PHILADELPHIA — The suspicious questions and puzzled looks started as soon as Sidney Meyers, 74, put in his applications to live in a sun-dappled Florida retirement community. Was he ever married? Why not? No children? No grandchildren!?
It was challenging to find a place to live, because the residents and landlords all knew he was gay, he said. Would he be having “guests?” several asked, often with raised eyebrows.
“It was painful because I had no proud pictures of grandchildren to show off. In my generation, gay men weren’t allowed to adopt children, let alone marry,” Meyers said. “We weren’t even allowed to exist.”
But today, after deciding that several other communities in Florida weren’t for him, Meyers has found a home where he can be proud of his life. He lives in the John C. Anderson apartments, a six-story building that opened recently in Center City here and caters to low-income seniors in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community. Many are pioneers of the gay rights movement.
The project, affectionately called “the gay-dy shady acres” by residents, is being hailed as a model for similar federally backed housing projects in the District and more than a dozen other cities across the country.
This initiative is part of a broader campaign by the federal government to address what officials say is growing housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. The trend is due in part to more gay Americans being out of the closet, officially married and more aware of their rights than ever before, said Gustavo Velasquez, assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at Housing and Urban Development.
Since last year, HUD has received 150 allegations of housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. The first nationwide study of LGBT housing discrimination, released by the department last year, found that heterosexual couples were favored over gay male couples and lesbian couples nearly 16 percent of the time.
In the coming months, federal officials said they plan to dispatch the first LGBT “fair housing testers” across the country, modeled after testers who have traditionally posed as prospective tenants to see whether there is racial discrimination.
While the government has long brought cases against housing discrimination on the basis of race and religion, federal officials say sexual orientation and gender identity are the new front lines.
The Anderson apartments already have a 100-person waiting list. And that number is likely to grow. About 1.5 million Americans who are 65 or older identify as LGBT, with that number expected to double by 2030, according to the Institute for Multigenerational Health.
As in many senior-living complexes, many of the residents of this 56-unit building use walkers and scooters — but here they are often decked out with feathery hot pink boas and rainbow flags.
On a recent afternoon, Meyers zipped through the pumpkin- colored halls on his red-and-black motorized scooter, which he uses since being diagnosed with an inoperable hernia.
He showed off his latest hairstyle — the top of his gray hair dyed the red, yellow, blue and purple hues of the LGBT pride flag — to a group of radical feminist lesbians who were playing mah-jongg in the community center and to a transgender woman who was watering a patch of moonflowers in the courtyard garden.
“It’s fabulous, honey,” called out Elizabeth Coffey-Williams, a creamy-skinned redhead and retired 1970s transgender film star who appeared in the 1972 cult hit “Pink Flamingos.” She also had one of the first sex reassignment surgeries in the country at Johns Hopkins University.
“Oh, Elizabeth’s just a wonderful neighbor. This is so much better than Boca,” said Meyers, referring to the town in Florida. “It’s saved my life.”
A former Army private first class, Meyers once worked as a jewelry designer and wrote gay erotica under a pen name. He said he spent a lifetime feeling like he did not fit in and grew bitter because he never realized his dream of becoming a parent. But this self-described “chronic kvetch” has found that, since he moved into the building, he has been “flat-out optimistic and even happy.”
On this recent afternoon, a gay Buddhist priest led a meditation session for residents in the roof-top garden. In the community room downstairs, a former dance teacher, Deirdre McLaurin, 62, who said she’s finally able to openly say that she’s lesbian, relaxed next to silver-haired John S. James, who worked for the National Institutes of Health in the 1960s, taught at Montgomery College 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,” said James, 73.
Today, that same government is taking steps to equalize access to housing for LGBT people.
The Fair Housing Act, which explicitly bars several forms of housing discrimination, does not specifically include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. But the Obama administration says this discrimination may still be covered by the law.
In 2012, the administration required that federal housing assistance and mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration be provided without regard to perceived sexual orientation or gender.
The establishment of the Anderson apartments was the making of Mark Segal, a maverick and early gay activist who in the 1960s belonged to the radical Gay Liberation Front. He called the Anderson project “one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”
Over an oversized matzo ball soup in a Jewish deli, Segal — a lightning-fast-talking bundle of caffeinated energy who’s constantly recognized on the Center City streets — recounted how he had pitched the idea of the housing project to Obama. When Obama came to Philadelphia in 2010, Segal was part of a group that met with him.
“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 401(k) plans,” he said. “They lost many of their friends and support networks to AIDS. Their families disowned them for being gay.”
Today, he told the president, they can’t afford to live in the gay neighborhoods their lives inspired. Obama put him in touch with HUD officials.
As Segal told the tale, deli patrons kept coming up to him to thank him for all he has done for the gay community.
The housing project has been classified as “LGBT friendly,” so it does not exclude anyone. (There are a handful of straight residents, many of whom have LGBT sons and daughters who they want to be able to visit without judgment.)
The rental apartments are bright one-bedrooms with oversize windows. To qualify, seniors must earn between $8,000 and $33,000 a year. The project was built in partnership with Pennrose Properties, which specializes in affordable housing. It received $6 million from the state, $2 million from Washington and $11.5 million in low-income federal tax credits, according to Segal.
Segal said his favorite feature in the apartment complex are the vast, walk-in “drag-queen closets,” which he said symbolize the community being out in the open.
The bright lobby has a life-size portrait of the project’s namesake: John C. Anderson, a first-term city council member who died in 1983, at age 41, reportedly from AIDS.
Every floor is decorated with framed black-and-white photographs of the 1969 Stonewall riots — demonstrations following a police raid on a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that helped launch the gay rights movement — and other protests with activists bearing signs that read, “Homosexuality is not a sin” and “Gay Power!”
Susan Silverman said that even though she’s 65 and walks with a cane, she’ll always be the “radical lesbian feminist” who protested against the Miss America pageant and worked alongside Segal with the Gay Liberation Front.
She moved here from a walk-up studio apartment in Brooklyn that she had rented for 40 years, attracted by the lesbian-friendly atmosphere and affordable rent — not to mention the elevators and on-site laundry.
“It really resonated with me,” she said while sitting in the lobby library.
Just outside, in the garden, Roosevelt Adams, 67, was setting out a breakfast tray with fresh coffee and pastries. He said he moved here from another apartment in Philadelphia after his landlady threatened that if he brought a male date by, she would “call the police.”
He no longer worries about that. He may actually meet someone in the building and go on a date, he said. This time, with his neighbors cheering him on.