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For LGBTQ seniors, finding a house that is a home can be problematic

A third of LGBTQ elders fear having to “re-closet.” Some retirement communities are working to change that.
Tiffani Mayes, 72, poses for a portrait in his Tampa home on Friday, June 25, 2021.
Tiffani Mayes, 72, poses for a portrait in his Tampa home on Friday, June 25, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jun. 30
Updated Jun. 30

Tiffani Mayes had a problem. His landlord was selling the home he rented, and he needed to find a new, affordable place to live.

But when he went to view places in his price range, he’d watch as the owners’ faces changed.

“As soon as they see me, they change their minds,” Mayes said.

Pet bans emerged on listings that had been “animal-friendly” online — Mayes’s cocker spaniel Piper, his sole roommate and closest companion, was suddenly unacceptable.

“I look very gay,” he said. “I could tell they just didn’t want me in the place.”

Mayes eventually found an apartment in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa, but at “a young 72,” he knows he won’t be able to live by himself forever.

“I just haven’t wanted to think about that, honestly,” he said. “I know it’s gonna come to that one day. I’ve always had a struggle trying to find a decent place.”

The post-pandemic housing market is becoming increasingly competitive in Tampa Bay, where demand is high and supply is scarce.

Seniors who are part of the LGBTQ community face added challenges — they must search for a place that is both in their budget and affirming of their identity.

“We’re finding that many of our elders are going back into the closet when they go into a long-term care facility,” said Susan Talbott, LGBTQ community support specialist at Empath Partners in Care, a local nonprofit that works with seniors. “Because they already fought the fight once —they don’t want to have to do it again "

In pockets of Tampa Bay, some senior living communities are working to create inclusive spaces that LGBTQ elders feel comfortable calling home.

“One of the biggest gifts that we can give is cultural competency training for our health care providers — just to make them aware and ready for our LGBTQ elders to age into their facilities,” Talbott said.

Facing discrimination

About half of all lesbian, gay or bisexual couples in the United States have experienced negative treatment when seeking senior housing — and transgender elders report facing discrimination at even higher rates.

A third of these elders said they fear having to conceal their sexual identity when looking for a home — be it in a retirement community or a longterm care facility.

The act of entering into a supervised living can alone be traumatic for elderly community members who faced discrimination earlier in life. As a young teenager in Cleveland, Ohio, Mayes’ parents sent him to a hospital to undergo conversion therapy.

“I was in this hospital 90 days, supposedly to try and change me, and of course it was ridiculous,” he recalled. He was 14. “It was horrible being in an institution like that. It was horrible.”

When an LGBTQ senior must again relinquish some control over their housing — particularly when they’re entering a place where they may face discrimination — it can drudge up memories of life in a home with a guardian who did not affirm their identity.

Tiffani Mayes, 72, poses for a portrait with Piper, a 13-year-old cocker spaniel, in their Tampa home on Friday, June 25, 2021.
Tiffani Mayes, 72, poses for a portrait with Piper, a 13-year-old cocker spaniel, in their Tampa home on Friday, June 25, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Increased risks later in life

This housing not only has to be affirming — it has to be affordable.

Mayes spent his working years as a drag queen entertainer. As Tiffani Middlesexx, he had a successful career performing in shows across Ohio, Michigan and Florida – earning the title of “Miss Florida Female Impersonator” in 1980 — before retiring in 2011.

But he lacks a pension, and relies on social security for daily living. His budget for housing is $600 a month or less, he said.

“The majority of [LGBTQ seniors] who are doing well in retirement, it’s because their career has enabled them to do well,” said Joseph Milla, a program coordinator for Metro Inclusive Health, a local affiliate of Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders, better known as SAGE. “Some people’s careers enabled them to save, some had pensions, other people’s family wealth is inherited — the ones who are doing less well weren’t as fortunate.”

LGBTQ elders overall have a heightened risk of economic insecurity due to a lifetime of possible employment discrimination — but these disparities are particularly pronounced among communities of color and transgender people.

As LGBTQ people age, their need for assisted care is critical. LGBTQ elders also face added risk of aging alone — many may have lost partners to the AIDS crisis or time — and are four times less likely to have children than their heterosexual peers.

“This generation didn’t get married and have kids,” Talbott said. “This is the generation that probably got thrown out of their house when they came out to their family in their twenties.

So now you’ve got 80-year-olds taking care of 80-year-olds.”

Jay Chetney, 72, was present at the Stonewall Riots in New York and attended the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade — which would later become known as the first Pride march — one year later.

He moved to St. Petersburg after his partner of a quarter century, Dennis, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in his fifties.

Chetney said he increasingly finds himself doing what he can to avoid accidents and stay healthy.

“I don’t have anybody to take care of me in that way,” said Chetney, who currently lives in an independent retirement community. “My sister is my next of kin — I’ve incorporated her legally, but she’s not going to be my caretaker. That’s never going to happen.”

Inclusive living

Melissa Krysh said she’s aware of the challenges that LGBTQ seniors face — and she’s working to help her staff rise to meet them.

As the assisted living administrator for The Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay, a St. Petersburg retirement community that boasts independent living, assisted living and memory care units, Krysh works for Watermark Retirement Communities. It’s one of the first companies in the senior living industry to mandate that all its facilities receive “cultural competency” training from SAGE.

Known as SAGECare, the training is designed to equip long-term care facilities and other senior communities to become welcoming places for LGBTQ elders.

Staff inside learn about the history of challenges LGBTQ people have faced in the United States during the certification process, and are provided space to pose questions they might otherwise be afraid to ask.

It also involves practical changes.

“We’re changing the ways that we write our contracts so they ask, ‘Do you have a partner?’ instead of, ‘Do you have a husband or wife?’” Kyrsh said. “If a prospective resident is looking to move in, we start with, ‘Hi my name is Melissa, and my pronouns are she and hers. What are yours?’”

The Fountains is also implementing discussions for other residents who might have bias against the LGBTQ community.

“Unfortunately, LGBTQ seniors are also moving in with other residents that are of the generation that might think it’s a lifestyle, a choice, and not be accepting of it,” Krysh said. “Our in-house learning opportunities start the conversation through education.”

Tiffani Mayes, 72, poses for a portrait in his Tampa home on Friday, June 25, 2021.
Tiffani Mayes, 72, poses for a portrait in his Tampa home on Friday, June 25, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Affirming in place

Historically, seniors in the LGBTQ community have relied on word-of-mouth to find safe, friendly housing in the Tampa Bay area, advocates said. There are realtors who specialize in working with older LGBTQ clients, and retirement communities that tend to have “pockets” of LGBTQ life such as Five Towns and On Top of the World — if someone can afford them.

“There’s almost no [formal] way to get started if you’re looking for something gay,” said Keith Sutton, a 69-year-old from St. Petersburg who is considering moving out of his home and recently visited four different long-term care facilities. “If we only had something like A Place for Mom – which is so helpful and free — for being gay.”

LGBTQ-specific retirement communities — which both Mayes, Chetney and Sutton said they’d be interested in — can be hard to come by, and many have struggled financially in recent years.

The Tampa Bay area’s own Palms of Manasota in Palmetto — which was the first gay and lesbian community in America — is currently fully occupied, according to the community’s webmaster and resident Fred Hodges, 71, and its proportion of residents who are LGBTQ has dwindled.

“What we found through research is that that generation doesn’t want their own community,” said Talbott, whose organization hosts an education program similar to SAGE’s. “They want to be able to go anywhere that anybody else would go, but just not be stigmatized. They want to be welcomed as anybody else would be.”

Training allows existing communities — be they low income senior housing or nursing homes — to adopt affirming practices right where they are.

“We tell businesses all the time, if you want to let people know that you’re open and affirming, put a rainbow or a flag in the window,” Talbott said. “Or just put a little something in your pamphlet. Just make it so if I was out shopping, I would maybe pick your place to look at first.”

Safe housing is expected to become increasingly important in coming years — according to a recent SAGE survey, there will be an estimated 70 million LGBTQ elders in the country by 2030.

Of course, it’s only a piece of the solution, Milla said. The Tampa Bay area needs more housing in general.

“There are a number of initiatives that are going on to try to help seniors out when they run into trouble, or need to find affordable housing,” he said. “But it’s not enough — the need is greater than the supply.”

For help

If you’re an LGBTQ senior in the Tampa Bay area looking for help finding affordable, affirming housing, contact Susan Talbott at Empath Partners in Care at susantalbott@empathhealth.org or 727-328-5524.