One-hundred people are already on a waiting list to get into the John C. Anderson Apartments, the new retirement community for low-income LGBT seniors in Philadelphia.
The “gay-dy shady acres,” as it is known affectionately by residents, is part of a campaign by the federal government because housing discrimination based on sexual orientation is growing.
Since last year, the U.S .Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received over 150 allegations of housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, and that heterosexual couples were favored over gay couples 16 percent of the time.
One of John C. Anderson’s residents, Sidney Meyers, 74, faced that discrimination first-hand after being questioned why he wasn’t ever married and why he didn’t have children.
“It was painful because I had no proud pictures of grandchildren to show off,” Meyers said. “In my generation, gay men weren’t allowed to adopt children, let alone marry. We weren’t even allowed to exist.”
Right now, about 1.5 million Americans 65 and older identify as LGBT. That number is expected to double by 2030.
The apartments, which have 56 units, have proud residents, including Elizabeth Coffey-Williams, a 1970s transgender film star and one of the first to have a sex reassignment surgeries in the country.
“Oh, Elizabeth’s just a wonderful neighbor,” Meyers said. “This is so much better than Boca [a Florida town]. It’s saved my life.”
Another resident, John James, can now be comfortably out. James, 73, worked for the National Institutes of Health in the 1960s and published the first AIDS treatment newsletter.
“Being out was so dangerous back then that when I attended a protest, the newspapers would only show my pants in pictures because I would get fired by the government if anyone knew I was gay,” James said.
The apartments were the idea of early gay activist in the radical Gay Liberation Front, Mark Segal. He met with President Barack Obama in 2010 and discussed the position of the older gay activists.
“I told him that this was the ‘first out generation,’ the brave pioneers who were out fighting for the cause and weren’t able to get jobs with the 401k plans,” he said. “They lost many of their friends and support networks to AIDS. Their families disowned them for being gay.”
When he explained many were too poor to live in the gay neighborhoods they helped create, Obama got him in touch with HUD officials.
While the apartments are gay-friendly, they are not exclusive. They are one-bedrooms, with walk-in “drag-queen closets.” To qualify, residents must earn between $8,000 and $33,000 a year.
Each floor has framed photographs of the 1969 Stonewall-riots and the lobby has a life-sized portrait of John C. Anderson, the first-term city councilman who died of AIDS at age 41 in 1983.
Segal said these apartments are “one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”