the time wasn't right.
"The demographics didn't support it," Haack said. He discovered that LGBT seniors from the "Silent Generation," those born between 1925-1942, were already having their health needs met. While their psychological and social needs were admittedly shortshrifted, Haack found that few LGBT seniors were willing to move into LGBT senior housing just for that reason.
Sharer also encountered resistance from the very community one might expect to support a LGBT community center and gay senior housing - gays themselves.
The Stranger ran a column in its June 2000 Pride issue that, along with other reservations about the project, bemoaned its proposed location on Capitol Hill.
"Even if Center organizers could afford Capitol Hill real estate (they can't), demographic shifts make it increasingly difficult to claim that this or any other location could be the geographic 'heart' of an increasingly integrated gay and lesbian population," Paul Beaudet wrote, nevermind that high density neighborhoods, and Capitol Hill is one of the densest in Seattle, are especially advantageous to a population that finds mobility increasingly difficult as the years pass.
Still, Queen City's senior-centric vision became a political football in the ever-tiring debate between the assimilationist and minoritizing camps of the gay civil rights movements.
"I don't know if Seattle had the assets or the queer community to make it a reality," said Shannon Thomas, the current executive director of the Queen City CDC and the Seattle LGBT Center. "There was an informal need but it wasn't the right time."
As a result Queen City decided to narrow its focus and open just an LGBT community center sans senior housing. It opened in July 2002 and, so far, Thomas calls the venture "wildly successful."
A dream deferred
In the meantime, however, gay seniors in retirement communities and assisted-living facilities still struggle to have their social needs met. With no gay-affirmative housing in sight, Rainbow Train was created as a stop-gap measure.
Sally Friedman, a caregiver advocate at Senior Services, is a Rainbow Train member. The group leads staff-training workshops for local providers of senior services.
"They don't think they have any LGBT people in their places," Friedman said. Hence, she and her group focus on issues of "cultural competency." They encourage senior providers to include same-sex affirmative language in their anti-discrimination policies and suggest how they might make their services more gay-inclusive. This might include ideas as simple as showcasing pictures of gay couples on their walls and including gay-themed books in their libraries.
Unfortunately, Rainbow Train currently suffers from a funding shortage. Due to a lack of grant money, it is now run solely by volunteers. Not only that, senior service providers are hardly banging down the door to receive this type of training. Haack estimated that only three companies, Mercer Island Care and Rehab, Robin's Wood Point and The Garden of Issaquah, have either expressed interest in the service or have undergone training.
"I think we're invisible," Friedman said. "We're not out there being angry about how we're being treated."
Friedman's assessment is all the more sobering when coupled with the results of a recent study completed by Seattle's LGBT Center: LGBT seniors in Seattle are less likely to pursue needed medical and mental health care and are two times more likely to live alone than their straight counterparts.
Even if they are partnered, they currently have no access to their partner's Social Security income, nor, in some cases, their pension plans. Finally, many senior services suffer from homophobia and heterosexism which, in turn, further increases this population's marginalization.
To top it all off is the current cultural climate with its recent conservative shift. December's White House Conference on Aging highlighted this trend.
Every 10 years, specialists on aging meet to present papers and studies and then make subsequent recommendations to the White House and Congress. Conspicuously absent from this year's program - any discussion of LGBT seniors and their needs. Activists and some delegates assert that the Bush administration purposefully drew up rules to squelch discussion and consideration of the topic.
This cultural environment and Queen City's initial misstep, however, hasn't ended the dream of providing LGBT seniors with affordable housing in Seattle. Next week, Part II of this series will examine the current state of affairs at Queen City along with its plan to revitalize the vision of building gay-affirmative senior housing. It will also examine the creative solutions seniors have devised on their own to solve this dilemma.