Florida’s retirement community has been touted as the nation’s first for LGBTQ people

PALMETTO, Florida. >> Fred Hodges still remembers the names and faces of his long-dead neighbors.

There was Irving, who adopted his life partner, Ron, so they could have some kind of legal recognition while same-sex marriage was still banned in Florida.

There was Emery, a doctor who advocated for the health of coal miners and AIDS patients and who was eventually killed in what was said to be a hate crime.

And there was Jan, who died of lung cancer last year with no known relatives. Hodges paid a private investigator in Indiana to find the beneficiary named in his 20-year will.

“It’s bad when you live alone and you don’t have anyone,” said Hodges, whose partner of nearly half a century died in 2019. “That’s why here in the Palms we we are a family.”

The Palms of Manasota, tucked away on a sunny side street in Palmetto, was touted some 20 years ago as America’s first retirement community for LGBTQ people.

“We’re still here,” said Hodges, who is 71. But the number of LGBTQ residents is declining.

“It’s clear,” he said, pointing to a nearby house. Then he pointed to the next one: “It’s all right.

He pulled up to a “For Sale” sign in Carol’s yard, which might lead to another straight person moving in.

A radical idea

Walking through the palm trees of Manasota is like stepping into a postcard of Florida life.

Spanish moss adorns every oak tree and manicured palm trees line the streets. A pool with a fountain, complete with a single turtle, crowns it all.

In the mid-1990s, a retired psychology professor named Bill Laing bought about 22 acres of land south of Tampa.

Inspired by a friend who had been discriminated against in his retirement home after coming out about his sexuality, Laing envisioned a place where members of the LGBTQ community could live out their final years in safety among their peers.

It was radical. Newspapers around the world – from the Wall Street Journal to The Economist – have reported on the construction of the nation’s first “alternative lifestyle retirement village”.

“It’s going to have to be gays and lesbians or people who understand the lifestyle,” Laing told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1994. “We’re not going to turn anyone away.”

Laing, who was gay, lived in the community until his death in 2000.

When Hodges and her partner, John, moved into the Palms in 2002, there were 21 single-family homes and six condominiums, The Economist reported, with plans to bring in another 250 people.

Subtlety was the watchword from the start. Early homeowner bylaws prohibit residents from putting up flags of any kind, according to Hodges.

“The original owners came here to escape the prejudice of being gay and lesbian,” he said. “It’s not a gated community, so they didn’t want to advertise, ‘Gays live here. Beat us!’”

Originally, Laing planned to build an assisted living facility inside the palm trees so residents could age in place.

But the developers who took over after Laing’s death filed for bankruptcy in 2010, halting construction on the property. The undeveloped land was sold to the bank, where it sat idle until acquired by Meridian General Contracting in 2020.

‘It was a dream’

Many retirement communities designed for LGBTQ seniors that have sprung up in the Palms’ wake have struggled financially.

But according to Sydney Kopp-Richardson, director of the National LGBTQ Seniors Housing Initiative at SAGE, there is a growing interest and need for LGBTQ-specific housing.

It is estimated that 7 million LGBTQ people will be over 50 by 2030.

These seniors — especially transgender seniors and seniors of color — are at increased risk of experiencing violence, lack of family support and economic instability, Kopp-Richardson said. Many LGBTQ seniors report fears of being discriminated against and having to “lock themselves in” when entering a retirement community.

“All of these factors amplify the isolation that is already huge for older people,” Kopp-Richardson said. “So an affinity-based space with your peers, in your community, can really help with your social, mental, and physical health.”

Retirement communities designed for LGBTQ seniors, however, face a delicate balance. Under federal fair housing law, a community cannot prevent someone from moving in because of their sexual orientation.

“You can’t mandate that only LGBTQ people live there or prioritize LGBTQ seniors,” Kopp-Richardson said. “So without intentional marketing, outreach, and sustained programming, there is no guarantee that this space will remain LGBTQ-friendly or affirmative.”

Exactly when the Palms properties stopped being advertised as an LGBTQ retreat center is up for debate. Gay and lesbian residents say things changed gradually once the bank took over.

“Anyone who bought after that was pretty much straight,” said Mary Cumisky, 80, a homeowner since 2002 who identifies as a lesbian. “One after the other.”

One thing is clear: the land that once made up The Palms of Manasota will no longer be advertised as an LGBTQ retirement community in the future.

“That question never occurred to us,” said Kelly Frye, president of Meridian General Contracting. “We understand that the LGBTQ community is as equal as any other human being on the planet. We’re just selling to human beings. If you want to live there, you’re free and welcome.

“We take care of each other”

But a remnant of the old days remains.

It’s Friday at 5 p.m., and six neighbors gather for the weekly happy hour at Cumisky’s — she has the veranda that overlooks the pond, after all.

Most of them are members of the LGBTQ community, but a heterosexual neighbor who recently lost her husband also joins them.

“Sometimes it turns into group therapy,” Cumisky said.

“Old people talking about their problems!” Hodges said with a chuckle. “A real exciting group.”

“No, no, I thought it was important because we all live alone and we don’t get a chance to talk deeply about things,” Cumisky said.

“It’s important because I’m alone,” she said. ” You are alone. Sandy has a family but they are not there.

“Hank is alone, Ron is alone, Pauline is alone,” Hodges added.

An all-LGBTQ retirement community may no longer exist, but the concept of “chosen family” lives on in the Palms.

“When I had to have my hip replaced last February, I had no one at all to help take care of me,” Hodges said. “And Mary was my nurse. In fact, she was a psychiatric nurse.

“It was very fitting,” Cumisky said with a laugh. “We have a good life. We really have a good life.

“We care about each other,” Hodges agreed.

“It’s what’s left of the Palms, the brainchild,” Cumisky added. “We still feel that – and for each other.”

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