Imani Woody wants to turn her childhood home into the kind of dream home that eluded many older Washingtonians for years.
With some construction permits in hand and the blessing of District officials, Woody has begun to transform the bungalow where she grew up in Southeast into communal housing for elderly gay people. The project is driven by a concern that has haunted her for years: that some people grow old and die alone, isolated by their sexual orientation.
“There are people who go back into the closet because being old and being gay is too hard,” said Woody, who is a lesbian and an advocate for gay rights. “What really drives me and this place is the isolation that comes with being old — the unacceptance of bringing your whole self.”
On Saturday, Woody is hosting an open house with city officials, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), to kick off an $800,000 funding campaign for Mary’s House for Older Adults, named in honor of Woody’s late mother. So far, the organization, which received official nonprofit status this month, has raised about $8,000. A developer is working on the project pro bono.
Designed to have eight suites and communal dining and work areas, the home is intended to be an openly welcoming sanctuary for a generation accustomed to living in the shadows.
These were people who came of age before the Stonewall riots inaugurated the modern gay rights movement, when sex between consenting adults of the same gender might land them in jail, and even a partial victory at the U.S. Supreme Court seemed unimaginable.
But within the next two years, Woody hopes, a few of these people could be taking their ease on the front porch where her father once reigned, communing with each other and their neighbors without fear of rejection.
“That’s our kind of tag line: It’s where you can bring your whole self, your short self, your fat self, your gay self, your black self,” she said.
Woody and others say the attempt to create an intentionally LGBT-friendly apartment house for aging homosexuals in the District is relatively novel, even for a city that has the highest percentage of gay adults relative to other states, according to UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute.
“I know several people who would like to be anywhere but where they are — and in a safe community, no longer in the closet, no longer feeling fear, no longer feeling rejected,” said volunteer Cedric A. Burgess, 62. “I’m black. I’m gay. I’m HIV positive. I haven’t survived one day of my life without hate and prejudice.”
Burgess said he still remembers the first time as a young man that he went to Victoria Station, a gay bar on 14th Street, feeling nervous that he could be outed.
“It was like, ‘Who saw me come in here?’ ” Burgess recalled.
But then he saw someone he knew, and he realized that they were neither strange nor alone because they loved people of the same sex. People his age still hunt for such places of refuge.
“It’s something I didn’t see coming in my lifetime. And it’s a necessity, gay housing,” Burgess said.
It’s a trend that seems to be gaining momentum as the United States turns gray and gay people more openly exercise their rights. SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders), a national organization that has advocated for older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people since 1978, says that LGBT-friendly housing options have sprouted in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The federal department of Housing and Urban Development also has put the country on notice that the agency will use regulatory leverage to combat same-sex bias.
Sterling Washington, director of the District’s Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs, said his agency has worked with Stoddard Baptist Nursing Home, the Washington Center for the Aging and similar retirement communities to cultivate best practices for serving older gay people.
“One of the concerns we found was that there was fear among a lot of LGBT seniors about going into certain facilities, including nursing homes or retirement homes, because of their [belief] that they’d have to go back into the closet in order to receive services without discrimination,” Washington said.
Woody’s project evolved from more than a decade of work with people who are aging, African American and gay. In a 2011 doctoral dissertation, she examined the difficulties that this minority of minorities can face. Black homosexuals who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s got an exhilarating taste of freedom during the civil rights movement, she wrote — and yet sometimes felt scorned or excluded even by fellow blacks because of their sexual orientation.
Acceptance was always hard-won, and for some it became more difficult as they aged, she said. They discovered that retirement homes can sometimes feel unwelcoming to gay people. They found that newer LGBT-friendly community centers may be awkward at dealing with older people.
Even today, gay elders sometimes feel as if they have to “de-gay” their homes or themselves — removing certain furnishings or concealing behaviors that might signal their sexual orientation — before accepting such routine services as Meals on Wheels, Woody said.
Becoming her ailing father’s caregiver made her wonder: What would have happened to him had she not been there? What if he had also been gay?
Woody came out as a lesbian when she was in her 40s, after a heterosexual marriage and the birth of a daughter. Now a grandmother, Woody lives in Brookland with her wife, Andrea. They’ve been together 14 years.
During a tour of her childhood home, Woody — who, when asked her age, allows only that she has an AARP membership card — said her family was the first African American family on the block. Her father, Brady, operated a vegetable truck and ministered at Mount Carmel Baptist Church. She was the eldest of five children. They played in a nearby stream and picked grapes from the house’s backyard arbor, not far from a barbecue pit.
Her childhood home is a shell now. The developer started renovations in 2012. Where passersby might see little more than boarded-up windows, broken fences and a saggy porch, Woody sees much more. An addition will expand the house up and out, and the bedroom suites will include private baths and kitchenettes. And there will be a beautiful new porch.
“We’re still going to have our front porch, and people are still going to be able to wave and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ ” she said.