In most societies, the thought of what to do with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender old people is not exactly a priority. But in Spain, where homophobia could be considered a national pastime, gay people often had to go back into the closet when it came time to think about elderly care.
That is all about to change, at least in Madrid, when the country’s first LGBT retirement center opens next year. The center, which has not yet been named and which will be the second in Europe after a Swedish LGBT retirement center that opened last year, is the brainchild of Federico Armenteros, founder of the 26 December Foundation, an NGO for Spain’s LGBT community named after the day in 1978 when homosexuality was no longer “dangerous to society” in Spain. He says the center is necessary because “elderly LGBT don’t exist” in the eyes of most people. That, he says, “pushes people back into the closet,” often those who have fought for equality during their younger years.
The center is being built in the shell of a hotel in Madrid and will offer up to 230 residents various living options, including apartments, assisted living facilities, and a wing for HIV positive residents, some of whom have been prohibited from living in other elderly care facilities in Spain and other European countries. The average cost of basic accommodation will be about $1,380 a month. Armenteros said there amenities will include “his and his” sports facilities and sauna, and a “hers and hers” beauty salon, alongside the arts and culture classes and physiotherapy offerings that are standard issue in most retirement communities.
Spain is one of Europe’s least tolerant countries for the gay community, according to the country’s LGBT Federation, which has conducted several eye-opening studies in recent years. In one survey of high school students, where they say the homophobia begins, the act of exclusion manifests itself in the form of bullying, with two of five Spanish students reporting that they “often” or “always” witness homophobic insults at school. The federation also reports that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is rampant in the work force, where many LGBT workers have to hide or lie about their sexuality.
More than 160,000 LGBT people live in Madrid, and many have filed complaints against the city for allowing blatant discrimination. “Many managed to come out, some still kept it under wraps, but an overwhelming majority went back to the closet the moment they ended up in care homes,” Armenteros told The Local “The older generation were brought up with a different set of values, very repressed, and in general they still struggle to accept the LGBT collective.”
“They cope much better with old age when living with people they have something in common with. It matters a lot that you are among kindred spirits.”
Retirement communities catering to the LGBT community have been growing in popularity in the United States, where guides exist to help people find appropriate facilities. The trend is not so prevalent in Europe. Sweden was the first European country to inaugurate a dedicated LGBT retirement facility, which was opened in Stockholm in 2013. The center, called the Regnbagen House or Rainbow House, is completely full and now has 95 people on the waiting list for apartments. While Swedish gays have not generally suffered the same stigma as they have in Spain and other southern European countries especially, residents said that it was still not acceptable for gay couples to live together in retirement communities in their country. “Take cultural minorities, for example,” resident Björn Gate told Swedish Radio when the center opened last year. “It was discovered long ago that they cope much better with old age when living with people they have something in common with. It matters a lot that you are among kindred spirits.”
Still, Armenteros says his retirement center will not discriminate against straight people. “We’re not going to ask you who you sleep with when you apply,” he told the Spanish newspaper The Olive Press. “Anyone can come, the only thing to bear in mind is that it specializes in elderly LGBTs. As it is, there are homes for ex-servicemen, nuns, or retired workers from specific companies, and no one says they are being discriminatory. [LGBT people] don’t have children and grandchildren they can talk about and often they conceal their sexual orientation to avoid rejection. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.”