Older members of LGBT community retire, relax, reunite in new Philly housing


Philadelphia is getting in on a trend that’s already under way in Los Angeles and Minneapolis: the construction of gay-friendly affordable housing for senior citizens.

The residents of the John C. Anderson Apartments a project, which was built with city, state and federal funding, say it answers a definite need.

Elizabeth Coffey Williams’ apartment is cozy. She just moved in a few days ago, but she already has a candle flickering in the living room and art on the walls. She points out a favorite.

“This is actually a studio proof from one of Janis Joplin’s last photo shoots with Francesco Scavullo,” she said.

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Hanging from the corner is a string of multicolored beads Williams said she got from Joplin decades ago in San Francisco.

Williams, a transgender woman and an actress who has appeared in John Waters’ films, said LGBT people can frequently feel shunned or unsafe in some environments. Here, she said, she feels safe and comfortable.

“A lot of thought has been put into creating this community, and that is why I think it will be meaningful — not just for the people who are lucky enough to be here now, but, hopefully in my vision, to serve as a beacon,” she said.

Housing for LGBT people of a certain age is necessary nationwide, said Williams. While she joins a new community with new neighbors, she says she’d like to give back by serving as a mentor to younger members of the LGBT community.

A very different situation for LGBT seniors

As a new resident was moving in across the hallway and a moving crew loaded boxes into a downstairs elevator, Mark Segal was sitting in the community room and beaming with pride.

Segal, the president of the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, said he’s watched over the years as members of the community have grown older.

“The situation for them is very different than other seniors,” he said.

Segal said he was determined to make this place a reality so that members of the LGBT community, who have been through so much and who fought for the freedoms the community now enjoys, would have a safe place to go as they enter their golden years.

“If, in the 1960s, you came out publicly, you had the good possibility that your family would disown you,” Segal said. “So many seniors, as we all know, depend on their family structure for aid when they become seniors. That disappears.”

And, Segal said, for those who were openly gay in the 1960s, “the chances of getting a decent job were nil. And a job with retirement benefits? So therefore, your income was decreased. So when you get to be that golden age of 62 to 65, you’re in trouble.”

In the apartment building, resident Michael Palumbaro said he’s found something he’s long searched for — others in similar situations.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends, you know, due to the AIDS crisis,” he said. “So I wanted to be around other seniors [who] have my background and experience, ’cause they’re hard to find these days.”

Palumbaro, who has been living with HIV for 27 of his 70 years, said he’s already making friends.

A place for celebrations and community

“Already we’re meeting in the lobby and having coffee and reading the paper together,” he said. “There’s already a sense of community building up.”

And he said he’s realized he already knows some of his new neighbors. “Sometimes, in the gay community, if you don’t see somebody for a long time, you think they died,” he said. “And so it was wonderful to see Harry — quite alive — walk into the lobby and tell me he’s going to be living here on the fifth floor.”

Palumbaro said this place was clearly constructed with older people in mind, including bathroom amenities such as grab bars and low entrances for the showers.

“There’s no stairs for me to climb,” he said. “I’ve had problems with falls in the last couple of years on stairs because I have peripheral neuropathy and sometimes I guess I just don’t lift my feet enough.”

The building offers more than just a comfortable space for LGBT seniors.

Palumbaro said he’s really looking forward to the senior programming — movie nights, game nights and other opportunities for socialization. That may include a Thanksgiving dinner with, he said, his “family of choice.”

“We could have birthday parties here, anniversaries, maybe we’ll have a wedding here,” he said. “Who knows?”

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