Activist: Many LGBTQ retirees 'go back into the closet' to find senior housing

The aging LGBTQ community often faces big retirement hurdles. Where they live is one of the toughest.

In an AARP survey last year, 34% of all LGBT survey respondents reported being at least somewhat worried about having to hide their identity to access suitable housing options as they age as did more than half (54%) of transgender and gender-expansive participants.

The possibility of being forced to hide one’s identity to receive long-term care is also a concern for just under half of lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents and for 70% of transgender and gender-expansive respondents.

The survey polled 2,004 LGBTQ community members age 45 and over, including 926 cisgender gay and bisexual men, 770 cisgender lesbian and bisexual women, and 308 transgender and nonbinary (TGNB) participants.


“Many in the LGBTQ community face significant discriminatory barriers when seeking housing in their older years,” Dr. Imani Woody, the president and CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults, a not-for-profit organization created to serve LGBTQ elders experiencing housing insecurity and isolation, told Yahoo Money. “And, in fact, they go back into the closet to hide their identity in order to move into traditional senior housing.”

(Photo: Getty Creative)
(Photo: Getty Creative) (jacoblund via Getty Images)

As a lifelong activist for women, people of color and the LGBGQ community, Woody chose to turn her childhood home into Mary’s house, an affordable LGBTQ senior-living community for those over age 62, the first of what she plans to be several locations.

This fall, Woody will be awarded a $50,000 prize in recognition and support of her work. She is one of five 2023 AARP Purpose Prize Winners for people over 50 who have founded a non-profit.

Woody offered insights on her vision and the need for this in a conversation with Yahoo Money. Here are the highlights of that conversation:

What do you see as the biggest challenges for the LGBTQ community as they age?

It’s amazing that the greatest generation that came out now finds itself going back into the closet in order to find a place to live.

I've been working in aging and LGBTQ aging for more than twenty years, and I know the sense of isolation that comes with being older and the housing discrimination if people perceive you're gay.

When we talk about living, the big concern is where are you going to be safe. And then there's the theme of loneliness and social isolation–those are top things for old people in general, and if you add LGBTQ to that, it increases. We need to create affordable, sustaining, welcoming housing for the community.

Dr. Imani Woody, Mary's House

Dr. Imani Woody, Mary's House (Photo Credit: JARED SOARES)


How did Mary's House get started?

The idea for Mary's House, named for my late mother, started when my pop got sick, and he went into a nursing home. It made me think what would've happened if he had been an out gay man or a lesbian or transgender person?

When he died in 2010, he left me his home in Washington, D.C. — the one I grew up in.

I had witnessed deep discrimination and isolation over the years. After my brother’s death from AIDS, the funeral home wouldn’t accept his body. A few years ago a colleague — a gay, white man — died alone in a upscale neighborhood in the D.C., no one found him for five days.

There are nine or ten apartment-style retirement facilities in the U.S. that cater to LGBTQ people, but they're big buildings. I want to create a feel of family in a communal residence with 15 units, a shared kitchen and recreational spaces. It will be a place where someone is going to connect with you on a daily basis.

It took a long time, but finally with the help of $1.2 million in city funding, we’re set to break ground later this year. Residents should be able to move there in 2023.

Where’s your vision headed?

My goal is to replicate the model as people pass on their homes and property in their wills to be turned into more senior LGBTQ group homes.

The vision of the board is we start with independent living at Mary’s House. Then the next one will be assisted living, followed by hospice, so there's a continuum of Mary’s House across the spectrum.

In the biggest of visions, we’re hoping to do houses in every state. We'd like another in D.C. If someone donated a home to us, we could retrofit that into a Mary's House. We are looking into Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the state of Florida.

We are also starting the Villages at Mary's House. It's a new program that we're starting right now and hopefully will span out across other cities, where we call you every week on the same day to make sure you're okay. And we have a number of a friend or a contact that you've given us so that we can contact, if we can’t reach you. There may be other community services as part of that as well.

What’s the magic of Mary's House?

At Mary's House, you can bring your tall self, your short self, your fat self, your black self, your white self, your poor self, and definitely your old self, and all parts of you will be welcomed and celebrated.

Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon

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