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Graying and Gay, and Finding a Home
New York Times
Ellen Webster and Shirlee Bromley, both 73 and currently living in the East Bay, are looking forward to spending their golden years in the wine country of Sonoma County.
“You don’t have to explain yourself,” Ms. Webster added.
No explanation is required because this lesbian couple, former Christian missionaries, plan to move into Fountaingrove Lodge in Santa Rosa, a retirement community being built primarily for gay men and lesbians.
The next phase of construction on the $50 million, 10-acre project starts this spring, and up to 140 residents are expected to move into 70 apartments and bungalows next year. Because of its combination of independent living and continuing care, including assistance for those with failing memories, it is being promoted as the first of its kind in the nation for gay men and lesbians.
The project is a sign of the graying of gay America; the first generations to live openly as homosexuals are now older. But gay rights advocates say the project is also a response to a troubling situation: the elderly gay population has struggled to secure stable housing.
Communities like Fountaingrove are sorely needed, according to Services and Advocacy for G.L.B.T Elders, a group based in New York known as SAGE.
“L.G.B.T. elders often face discrimination when buying or renting a home and may be denied housing, including residency in mainstream retirement communities,” the group said in a November 2011 report.
A spokeswoman for SAGE pointed to several studies that have shown that elderly gays, lesbians and transgendered people are routinely denied housing and treated differently when applying — many even pose as heterosexual to lease or buy. It is common for same-sex couples to be separated when admitted to care facilities, as if they are not related.
It is an issue that has caused public outcry in Sonoma County. In June 2008, after allegations of domestic violence that ultimately were unproved, Clay Greene and Harold Scull, partners for 25 years, were removed from their Sebastopol home, placed in separate care facilities and never allowed to see each other again. Their belongings were confiscated and sold by county workers.
Mr. Scull died, and gay rights advocates sued on behalf of Mr. Greene, who was left impoverished and emotionally scarred by the ordeal.
The county denied discriminating against the men, but in 2010, facing a trial and public scorn, settled the matter for $600,000.
Senator Mark Leno, who is gay and represents the area, said cases of discrimination were common nationwide.
Older gay men and lesbians “have lived a lifetime of inequality in America under the law,” Mr. Leno said.
Bill and Cindy Gallaher, Fountaingrove’s developers, said area gay rights advocates came to them several years ago to suggest a specialized complex. Although the Gallahers are straight, the idea resonated with them for personal as well as economic reasons. Three of their five children were adopted from foreign countries.
“We are really sensitive to the fact that people outside of the mainstream have a very different experience,” Ms. Gallaher said.
The land was bought in 2005, but there was opposition. Local news accounts reported homophobic resistance based on the comments of a few residents, although city officials said the objections were mainly a result of the project’s scope.
“The environmental impact report took two and a half years,” Mr. Gallaher said. After changes were made, to blend better with the rural setting, construction was approved.
Other gay retirement communities — there are about a dozen nationwide, according to SAGE — have faced difficulties. Highly publicized projects like RainbowVision in New Mexico have gone bankrupt during the recession, with critics pointing out that some communities were driven more by activism than sound economics.
Fountaingrove hopes to fare better. The Gallahers have a strong track record in the retirement industry, having built more than 30 communities for the elderly since 1986. Also, this development caters to an upscale crowd, making it particularly well financed. Initial fees to acquire homes run from $295,500 to $925,500, refundable upon leaving, and monthly charges are as high as $7,000 for a couple, covering meals and other services.
Indeed, the completed model home is reminiscent of a lavish hotel suite, with high ceilings, stainless-steel gourmet kitchens and extra-wide doorways to accommodate wheelchairs.
This opulent style, and its location on bucolic former farmland, attracted Martin Devlin, 69, a retired business owner, to reserve a home here. “I’m gay, but that’s not the only reason I find this appealing,” he said. “I love the feeling of nature. I love the property.”
Scott James is an Emmy-winning television journalist and novelist who lives in San Francisco. firstname.lastname@example.org