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Seeking Shelter: Building Housing and Community for LGBTQ Elders


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RosieLesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors are much more likely than their straight counterparts to be alone and isolated as they age. Housing and support for these elders is a growing need–and the issue is not confined to the United States. On this edition, we’ll visit Jakarta Indonesia, and Los Angeles, California, to hear stories of building housing and community for LGBTQ seniors.

Featuring: Michael Adams, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders executive director; Alice Herman, Rosie Delmar, Triangle Square residents; Eric Harrison, Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing executive director; Yulianus Rettoblaut, waria activist and community leader; Yoti Maya, Mbok Sri, waria elders. Special thanks to FSRN-Free Speech Radio News.

For More Information:
Griot Circle
Open House – SF
Queens Community House
Inside Indonesia
Beyond the Box



JEN CHIEN: This week on Making Contact…

CLIP01: ALICE/ “If we had been a straight couple then I would have gotten her social security which was twice as much as mine/ I didn’t get anything.”

CHIEN: Studies show that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer seniors are much more likely than their straight counterparts to be alone and isolated as they age. Housing and support for these elders is a growing need–and the issue is not just confined to the United States.

CLIP02: YULI3: From a government perspective they are confused about whether to put them in the male or female old people’s home and their families certainly don’t want to look after them.

CHIEN: On this edition, we’ll visit Jakarta Indonesia, and Los Angeles, California, to hear stories of building housing and community for LGBTQ seniors.

I’m Jen Chien, and this is “Making Contact”, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.


MUSIC: Gaga, born this way

CHIEN: In recent years, much progress has been made in the fight for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. You can see a lot of this shift reflected in popular media.

ellen degeneres
modern family
brokeback mountain

CHIEN: But there’s something missing from pop culture’s portrayal of the LGBTQ community. With all the shiny young faces on display, LGBTQ elders have been relegated to the sidelines. Many of the cultural and political gains we see today, are due to the efforts of a generation that’s now aging, often in isolation and obscurity.

According to research, LGBTQ elders are twice as likely to be single, and four times as likely to be childless than their heterosexual counterparts. For those that are partnered, legal discrimination can mean difficulty accessing partner benefits. Many queer elders do not have good relationships with their families of origin. So as they age, lifelines of support and care can dwindle. Fear of homophobia, discrimination or abuse can lead many LGBTQ elders to stay isolated, even as they face difficulties with health care, and with housing.

ADAMS: 22:14-23:02 Very often LGBT older adults find that they are not welcome in so-called mainstream aging programs. And so they don’t have the sense of community that often comes with group-based social services. We also know, unfortunately, that even within the LGBT community itself, older people often feel isolated and don’t find the sense of community that they need.

CHIEN: Michael Adams, executive director of SAGE–Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders– spoke in 2011 at the nation’s first summit on LGBTQ Housing issues.

ADAMS: 16:42-17:51 We know that in general LGBT older folks face particular challenges and we can lump those challenges into 3 general areas: in terms of stigma, being disconnected from traditional family structures, and in terms of unequal treatment under the law. What all of those factors build toward is in many cases, [is] particularly a heightened experience of isolation among LGBT older people, which heightens the importance of community and place. So, for LGBT elders, it’s fair to say that welcoming and supportive housing is not just a luxury, it’s in fact a necessity. It goes beyond the particulars of housing and a roof over one’s head into what’s important in terms of providing community for many people who, as they age, find that in very short supply.

CHIEN: Awareness of the need for affordable and culturally competent care is growing, with housing developments for LGBTQ elders in the works, in multiple cities. We go now to Los Angeles, where in 2007 a non-profit called Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing built the nation’s first affordable housing development for LGBTQ seniors. It’s called Triangle Square. Reporter Lena Nozizwe visited the 5-story apartment complex and she brings us this story.


“Rosie, Rosie…”

V/O #1

It’s snack time for Rosie. And to the casual observer, this domestic scene between a doting cat owner and her fat and furry feline is nothing more than ordinary. Only the blonde-haired woman with the twinkle in her eye and cat food in her hand believes it is more like a miracle.

ALICE HERMAN: “My name is Alice Hope Herman. I am 77 years old. I lived with my partner Sylvia for 45 years. She died three months almost to the day before I found my home here at Triangle Square.”


V/O #2

Triangle Square, in Hollywood, CA, is the country’s first affordable housing complex designed specifically with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender– or LGBT–seniors, in mind. It was built in 2007, just a couple of blocks away from the fabled intersection of Hollywood and Vine, The ten year waiting list to get a spot at Triangle Square is not surprising the considering that there are an estimated three million LGBT seniors, 65 years or older, in the United States. The number is expected to grow by another million by 2030—numbers that only highlight the need for places like Triangle Square…

“That’s Sylvia when she was younger. Very Audrey Hepburn.”

V/O #3
Triangle Square is not at all where she imagined where she would end up back in the mid 60s when an uptown Alice began her relationship with a downtown Sylvia in New York City.

ALICE: “When Sylvia and I started out she had pretty much grown up, from the time she was 17, in Greenwich Village. She knew the bar scene, she use to go out with guys in the Mafia. I didn’t know there were gay people in Greenwich Village. I didn’t know what a gay person was. I was married–I got married–OK? I married my highschool sweetheart. And two years after we were married, I realized I was gay, but I didn’t know what it meant. So I was what they called “uptown” because I went to college, I went to libraries. So we went to after-hours clubs and bars. I mean two completely different worlds. I gave her what she need, which was stability. To her, I was like a rock, to me she was like a cloud.”

V/O #4
The cloud spent a lifetime ascending in the business world and became a successful chief financial officer in the garment district, while the rock, Alice, was a teacher and social worker. She says they were successful enough that after 40 plus years they managed to put 500-thousand dollars in the bank and she says they created a beautiful home in LA’s San Fernando Valley.
But then in 2007, Sylvia fainted in their home and was hospitalized.


VO #5
This couple who had already been together in sickness and in health got married by a rabbi in the hospital. Days later Sylvia died.

ALICE: “If we had been a straight couple then I would have gotten her social security, which I guess was more than twice as much as mine, which is what you get when you’re a straight couple. The partner gets the higher of the two checks. As it was, I didn’t get anything.”

VO #6
Hospital bills decimated their savings. Alice was forced to leave the home they shared. And given her age and income, it was difficult to find housing. But then, through word of mouth, she found out about Triangle Square, and it was exactly what she was looking for. She says it’s safe, affordable, and allows her to keep the cats, including Rosie, that she once shared with her beloved Sylvia.

MISS ROSIE: “My name birth name is Wayne and I go under Miss Rosie, I am transgender, and I live at Triangle Square, and I am 72 years old.”

VO #7
Another Rosie, more specifically, Miss Rosie, also found shelter at triangle Square. It was not the death of a partner, but intolerant neighbors who brought Miss Rosie to Triangle Square, also in 2007. The transgender senior got tired of sneering neighbors.

MISS ROSIE “I lived over near Gower and Sunset, and I was there for 30 years, but when I would get dressed up in my apartment, and walk down the hall I would get looks and sneered at, and everything. You know, it just made me feel uncomfortable.”

VO #8
When she moved to Triangle Square, she immediately felt at home. Her one-bedroom apartment is now complete with enough wigs to make Dolly Parton envious…

MISS ROSIE: “This is one right here, is my little short one, here, that is my Susan Boyle look.”

VO #9
…and there are his and hers closets.

MISS ROSIE: “I have one female closet and one male closet”
Interviewer: “I have a hard enough time with just a female closet.”

VO #10
The kind of acceptance Miss Rosie has found at Triangle Square, no matter what she wears, has been a long time coming. That was not the case where she grew up in Indiana.

MISS ROSIE: “When I was a child I used to dress up in my Mom’s clothes up in the attic. Sometimes I would get punished by my parents. I would get mad, and I would say, “Well, I want to run away from home to be a woman and disappear as a man.”

VO # 11
As it turns out she grew up and ran away to the military. She didn’t have the Susan Boyle wig back then, so it was with a mop on her head that she impersonated a woman during an Army talent show and she won.

In 1964, after five years of military service, Miss Rosie decided to make the full transition as a woman after a visit to a bar.

MISS ROSIE: “I was telling the barmaid about my situation in the Army and she said, ‘Come over to my house and I’ll dress you up.’ And when she dressed me up with real makeup, real hair, the whole works, I looked at myself in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh my God, this is really me!’”
“I did not realize what I was. I thought I was ordinary homosexual or queer. I did not even know what the word gay was, or transgender, or anything like that.”

VO #12
Miss Rosie says there were not many jobs in the sixties for a newly-minted woman. That’s what she says led her to the streets of San Francisco.

ROSIE: “Back in when I was doing this, when I was going through the transitioning I had no job and I was a prostitute, back in the 60’s. Guys that I’d pick up, thinking that I’m a real woman . . . And then when they got down to the nitty gritty, they would find out that I’m a man, and I’ve had guns on me, I’ve had knives pulled on me. It’s a wonder I’m still alive today./It was a hard life but I had to lead it that way.”

V/O #13
She survived San Francisco and then Los Angeles, until she says she quit prostitution after a police beating during a bust. In 2001, she would face another serious threat to her life. HIV.

NATS of pill cases open

“I take three four five, six, seven pills per day, at one time in the morning.”

And just as Miss Rosie survived the streets, she says she will survive HIV.

MISS ROSIE: “I am not going to let HIV or anything to stop me from doing everything I want to do.”

VO #16
As many as a third of the apartments at Triangle Square are devoted to seniors who are HIV positive.
Because of their health status those seniors get preferential treatment when they apply to be residents. The non-profit Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing or G-L-E-H— runs Triangle Square and provides other services there including nutrition guidance, financial planning, and recreational activities.

ALICE: “I’ve given activities that based in community. We go to the theater, we go wherever, to museums, Chinatown, or wherever, to the beach. A person has to have a link, so that their mind stays alive.”

Music NATS “Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance With the stars up above in your eyes.”

The link to life on this night is a gathering of Triangle Square residents, supporters and administrators. The event is focused on fundraising, but it is also an opportunity for Eric Harrison, the executive director of GLEH to celebrate the pioneering success of Triangle Square.

ERIC HARRISON: “This building is the only building of its kind in the world. This is the only LGBT aging and place community of its kind. We have had such tremendous amount of support this past year.”

#VO 19
So much support that GLEH just broke ground for a similar facility. The Argyle Apartments are just a Metro stop away at Hollywood and Western. The 17.5 million dollar project has 40 units and is set to open next Spring.

Resident Alice Herman shows just how important Triangle Square is to her as she mixes and mingles with the fundraising crowd and tries her luck at the community room’s pool table.

ALICE: These places are needed; it’s hard to get old. In many ways, it’s more difficult to be old and gay especially when you have lived a life that you have been hurt because you are gay. When you’ve been frowned on, or hurt, or beat up, or arrested. Look at the things that have happened to people. At least here they can walk through the halls you know they’re safe.”

VO #20

MISS ROSIE: “This is a beautiful place to be. I am hoping this is the last place I will be.”

Miss Rosie, who has lived through arrests and beatings, says she never wants to leave this safety zone.

“I am hoping this is the last place I will be, ‘cause I love this place.”

ALICE: “I get to tell my story over and over again. When you get to be my age you, or maybe when you’re younger, you’ve got a history, you’ve got a life. The one person you shared your history with is no longer there. What happens to the history? What happens to the life I had? How does it stay alive if it is only inside me–inside my head? Here I get to tell my story.

Alice and Miss Rosie are sharing their histories in a place that’s making a history of its own.

For Making Contact, I’m Lena Nozizwe.


CHIEN: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll hear about a unique housing project for transgender seniors in Jakarta, Indonesia.



If you’d like more information or for a C-D copy of this program, please call 510-251-1332 x108, that’s 510-251-1332 x108. Because of generous donations from listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Africa. To find out how to donate, download shows, or to get our podcasts go to radioproject-dot-org. Like us on facebook, and follow us on twitter—our handle is making-underscore-contact.



CHIEN: You’re listening to Making Contact. I’m Jen Chien.

We’ll head now to Indonesia, where just as in the US, LGBTQ elders face unique challenges as they age. Traditionally elderly people in Indonesia are cared for BY their families but that’s not the case for the country’s large transgender community. They are often rejected by their family members. And many elderly transgender people who used to survive as prostitutes end up begging on the streets.
In response, a group of women decided to take action are building a home specifically for elderly transgender residents.

From Jakarta, Rebecca Henschke reports. (This story was originally broadcast on Free Speech Radio News.)

We are walking down a dirt road up to a very small pink house at the end of the alleyway …it’s a very suburban part of Jakarta—on the outskirts of the city.
There are chickens running around and children playing and it’s a very dusty road. It’s here that Indonesia’s first old people’s home for transgender people or waria as they are own in Indonesia is being built…

SFX 1 SOUND— Welcoming ‘ Good morning’

In the doorway two elderly transgender women whose teeth are missing call out ‘good morning’. Inside Yulianus Rettoblaut is looking into a mirror while a friend is going through the daily ritual of applying her heavy make up – thick white foundation, fake eyelashes, bright red lipstick and a long black wig that is tied into a bun at the back.

Yuli Clip 1: (female, Indonesian) “I realized that I was a transgender person when I was in grade 5 at school. I lived in a village in an isolated area on the island of Papua. There was no one there that was a transgender or gay. But suddenly I started feeling attracted to men when I was around 11 years old…I thought, “what is this feeling, is it an illness?!” It was not until I was 18 years old when a friend at university who was also transgender took me to Jakarta to the prostitution beat for waria that I realized that there was this whole other world that existed…. I was so confused there were so many people like me dressed up so beautifully.

Q. How did you feel when you realized you were not alone?

“I felt like a weight had been lifted from me – because I saw that if we wore beautiful clothes and got make-up you could easily attract guys and be paid money for it! So you get satisfied, get to be beautiful, and you earn money.”

Transgender people in Indonesia find it hard to find jobs, and 17 year old Yuli ended-up doing what many other warias do, working as a prostitute on the streets– a world she says was harsh and violent.
She says she was regularly abused and not paid by customers, and had to run away from the police or Islamic vigilante groups that tried to beat them. It was during this time that she heard her parents had died.

Yuli CLIP 2: “I didn’t go home for the funeral because my family hated me- they said because of what I had done, my parents had died. My brother is a policeman; he was very angry and he wanted to shoot me because he said I had shamed my family. They said ‘in our family we have never had anyone like could you turn out like this?’ Because my family had high hopes for me because I got very good grades all through school.

Your brother was really prepared to shoot you?

Yes he put a pistol to my head and he wanted to shoot…. They shaved my head but I managed to run away back to Jakarta. I really hated myself at that time and I decided that I would spend the rest of my life showing the world, and particularly my family, that even though I am transgender I can do good and they would be proud of me.”

She went on to be the first waria to gain a law degree at a leading Islamic university and is now doing her masters in law. She is now a high-profile leader of Indonesia’s large transgender community who fondly call her Mummy Yuli…..As a mother to the community she decided she needed to do something to support greying waria rejected by their family and society.

YULI CLIP 3: “As they get older people become even more scared of waria and we can’t sell ourselves in the same way young waria can. From a government perspective, they are confused about whether to put them in the male or female old people’s home and their families certainly don’t want to look after them. So I see many of them struggling, begging on the streets, and living under bridges. I feel really sad seeing them like that and no one is paying attention to this issue and my house was not big enough to house many.”

So she is now renovating her two bedroom house that also doubles as a beauty salon….
Yuli takes me out the back of the house…where building is taking place… a second floor is being put on and the bathroom is being extended. She already has a waiting list of 800 waria who want to move IN. At the moment the house is home to three elderly waria. Photos of them as young beautiful models line the walls and cabinets are full of their beauty pageant trophies.

Yoti Maya is nearly 70 years old and has lost all her teeth… She was disowned by her family when she was a teenager.

Yoti clip 1: (Female, Indonesian) “My mother opened my door and found me in bed cuddling with a man and she told my dad and he called all my family together and said ‘I don’t want this in my family so you must leave the house now, if you lived or died I don’t care…you just have to get out of the house.’ I was just a teenager and they threw me out of the house at night with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I was crying …I was young and I didn’t have a job. But I accepted my fate.”

Yoti says she eventually found work as a chef on ships and has travelled across Asia. She’s now the cook for the nursing home.

The home also holds training sessions for elderly transgender people so they can get skills to live independently.

SFX 3: Sri introduces herself….

73 year-old Mbok Sri teaches sewing and warns the younger waria that they can’t live off their looks forever.

Sri clip 1: (female, Indonesia) “I tell them all young waria need to get formal education in their chosen field…No one else is going to be looking after us…we need to create our own profession and provide for ourselves.”

Sri says the three of them, despite their age, remain young at heart. She jokes that Yoti Maya has four boyfriends…and they hold a weekly karaoke night where the elderly waria take turns performing their favorite tracks.

SFX 2: Yuli performing Dangdut karaoke song

Yuli’s positive contributions to the community are making an impact beyond the transgender community. Recently, her brother who had threatened to shoot her, visited the old people’s home….

YULI CLIP 4: “He did not come in but just walked around and he started to cry he said ‘I never thought you would change and become a good person. It doesn’t matter that you are waria…but you have become a role model for your community and you are providing a home for those in your community in need. Our family is very proud of you.’ He said, ‘we couldn’t accept you as a prostitute but you have become a good person’. He said ..[breaks down]…He said that the past was the past but as a brother I am very proud of you. A few days later I had my law graduation and he came along. He couldn’t say anything at the celebration, he couldn’t speak because he was just crying… not long after that he died. I went to his funeral and he had left a message for me that ‘I must continue to be a good person.”

Yuli, Yoti, and Sri continue their efforts to support aging transgender people. Recently they received a grant from the Indonesian government so they could complete the first floor of the old-peoples home.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, I’m Rebecca Henschke.


CHIEN: And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. Special thanks to our friends at Free Speech Radio News for that last story. For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 510-251-1332 x108 , or check out our website, to get a podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Like Making Contact on Facebook, or follow us on twitter—our handle is Making, underscore, contact.

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