Marie Spivey’s friends tried to nudge her in Donna Sue Johnson’s direction when they met at a community center in Harlem for LGBT elders. But Spivey had just ended her first lesbian relationship after coming out in her 50s, and she thought she was done with love.
The next time they crossed paths, however, something clicked. Now, three years later, the couple wants to build a life together in safe, affordable housing, where they can walk arm-in-arm without worrying about suspicious glares from neighbors.
“I want to be free to be who I am,” said Spivey, a 65-year-old longtime New Yorker. “I want to be out and about with my partner.”
To get closer to her dream, Spivey applied for a spot in the Crotona Senior Residences, which will be one of New York City’s first LGBT-friendly affordable-housing developments for older adults.
But Spivey’s desire to share her home with Johnson is proving tougher to fulfill, even though her partner is homeless.
Together, experts say, they illustrate the unique challenges that aging LGBT adults face — and the promise of relief that LGBT-friendly affordable housing offers.
“LGBTQ elders have largely been invisible and people really haven’t thought about their needs, both in health, in housing and other areas,” social work professor Karen Fredriksen-Goldsen said.
Their generation of LGBT Americans was the first to unite to demand civil rights and social acceptance. But as the Pride generation has aged, the discrimination they experienced throughout their lives has left them with smaller savings and thinner support networks and in worse health than their non-LGBT peers, said Fredriksen-Goldsen, director of the University of Washington’s Healthy Generations center.
All of that leaves them vulnerable to housing instability, she said. But the Pride generation is resilient, she said, and the tide is turning as more cities embrace LGBT-friendly housing.
“I see a lot of promise and progress,” she said. “I also think that there’s an incredible amount of work to do.”
Spivey is one of thousands of applicants hoping for a spot in New York’s first LGBT-friendly housing, slated to open in Brooklyn in the fall and the Bronx in 2020.
Such housing exists in a handful of American cities. But the development in Brooklyn, Ingersoll Senior Residences, is expected to be the country’s largest. In addition to units with sweeping views across Brooklyn, Ingersoll will have a community center in the lobby offering meals, programming and health and wellness resources.
Both developments are going up in a partnership with the city and the state, developers and SAGE, the country’s oldest advocacy group for LGBT elders. The government-subsidized units — 228 total — are open to individuals and couples 62 and older whose annual income is below a designated amount.
Affordable housing is scarce overall in New York City, but research indicates that the need is acute among LGBT elders.
An estimated 2.7 million LGBT adults in the United States are 50 or older, and one-third live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, according to SAGE.
A survey of LGBT elders by Fredriksen-Goldsen found that found that 22% said they have difficulty paying bills and 21% had to cut back on other expenses to make ends meet.
Guy Aiossa, a 67-year-old retired hairdresser, said the rising cost of rent forced him from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn’s Far Rockaway more than 20 years ago. But as a gay man, he never felt safe in his new neighborhood, wary of homophobic slurs.
He keeps to himself in his apartment, except when he visits his aging mother on Long Island, he said. Otherwise, he spends his time at SAGE’s Midtown Manhattan center, partaking in art classes, mealtimes and support groups, including one he leads for family caregivers like himself.
The hourlong train ride to Manhattan wears on his aching joints, but SAGE is the only community he has left, he said. After losing friends to the AIDS epidemic and witnessing the public’s indifference to their suffering, he retreated into his own world, fearful of being further stigmatized, he said.
Now, once again, he can no longer afford the rising cost of rent, he said. Hoping to improve his quality his life, he applied for a spot in Ingersoll Senior Residences in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood.
For Aiossa, the prospect of LGBT-friendly housing, complete with a dining hall, a yoga room and health-care resources, is more than a lifeline. It’s the opportunity to start a new chapter.
“I’m still vital, still kicking,” he said. “I want to be in a community with like-minded people, where I’m free to be myself.”
Experts say Aiossa’s situation is common.
Our networks naturally thin out over time as friends and family leave us through death or other circumstances. But the difference for LGBT elders is that their communities tend to be peer-based, leaving them on their own when their networks dry up, Fredriksen-Goldsen said.
The first federally funded longitudinal study of LGBT elders found that 51% of those who lived in private residences reported social isolation. And the situation appears worse for those in senior housing, with 72% reporting social isolation.
Other factors unique to the Pride generation make aging different for them. Their main wage-earning years came before marriage equality, same-sex partner benefits or anti-discrimination laws could help them build a financial safety net or access health care. Consequently, discrimination and its side effects have left them with greater health disparities, Fredriksen-Goldsen said.
Against the odds, they built communities and fought for rights and protections, prevailing on cultural and legal fronts. But the battle is far from over, and research suggests discrimination persists, even in senior housing.
The same study found that LGBT older adults living in senior housing were twice (40%) as likely as those living in a private residence (20%) to experience verbal insults in the past year because they were perceived to be LGBT. Thirty percent of those in an assisted-living facility reported that they experienced LGBT-related verbal insults in the previous year.
Research indicates that the disparities are greater for LGBT elders of color, such as Spivey and Johnson.
Both held down jobs for most of their lives but struggled to make ends meet. Spivey raised five children in public housing in the Bronx amid two marriages and health problems. Now 65 and retired, she relies on disability benefits from Social Security to cover health-care expenses, she said.
Her annual income makes her eligible for her subsidized housing, as long as she doesn’t marry her partner and increase their household income.
As Spivey describes the situation, “the rules say that we can’t be together and have decent housing.”
Spivey, the more soft-spoken of the two, says she has always been “in the community,” although she started dating women later in life.
In the 1960s and ’70s, she accompanied her gay cousin to “spots that people asked a lot of questions about,” she said, such as the Stonewall Inn. As a black woman, she felt out of place in the city’s largely white, male-dominated gay scene. But she felt protective of her younger cousin and wanted to stand with him, she said.
After the youngest of her five children left home for college and the death of her mother, who had “strong opinions” against same-sex relationships, Spivey began working for an LGBT center in the Bronx, where her true self began to shine.
“One young lady would always say, ‘you know, Miss Marie, you are the gayest straight person that I’ve ever met,’ ” she recalled.
She started visiting SAGE’s Bronx center, first as a volunteer and then as a “constituent.” She made friends with other lesbians and started dating, albeit cautiously. Her first husband died, her second marriage ended in divorce, and her first lesbian relationship left her emotionally exhausted. For a period of time, she identified as asexual, she said, reluctant to get involved with anyone.
“I love deeply and long,” she said. “I didn’t want any more of those quick relationships,”
Then she saw Johnson (for the second time) at a dinner for a SAGE employee and was intrigued. Loud and loquacious, Johnson calls herself a “big black beautiful bohemian bougie Buddhist butch” who went to her first “gay day” parade in San Francisco in the 1980s and never looked back.
Johnson’s family supported her when she came out early in life, she said. But she concealed her sexual orientation in order to join the US Air Force in the 1980s, when the military forbade gay and lesbian people from serving. In the service, she said, she experienced sexual violence that became the root of a host of mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that she grapples with today.
She returned to the East Coast and became a licensed social worker. She lived in Yonkers and dated around for years. But Spivey was the first person who made her want to settle down, she said.
“Just look at her. She’s smart. She’s beautiful. She’s educated. And she’s thoughtful,” she said, nodding playfully at Spivey as they sat side-by-side in a room at the SAGE center in Midtown Manhattan.
Initially, Spivey was wary of starting another relationship. But Johnson was an outsider to Spivey’s insular community of black lesbians, and that made her intriguing.
“She was very intelligent, very well-spoken, and I found her interesting,” she said. “It was like learning to love and be in a relationship again.”
Their idyll was shattered when Johnson was forced to move out of her home, the couple said. Her landlord became sick, and a relative sold the home. Then Johnson lost her job, and she has been unable to find a place she can afford.
Most nights, she sleeps in her car. Occasionally, she stays with Spivey in her subsidized apartment. Under the building’s income eligibility requirements, Johnson can’t live there, because their combined household income would exceed the cap.
“Maybe we could get around it or sneak around, but I can’t live with that kind of stress,” Johnson said. “And I love Marie too much to put her in that position, to put her at risk. She can’t lose what she has.”
Johnson hid her homelessness from everyone except Spivey. She showered at work or the Veterans Affairs center, where she has regular medical appointments. She used what income she had for storage and vehicle upkeep to help her maintain appearances.
“When I lost my home, I lost so much of my self-esteem,” Johnson said.
“There’s a certain persona I want to present, and being homeless is incongruent with who I am,” she said. “I’m college-educated, intelligent; this shouldn’t be happening to me.”
Only recently did Johnson decide to open up to friends about her situation as the possibility of LGBT-friendly housing emerged. The couple grew excited as they gathered the paperwork to apply.
But again, it seemed that income requirements would prevent them from living together. The income levels for Crotona Senior Residences range from $22,410 to $44,820 for individuals and $25m620 to $51,240 for a couple.
The wrinkle put a delay in Johnson’s plans to propose to Spivey. If the two are married, their combined income would exceed the requirements. But the couple set it aside: As long as they were in the same building, that was good enough.
Then, Johnson learned that her income from disability and Social Security benefits exceeds the requirements for both developments, making her ineligible to apply even as an individual, despite being homeless.
Latisha Millard-Bethea, SAGE’s director of resident services, acknowledged the couple’s situation. She sympathizes with them and noted that SAGE employees are helping Johnson find another option.
“It’s fairly common for applicants to find out they don’t meet the income requirements, even those in difficult financial situations,” she said. “We try to work with them to help navigate the system.”
Spivey wishes she could do something to help Johnson. But she has to look after herself.
“It’s difficult not being able to help her because helping her would hurt me,” Spivey said. “I can’t do anything to mess up my medical coverage.”
The couple is disappointed about the outlook yet realistic. They’ve weathered tougher times, similar to their peers. And they have a plan.
Spivey will set her sights on Crotona Senior Residences while Johnson saves up for a deposit on a co-op, another type of affordable housing.
“One day, if we can get this housing thing together, we may eventually be a family,” Spivey said.