A Retirement Community Turned Away These Married Women

Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance did considerable research in 2016 before deciding to move into a continuing care retirement community outside St. Louis.

They took a tour of Friendship Village Sunset Hills and were impressed by its pool and fitness center, a calendar crammed with activities, the newly built apartments for independent living. They had meals with a friend and with a former co-worker, and their spouses, all of them enthusiastic residents.

“We’d met other people from the community, and they were very friendly,” said Ms. Walsh, 72, a retired manager for AT&T. “I was feeling good about it.”

Like most C.C.R.C.s, Friendship Village — a “faith-based” but nondenominational nonprofit — includes assisted living and a nursing home on its 52-acre campus, an important consideration.

If one woman someday needed more care than the other, “we’d still be able to have dinner together,” Ms. Walsh said. “We wanted to be together, no matter what happened.”

The community seemed eager to recruit them, too, offering a lower entrance fee if they signed an agreement promptly. So they paid a $2,000 deposit on a two-bedroom unit costing $235,000.

They notified their homeowners association that they’d be putting their house in Shrewsbury, Mo., on the market and canceled a vacation because they’d be moving in 90 days. Ms. Walsh contacted a realtor and began packing.

Then came a call from the residence director, asking Ms. Walsh the nature of her relationship with Ms. Nance, 68, a retired professor.

Natives of the area, they’d been partners for nearly 40 years. Before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages across the country, they’d had a harborside wedding in Provincetown, Mass.

“I said, ‘We’ve been married since 2009,’” Ms. Walsh replied. “She said, ‘I’m going to need to call you back.’”

Last month, the women brought suit in federal court, alleging sex discrimination in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act.

In turning down their application, Friendship Village had mailed a copy of its cohabitation policy, which limits shared units to siblings, parents and children, or spouses.

“The term ‘marriage’ as used in this policy means the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible,” the policy noted.

“It’s hard to think of a more clear-cut case of discrimination because of sex,” said Julie Wilensky, senior staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The center represents the couple, along with private attorneys and the ACLU of Missouri, in what’s believed to be the first federal suit by a same-sex couple turned away from a retirement community.

“One thing so troubling about this case, and this time, is the argument that religious beliefs can justify discrimination,” said Michael Adams, chief executive of Sage, an advocacy group for L.G.B.T. seniors.

Faith organizations operate many retirement facilities. If a baker can refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple (and have the Supreme Court agree, albeit on narrow grounds), can a C.C.R.C. refuse admission to Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance?

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions announcing the creation of a “religious liberty task force,” some facilities might try.

Neither the federal nor the Missouri law explicitly covers sexual orientation, but both outlaw sex discrimination. “If either Mary or Beverly were a man, the couple wouldn’t have been denied housing,” Ms. Wilensky said.

It’s an approach that’s been used in other legal actions over discrimination, including employment and education cases.

Advocates for L.G.B.T. seniors have argued for years that long-term care facilities fail to protect them against discrimination and harassment, leaving them particularly vulnerable.

Compared to older adults who are heterosexual, “they’re much less likely to be parents and twice as likely to be single and live alone,” said Mr. Adams of Sage.

With less help from partners or families, “they’re more likely to have to rely on professional care and services,” Mr. Adams said.

His organization has fielded thousands of complaints about long-term care from L.G.B.T. seniors: disrespect from staff members, harassment by fellow residents, religious proselytizing, refusal to recognize same-sex relationships.

“We often hear about people deciding to go back in the closet because they’re afraid,” Mr. Adams said.

In an extreme case, Marsha Wetzel, 70, sued the Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, Ill., alleging that as a lesbian she suffered threats, slurs and taunts — and three physical assaults — while administrators did nothing to protect her.

The facility’s lawyers argued that Ms. Wetzel had failed to show “discriminatory intent.” A federal court agreed and dismissed her suit. She has appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, with a ruling expected shortly.

Often, though, discrimination takes subtler forms. In 2013, for example, the Equal Rights Center conducted 200 matched-pair tests in 10 states (including Missouri) to ascertain whether senior housing facilities were more apt to discriminate against same-sex than opposite-sex married couples.

In about half the tests, the facilities were more likely to discriminate. The testers posing as same-sex spouses were offered fewer rental units, faced higher prices or more burdensome application requirements, or were less likely to hear about financial incentives.

With its written policy, Friendship Village operated more blatantly.

The management declined an interview request. But in a statement, the vice president of its board of directors said that “guided by our Christian faith,” it led “a loving community that wishes only the very best for all people, including Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance.”

The statement went on to say, “We are taking the matter very seriously. We are prayerfully and thoughtfully reviewing this issue.”

In a number of cities — New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles — L.G.B.T. organizations have helped secure funding for senior housing complexes. Santa Rosa, Calif., is home to an upscale retirement community specifically for gay and lesbian seniors.

But such small-scale efforts can never serve enough of the older gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adults who will need care, Mr. Adams pointed out. To help existing long-term care providers operate more sensitively, Sage has provided training to more than 2,100 organizations to date.

Advocates fear that the progress they’ve made could be undermined by federal actions, however, and by a possibly related slip in public approval.

A Harris Poll conducted for Glaad, the media advocacy group, found more Americans each year saying they felt comfortable with and supportive of L.G.B.T. people from 2014 to 2017.

But in its most recent survey, more respondents said they felt uncomfortable in certain scenarios (a child having a gay teacher, for example), while L.G.B.T. people reported increasing discrimination.

Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance thought they’d gotten past this sort of response. Earlier, visiting a Lutheran retirement community, Ms. Walsh had asked an administrator if he foresaw a problem admitting two married women.

“He said no and looked at me like, why would you ask me such a silly question?”

So when Friendship Village suddenly refused them, “I was blindsided,” she said. “I felt like they had kicked me in the stomach.”

Initially stunned, the women grew angry, contacted the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, then decided to turn to the courts.

“This is not right. They shouldn’t be able to do this,” Ms. Walsh said of Friendship Village. “We met all the qualifications, other than one of us wasn’t a man.”

Their lawsuit asks the court to order the facility to develop policies and procedures to prevent discrimination.

And the women seek a permanent injunction to keep the community from denying them admission. After all this, they still want to move into Friendship Village.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on August 17, 2018.