Philadelphia city officials this week announced the approval of plans to build a 56-unit, affordable housing complex dedicated to LGBT seniors. The project, slated for completion by late next year, will be located in the city’s “gayborhood” and will be only the second of its kind – that is, affordable housing – in the nation, after one in Los Angeles.
The project will lead to a situation that I don’t like in other contexts. The complex will be a “gay ghetto.” (While it’s true that straights can’t legally be excluded – Philly’s non-discrimination ordinance applies to all sexual orientation – in practice the marketing and location of the facility will ensure that it’s largely or exclusively populated by LGBT seniors.) This kind of separation isn’t the best approach to dealing with the difficulties faced by, say, LGBTQ high school teens—it’s more of a cop-out for school districts that don’t deal more comprehensively with creating a safe learning environment for all students. Easier to ship ‘em off to the gay warehouse.
But in this setting, the idea is brilliant. Many gay, lesbian and especially transgender seniors came of age at a time when their sexuality was something to be hidden. After years of struggle, at least some have been able to come out and live proudly in their sexual minority identities. But senior citizen housing can be a nightmare of re-closeting, as fellow seniors who have never wanted or needed to grow comfortable with the whole gay thing can engage in a verbal version of “smear the queer.” The Philadelphia Inquirer story reporting on the announcement provided examples of such treatment, including a “team effort” by one gay man’s fellow residents to “pray the gay away.” (Really? I mean, isn’t it a bit late for that?)
One of the problems many of us face as we age is the lack of what sociologists are now calling “social capital” – the kinds of interpersonal support and connections that we need to thrive for the full span of our ever-extending lives. Since we’re much less likely to have children and may be ostracized by, or alienated from, our families of origin, these projects can serve as lifelines, somewhat literally. One might joke that this new LGBT housing complex might run shuttle buses to the local bars that serve older gays, but it might be useful to think of an imaginary shuttle running the other way, from bar to residence; now, older members of our community have another social alternative to the watering hole. Many, of course, have other choices already, but there’s no denying that some still rely on bars for human connection. Now they might have a few doors to knock on, or a social space for shared activities. As the article notes, the building will also have “a community center, garden, and areas where social-service agencies will provide medical care and other assistance.”
Legal disabilities play a part in the need for community cooperation, too. Couples in committed long-term relationships and single GLBT citizens don’t have access to the full range of rights and benefits as their straight counterparts. As one glaring example, the surviving member of a same-sex couple can’t obtain social security survivorship benefits. And the need to sell a home when one partner dies can effectively force the survivor out, too, because there are no exemptions under state or federal law from estate taxes. Personal tragedy is too-often compounded by financial ruin.
As with the effects of affirmative action policies designed to combat racial discrimination, one can hope that the need for this kind of LGBT safe space will be temporary, seen at some future date as an artifact of a time when the broader society was moving toward a healthier relationship with the sexual minorities within it but had not yet fully reached that point. But we needn’t argue or worry about when, if ever, that place will be reached. For now, we should welcome this kind of initiative, and look forward to the broader contributions that the residents of this initiative will bring to all of us. Senior LGBT people have much to offer. Now, many of them will have the resources needed to allow the unleashing of all that energy.
Speaking of Philadelphia…I’ll be blogging from Equality Forum, the annual symposium on LGBT life and the issues that affect our communities. This year the event, formerly a week-long affair, has been condensed into four days, and my posts will be of the panels that are to run on Thursday through Saturday, May 3-5. In a few cases, two panels are set for the same time (another change), so let’s see how I do with juggling…
Image, top, courtesy WRT Design.
Were he born 10,000 years ago, John Culhane would not have survived to adulthood; he has no useful, practical skills. He is a law professor who writes about various and sundry topics, including: disaster compensation; tort law; public health law; literature; science; sports; his own personal life (when he can bear the humanity); and, especially, LGBT rights and issues. He teaches at the Widener University School of Law and is a Senior Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson School of Population Health.
He is also a contributor to Slate Magazine, and writes his own eclectic blog. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter if you’re blessed with lots of time.
John Culhane lives in the Powelton Village area of Philadelphia with his partner David and their twin daughters, Courtnee and Alexa. Each month, he awaits the third Saturday evening for the neighborhood Wine Club gathering.
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