Like most older adults, Brian Kelly wants to stay in his home as long as he can.
The Seminole resident’s concerns go beyond losing his independence or the rising cost of long-term care.
“I wonder, ‘Is the facility welcoming to LGBTQ?’” asked Kelly, who is gay.
Fear of having to “re-closet” upon entering a nursing home has long haunted aging LGBTQ+ people.
To Kelly, who is 68, the threat feels more palpable these days.
As Florida reddens and a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ bills sails through the Legislature, some LGBTQ+ seniors fear for their retirement future in Tampa Bay.
Many can’t afford to leave, residents and providers say, due to fixed incomes and the disproportionate risk of poverty that LGBTQ+ community members face throughout their lives.
“I’m hoping I don’t have to go into long-term care at all,” Kelly said. “But I desperately do not want to have to go into long-term care here in Florida.”
For decades, Tampa Bay was considered a haven for LGBTQ+ people to enjoy safe, affordable retirement.
The area once boasted America’s first LGBTQ+ retirement community. St. Petersburg, nicknamed “God’s waiting room” for its large senior population, continues to hold the largest pride parade in the southeast. While Tampa once banned the liberation march, it now has an openly gay mayor, Jane Castor.
LBGTQ+ retirement guides in Forbes and U.S. News and World Report have long recommended both cities.
But Kelly said the area now feels less welcoming than it did when he first arrived over 20 years ago.
“The political climate is getting more and more unfriendly to people like us,” he said.
Many local LGBTQ+ retirees feel stuck, said Jane Haskell, 29, the LGBTQ+ community support counselor for EPIC, a local nonprofit health system.
“Most of the LGBTQ seniors that we work with are low-income,” she said. “Moving across the country, especially at an older age, is not really feasible.”
“A lot of people left places that weren’t accepting to come to Tampa Bay, knowing that (its cities) have a reputation being LGBTQ-friendly,” she added. “Now the government is restricting access to care, which completely changes the safety of these places.”
Last month, the Florida Board of Education approved a ban on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades, expanding a measure passed last year known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”
A bill passed in the Senate on Wednesday would codify this rule through eighth grade, as well as restrict the way students and teachers can use their preferred pronouns in schools. The legislation is ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it.
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Other bills approved this session, but that await DeSantis’ signature, would limit bathroom use for transgender people, create harsher penalties for businesses that admit children into “sexual performances” — a measure critics say is aimed at drag shows — and make it a felony to provide medical interventions to treat children with gender dysphoria.
Republican lawmakers, along with DeSantis, who supports the initiatives, say the bills are meant to protect children. Critics say the measures are harmful to the LGBTQ+ community, particularly transgender people.
Privacy isn’t always an option for Marylyn Reilly.
The 63-year-old needs groceries. She wants to enjoy the world outside her senior apartment in downtown St. Petersburg — from sightseeing at the pier to nights out with friends at Enigma. And she depends on public transit to do these activities.
“I’m in the public eye a lot,” Reilly said. “I don’t really have much choice. Because that’s how I get around.”
Reilly came out as a transgender woman last March, after the death of her father, who she said was not accepting of her identity.
“After a day or two, I knew I made the right decision,” Reilly said. “I felt like I wasn’t a whole person until March.”
As she rides the SunRunner to Walmart, Reilly’s mind often drifts to the state’s new permitless gun carry law, which DeSantis signed last month.
“It worries me,” she said. “As a transgender person, I feel like you always have a target on your back.”
As she enters the store, she said she now pictures police being called when she uses the restroom. House Bill 1521, which has been approved by representatives, would criminalize entering and refusing to leave a bathroom designated for the “opposite sex.”
“I feel like it’s Jim Crow laws, except it’s for trans people,” Reilly said. “I can’t use the men’s room anymore, dressed as a woman. So where am I going to go?”
Reilly has thought about leaving Florida, she said. But it’s not possible financially.
“I’m on disability and have a very limited income,” she said. “Unless I win the lottery, I doubt that I’ll be moving out of the state.”
With a pandemic-era influx of Sunshine State transplants that are twice as likely to be Republicans as they are Democrats, some LGBTQ+ retirees worried about whom they’ll end up living with — and receiving care from — when their health deteriorates.
Nationally, roughly a third of LGBTQ+ elders may hide their sexual orientation or gender identity upon entering senior care, according to the nonprofit SAGE, a national advocacy group for LGBTQ+ seniors.
Local organizations like EPIC, which is a member of the national health system Empath Health, offer training to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities on how to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ seniors.
No area homes have requested a class since Haskell started at the organization in August, she said; however, EPIC is doubling down on outreach efforts.
Some companies in the senior living industry are already on board.
Watermark Retirement Communities, which operates two assisted and independent living facilities in Tampa Bay, has mandated that all its homes receive similar “cultural competency” training from SAGE.
Despite Florida’s changing laws, Reilly said, she’s grateful to be in St. Petersburg, which she feels is more accepting than her hometown in Polk County.
Instead of leaving, she’s trying to pave a way for other older transgender adults in Tampa Bay.
Reilly plans to teach a class on the transgender community at downtown St. Petersburg’s Sunshine Center for senior adults this summer.
“I thought, in my small way, maybe I could be a spokesperson for the trans community, and the gay community too,” she said. “Maybe some minds will be changed once they actually know somebody that is — once they know who I am.”