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Out of the Closet, in a Home: Dallas’ LGBTQ Seniors Get Help Finding a Friendly Place to Live

Robert Emery is a co-founder of the Coalition for Aging LGBT.
Robert Emery is a co-founder of the Coalition for Aging LGBT.
Kathy Tran

Bill spends most of his days in front of the TV. He has few family members, fewer friends, and is content to watch sitcoms and eat meals alone. Bill (not his real name) is gay and is part of a rising number of elderly LGBTQ North Texans. As a man over 65 years old, he is also part of the 27 percent of people in his age group who live alone. Most days, Bill does not mind. In fact, he prefers the quiet. But he heard about a group of men and women his age who gather for lunch once a week, and Bill was interested.

One day, he decided to join them. Mary Jane Rogers, the Fort Worth woman who organizes those lunches, remembers the moment Bill entered the room.

“He kind of ambled in, and he was a little grumpy about the whole thing,” Rogers recalls. “He told me, ‘All I do is sit in my lounge chair in front of the TV, so I thought I’d come here.’ And I thought, ‘Well, we’ll see how this goes.’”

Over the next several lunches, Rogers noted Bill’s improved demeanor. He became a little less surly, a little more talkative. He joined in conversations about health, insurance and finances, and he even started opening up about his life.

“After a few months, the change was incredible,” Rogers says.

She pauses, her mind flashing back to a recent Christmas, and a moment of kindness that still floors her.

“What he did for that group of people still makes me emotional.”

Rogers, a friendly 73-year-old, is a member of the Coalition for Aging LGBT, a group that includes financial planners, a theater artist and a noted LGBTQ historian. Rogers, a healthcare veteran who witnessed the AIDS crisis ravage Dallas in the 1980s, joined the coalition as a volunteer on the health committee.

Another coalition member noted Rogers’ chatty nature and talent for getting others to open up and invited her to lead an entirely different team.

“I’m an introvert,” Rogers says. “And they wanted me to be a part of the social engagement committee. I asked them, ‘Are you serious?’”

They were. As the social engagement chair, Rogers plans weekly luncheons for her LGBTQ seniors in Tarrant County and coordinates outings to movies and to the bowling alley, a group favorite.

Social engagement is just one facet of the Dallas nonprofit’s work. Since its inception in 2015, the coalition has aimed to improve and protect the quality of life for elderly LGBTQ people. Their focuses include health, social services, advocacy and education. Apart from its weekly lunches, the coalition may be best known for its robust housing initiative.

***

Robert Emery didn’t need a microphone to speak to his audience at the sixth annual Affordable Housing Seminar. A dozen or so social workers gathered to hear Emery, the coalition’s co-founder, talk about the coalition. The 60-year-old wears a disarming, toothy grin, and his booming, confident voice demands attention and exudes warmth.

“There is a rainbow wave coming,” he tells the crowd. “Are you ready?”

Emery is also the co-founder of The Dallas Way, a repository of LGBTQ history that is the largest resource of its kind in the Southwest. In 2013, he was the grand marshal of Dallas’ PRIDE parade, and he has served on the board of directors for the Black Tie Dinner, an annual fundraising event for the LGBTQ community. His passion for advocacy is driven, in part, by a cold reality: We’re all getting older, and when we’re old, we need help. As a gay man, what will his options be for housing? Where can he and other members of the LGBTQ community live when they retire? Where will they be embraced and accepted?

The “rainbow wave” to which he refers is the rising number of Dallas residents who are over 45 and part of the LGBTQ community. Census data projects that there are nearly 200,000 gay and lesbian seniors in Dallas and its suburbs, and that doesn’t include people who identify as bisexual or transgender, since the census does not account for those identities. They need places to live, Emery says, and most important, they need places to live that will not force them back in the closet.

Rogers likes to cite a study by SAGE, the United States’ largest and oldest organization for LGBTQ elder advocacy.

“Eighty-nine percent of people predict that the staff of long-care facilities would discriminate against them,” Rogers says. “Whether or not that’s a fact, it’s a fear. And when you’re afraid, you’ll go back in the closet.”

That fear — for himself, and for others — has motivated Emery since 2002. His initial mission was to create a brick-and-mortar retirement community devoted to LGBTQ seniors in Dallas. He met former Texas Instruments executive Cannon Flowers in 2013 when, according to Emery, Flowers was “well on his way to founding the coalition.” The two were a natural fit: Flowers wanted to improve quality of life for LGBT seniors, and Emery wanted to ensure those seniors had a place to live.

Emery was confident seniors wanted a community to call their own. He was spectacularly wrong. When the nascent coalition surveyed a contingency of young and old LGBTQ citizens, they asked, “Are you interested in a brick and mortar?”

Ninety-five percent of respondents answered no.

“They wanted existing retirement communities to accept them with equity,” Emery says. “So I did a complete 180 with my life mission.”

Rather than create a new retirement community, Emery opted to fix the existing ones. He recruited coalition volunteers for a new effort: An LGBTQ housing guide that tells seniors and families where to find accepting communities.

“Ninety-nine percent of placements in assisted living are done during an emergency, because your mom has fallen,” Emery says. “With the guide, we’re trying to be a shortcut for you.”

Emery talks about the logistics of this guide with unbounded zeal, making paper forms and random questionnaires sound like chapters in an exciting adventure. But his excitement belies a discomforting truth. As they tried to make Dallas retirement communities suitable for aging LGBTQ residents, Emery and his team were met with the most frustrating of all obstacles: red tape.

The coalition had no shortage of retirement communities seeking placement in their housing guide. The problem was getting them up to grade.

“If you and I walked into a community today and said, ‘We’re looking for a community for our aunt and wife,’ the salesman will say, ‘Absolutely. Your aunt and her wife are welcome here,’” Emery says. “But ask one more question, like, ‘What is the corporate policy on LGBT residents?’ and they’ll have no idea what to say.”

The nonprofit created a scoring system for retirement communities, and if communities want a spot in the annual guide, they need to score at least 80 out of 100. Once a community applies, it gets what Emery calls a “pop quiz,” an assessment of the community’s policies and employee training. Questions like “Does your resident bill of rights include sexual orientation?” and “Do you offer LGBT-themed programming for your residents?” inform the score. Evidently, the first try is always disastrous.

“A score in the teens would be lucky,” Emery says with a thundering laugh.

So the real work begins. The coalition sends a pair of volunteers to the community to review the score, tour the community and start to make changes. What sounds like a scolding is more like the teacher sharing the answers to the pop quiz.

“These communities don’t have to invent the wheel,” Emery says.

To rise from the teens to an 80, communities launch new programs, refresh their employee and resident policies and implement new training for staff. Emery calls this process “gentle leading.” Michelle Rankine, owner of the in-care home company Right at Home and a frequent Emery collaborator, calls it “an education.”

“It’s about being educated about how they love and what is their faith,” she says. “This is a population that has been silenced, so people may say, ‘We don’t have any biases,’ but that doesn’t mean you know what you need to know.”

Rankine and Emery met in 2018, when Rankine was with Monarch Pavilion, a community that is now featured in the coalition’s housing guide. Like all of the communities in the guide, Monarch’s first score was low. Through guidance from Emery and his coalition team, Rankine helped Monarch raise its score to a 95.

“We talk to everyone from the gardener, to the chef, to the vice president,” Emery says. “What we find is that everyone has someone who is LGBT in their life who they love, but people at work don’t talk about the niece they’re proud of, or the son they’re proud of, because the corporate culture has not risen to that level.”

This culture is the ultimate bulwark resisting change. While most communities are happy to raise their score from 8 to 80, corporate roadblocks often prevent changes from happening quickly. For most communities, it can take up to nine months to change their policies and practices. Simple program additions and updates to tenants’ bills of rights can result in months of gridlock. The COVID-19 pandemic has made those changes even more challenging. Emery and company are no longer visiting retirement communities in person, so it’s unlikely any new homes will be added to their housing guide now. Facing even longer periods of tedium and stasis, Emery and his coalition colleagues are continuously reminding themselves why they do this.

“When we think about someone who is 80 living in assisted living, they come from a generation where they didn’t know a lot of out gay people,” Emery says. “We want to help you find a community where you’ll be safe, and if we can do that, then we believe you’ll make friends there, too. You’ll find family.”

***
Staff of the Coalition of Aging LGBT, from left to right: Briana Monsalve, Sandy Anderson, Robert Emery, Emma Colquitt, DR Mann Hanson, Kim Macpherson
Staff of the Coalition of Aging LGBT, from left to right: Briana Monsalve, Sandy Anderson, Robert Emery, Emma Colquitt, DR Mann Hanson, Kim Macpherson
courtesy Robert Emery

Emery is just one member of an increasingly large coalition family. There are only two part-time employees, but a large number of volunteers and active board members work to advance the organization’s agenda across its areas of focus.

Jaime Esposito, a 27-year-old percussionist, directs the social engagement community. They (Esposito prefers they/them pronouns) are particularly passionate about supporting the LGBT population in Denton.

“It’s been a longtime goal of mine to have places in Denton where queers can hang out,” they say.

Esposito says the senior community in Denton is active, but there is no LGBTQ-friendly programming.

“They go to movies and events, but none of it is gay,” Esposito says. “Gay people are allowed to go, but no one is going. To be inclusive, you have to advertise the queerness.”

Esposito’s involvement in the coalition also has personal benefits: “This is how I keep myself from ... being super pissed off.”

As a music instructor, Esposito spends a lot of time with young musicians and their parents. Sometimes, these experiences give Esposito a front-row seat to the kind of anti-LGBT behavior the coalition believes has a lasting negative affect.

“One of my students wore his purple shoes one day,” they say. “He was into them one day, then stopped wearing them the next. When I asked why, he said, ‘My mom called them gay.’ That’s the kind of behavior that forces you back in the closet.”

Esposito, who is engaged to a woman with two kids, hopes their involvement in the coalition will set a positive example for their future children.

“I want to show my kids, ‘This is the way you treat people. This is how you can be an ally.’”

DR Mann Hanson, a local theater artist, has been interested in advocacy for LGBT elders since he lived in New York. He saw a subway poster for SAGE and was intrigued.

“It seemed like they were doing something no one was talking about,” Hanson says. “Helping LGBT youth is critical, but how can we look after our seniors?”

Like Esposito, Hanson wants to spread awareness about the issues affecting elderly LGBT people.

“They’re socially isolated,” he says. “They face the same discrimination that anyone who is LGBT is going to face, and on top of that, they have to grapple with everything that comes with getting older.”

As they talk about the coalition, Hanson and Esposito repeatedly mention Mary Jane Rogers. “You have to talk to Jane,” they both say. “Jane is incredible.”

Rogers is the kind of person who can hold a conversation for hours. Whether the topic is art history or health insurance, chances are good she will have an entertaining anecdote.

The social engagement committee leader says her involvement in the coalition is a culmination of decades in health and advocacy. As the former director of health information management at Parkland Hospital, she has witnessed over five decades of changes in healthcare, including the rise of Medicare and its impact on the elderly. In 1985, she joined the AIDS ministry at the now-shuttered Metropolitan Community Church and did everything she could to give hope to those whose lives were being destroyed by the disease. She saw the coalition as a chance to provide the support that aging LGBTQ people need.

“It’s easy to say ‘senior LGBT community,’ but that’s not a thing that exists,” she says. “You have to build community. And if we’re going to be a resource, well, we have to get the word out.”

When the coalition started hosting lunches in 2017, Rogers told everyone she knew to spread the word: This is a place to meet people and get info that might help you and your loved ones. The lunch location varies, but everyone leaves with what Rogers calls a “goodie bag.” The bag includes the housing guide, info on insurance and candy.

“We’ll have hell to pay if someone doesn’t get their York peppermint patty,” Rogers says.

More important, the lunches are a chance to build relationships. In dreaming up how the lunches could help Tarrant County seniors, Rogers drew inspiration from the TV sitcom Cheers.

“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came,” she says, half-singing, half-reciting the show’s theme song. “We want to know your name, and we want to know what’s important to you.”

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People use the lunch to check in on each other and swap stories and tips. The lunch discussions cover health, housing, politics and financial security and give Rogers an insight into what seniors care about most and what the coalition must address. Some frequent diners have Parkinson’s disease, others have upcoming surgeries. Their friends look out for them, often checking in outside of lunches. Friendships form before Rogers’ eyes. Now, they’re forming online via Zoom, which the coalition has started using to combat the isolation many of its seniors are feeling during the pandemic. That isolation reminds Rogers of Bill.

For months, Rogers watched the curmudgeon slowly warm up to the seniors surrounding him at each lunch. Bill learned their names. His grouchy demeanor faded away, replaced by what Rogers is convinced was a smile. As the holidays neared, some of the diners got gifts for one another. When Bill showed up to the last lunch before Christmas, he came with presents for every single person at the lunch.

Rogers cites Bill’s story as one of her favorite coalition memories. To her, it embodies what the group does best: form a community where once there was none.

“We don’t care that Bill buys us gifts,” she says. “We care that Bill has us.”

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