What Happened to America’s First LGBTQ Retiree Community?
Fred Hodges still remembers the names and faces of neighbors long gone.
There was Irving, who adopted his lifelong partner, Ron, so they could have some sort of legal recognition when same-sex marriage was still banned in Florida.
There was Emery, a doctor who championed the health of coal miners and AIDS patients and who was ultimately murdered in what was believed 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.
âIt’s bad when you live on your own and have no one,â said Hodges, whose nearly half-century partner died in 2019. âThat’s why here at Palms we are a family.”
The Palms of Manasota, tucked away on a sunny side street in Palmetto, was billed some 20 years ago as America’s first retirement community for LGBTQ people.
âWe’re still here,â said Hodges, who is 71. But the number of LGBTQ residents is declining.
âIt’s true,â he said, gesturing to a nearby house. Then he showed the following: âThat’s right. “
He stopped near a “For Sale” sign in Carol’s backyard, which could lead another straight person to move in.
A RADICAL IDEA
Stepping into the palm trees of Manasota is like stepping into a postcard to live in Florida.
Spanish moss adorns every oak tree, and manicured palm trees line the streets. A swimming pool with a fountain, with a single turtle, completes the whole.
There is no hint of the parties that once brought neighbors to the streets. There is no rainbow flag in sight, but it always has been.
In the mid-1990s, a retired psychology professor named Bill Laing purchased about 22 acres of land south of Tampa.
Inspired by a friend who had been discriminated against at his retirement home after revealing his sexuality, Laing envisioned a place where members of the LGBTQ community could live their final years safely 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 country’s first âAlternative Lifestyle Retirement Villageâ.
Straight people were not excluded from the community, but the founder of Palms was clear: the community would be built and marketed to older LGBTQ people.
âIt’s going to have to be gays and lesbians or people who understand the way of life,â Laing told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1994. âWe’re not going to turn anyone away. Laing, who was gay, lived in the community until his death in 2000.
When Hodges and his 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 word from the start. According to Hodges, the first homeowners’ regulations prohibit residents from installing flags of any kind.
âThe original owners here came to escape the prejudices of being gay and lesbian,â he said. “It’s not a closed community, so they didn’t want to advertise, ‘Gay people live here.’ Defeat us! ‘ “
Originally, Laing planned to build an assisted living facility inside the Palms, so residents could age in place.
But the developers who took over after Laing’s death filed for bankruptcy in 2010, stopping construction of the property for years. The undeveloped land was sold to the bank, where it lay dormant until it was purchased by Meridian General Contracting in 2020.
Many original residents have died. Others have moved into long-term care homes. Hodges estimates that most of the remaining LGBTQ residents are over 70.
‘IT WAS A DREAM’
Many retirement communities designed for LGBTQ seniors that have sprung up in the wake of the Palms have struggled financially.
But there is a growing interest in – and a need for – LGBTQ-specific housing, according to Sydney Kopp-Richardson, director of the National LGBTQ Elder Housing Initiative at SAGE.
It is estimated that 7 million LGBTQ people will be over 50 by 2030.
These older people – especially transgender older people and older people of color – are at increased risk of experiencing violence, lack of family support and economic instability, Kopp-Richardson said. Many LGBTQ seniors say they fear being discriminated against and having to âshut downâ when entering a retirement community.
“All of these factors amplify the isolation which is already enormous for the elderly,” Kopp-Richardson said. âSo an affinity-based space with your peers, in your community, can really help your social, mental and physical health. “
Retirement communities designed for LGBTQ seniors, however, face a delicate balance. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, a community cannot prevent someone from moving in because of their sexual orientation.
âYou can’t impose that only LGBTQ people live there or prioritize older LGBTQ people,â Kopp-Richardson said. âSo if there is no intentional marketing, outreach and sustained programming, there is no guarantee that this space will remain LGBTQ-friendly or affirmative. “
Exactly when the Palms properties ceased to be advertised as part of an LGBTQ retreat center is the subject of debate. Gay and lesbian residents say things gradually changed once the bank took over – with a slow drop of new residents moving into empty units.
“Whoever bought after that was pretty much straight,” said Mary Cumisky, 80, an owner since 2002 who identifies as a lesbian. “One after the other.”
âWhen I saw a real estate agent showing it to people, I would go out and introduce myself and say, ‘Did you know this is a gay and lesbian retiree community? âHodges added with a laugh. âYeah, gay and lesbian! It’s a beautiful place, you should move here! â
One thing is clear: The land that once housed The Palms of Manasota will no longer be advertised as an LGBTQ retirement community in the future.
âThis question has never occurred to us,â said Kelly Frye, president of Meridian General Contracting. âWe understand that the LGBTQ community is as equal as any other human on the face of the planet. We are only selling to human beings. If you want to live there, you are free and welcome.
Today, LGBTQ retirees own 14 of the Palms’ 21 single-family homes, Hodges said. Two of them are rented to heterosexuals. The villa district is even more mixed, and the new houses will be open to everyone.
âBack then, there was a need for that camaraderie, to be together and for that security,â Hodges said. âWe are now in 2021. We have come a long way. There is still obviously hate, but not as close as before. So there is no real need for that. I miss that, however.
âIt was a dream,â Cumisky said. “That’s all it was.”
“WE TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER”
But there is still a vestige of the old days.
It’s 5 p.m. Friday, and six neighbors gather for a 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 her.
âSometimes it turns into group therapy,â Cumisky said.
âOld people talking about their problems! Hodges said with a small laugh. “A real exciting group.”
âNo, no, I thought it was important because we all live on our own and we don’t have the chance to talk in depth about things,â Cumisky said.
âIt’s huge, because I’m all alone,â she said. âYou are all alone. Sandy has a family, but they’re not here.
âHank is alone, Ron is alone, Pauline is alone,â Hodges added.
A fully LGBTQ retirement community might have been a dream, but the concept of a âchosen familyâ endures in the Palms.
âWhen I had to have my hip replaced last February, I had no one at all to help take care of myself,â Hodges said. âAnd Mary was my nurse. In fact, she was a psychiatric nurse.
âIt was very appropriate,â Cumisky said with a laugh. âWe have a good life. We really have a great life.
âWe take care of each other,â Hodges agreed.
âThat’s what’s left of the Palms, the original idea,â Cumisky added. âWe still have the feeling. And one for the other.