Room under the rainbow?
The first generation of openly gay Americans chalked up a lot of firsts -- a gay-rights march in Washington, openly gay politicians in national office and out-of-the-closet actors on sitcoms.
And now, this generation will be the first to have, just in time for its twilight years, gay senior condo communities. It’s an extension of the gay ghetto, this time with walkers.
But at RainbowVision, a development that opened last year on the edge of this high-desert city, a there-goes-the-neighborhood cloud has appeared. Some residents fear that their community could be overrun by an outside element -- straight people.
“It does not matter how friendly they are,” said Roger Bergstrom, 77, who shares a condo at RainbowVision with his longtime partner, Barry Baltzley, 57.
Bergstrom spent nearly 30 years as a high school English and speech teacher in the Washington area. During that time, he had to be closeted at work.
For the last chapter of his life, Bergstrom wants to live in a community where gay people rule.
“If straight people are in the majority, it’s different. It’s not what we came here for,” he said. “It’s not where we want to live out the rest of our lives.”
It’s easy to see why seniors of any orientation would be attracted to the 120-unit development, which includes a mixture of condos and rental units plus an assisted-living facility.
The 13-acre community, with views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, features two- and three-story earth-tone buildings, carefully decorated public spaces, a restaurant that prides itself on not serving bland fare and a gym that would turn heads in West Hollywood. Dance parties and other events -- many of which are open to outsiders -- are often booked at the lounge and bar.
RainbowVision isn’t the only such refuge for the aging gay set. In Oakland, the historic Lake Merritt Hotel has been transformed into Barbary Lane Communities, endorsed by gay icon Armistead Maupin. Other developments are planned for Palm Springs and Vancouver, Canada.
RainbowVision has been promoted almost exclusively to the gay community. Brochures and the website highlight photos of same-sex couples. The project’s name evokes the rainbow that the gay community has adopted as its symbol.
About 80% of the complex’s residents are gay, management said. But there is potential for a radical shift because nearly half of the units are unoccupied or for sale.
New Mexico bars housing discrimination because of sexual orientation. And condo owners, looking to unload their properties in a slow real estate market, are free to sell to whomever they choose.
Not that there’s anything wrong with straight people, in moderation.
“This is a place where you don’t have to find out if someone is gay,” said Joy Silver, founder and chief executive of RainbowVision Properties Inc. “You have to find out if someone is straight.”
For gay seniors who can no longer live independently, preserving gay identity is especially crucial.
Gloria Donadello, 81, who has an apartment in the assisted-living facility, was out of the closet long before becoming one of the first residents of RainbowVision.
Formerly a psychotherapist and professor at Fordham University, she and her life partner, Sarah Barber (a former literature professor at City College of New York and daughter of famed baseball announcer Red Barber), became active in gay social action groups and AIDS charities when they retired to Santa Fe in the early 1990s.
Barber died in 2005 and Donadello moved into a mainstream retirement home.
“I hated it,” Donadello said quietly as she sat with the “breakfast club,” an informal group of RainbowVision residents who meet most days to socialize over cold cereal, fresh fruit, oatmeal and stewed prunes.
“When I was new there, one woman came over to me and trying to be nice, she asked me, ‘Are you married, do you have children?’
“So I said, ‘I think you should know I’m gay.’ Her face went blank. She pulled her chair away and left.”
Donadello spent most of her time alone in her room, fearing homophobia. At RainbowVision, however, she is active in most of the community’s events.
“Gloria’s social schedule,” said Donna Valentine, director of wellness in the assisted-living unit, “is busier than mine.”
Then there’s breakfast club member Ben Tarver, 80, who was a playwright and college professor before retiring in 1991.
Tarver spoke enthusiastically about his life in the theater and academic worlds, followed by retirement.
“I lived in Santa Fe for a number of years,” he said, “then my wife passed away.”
The mention of his wife was almost an aside. In fact, he kept his sexual orientation hidden when he moved in this year.
Tarver wanted to live in a community where the arts were a major interest, and several RainbowVision residents are subscribers to local performing groups, including the Santa Fe Opera.
Still, there were qualms.
“I was afraid,” Tarver said, “they may not want a straight guy.”
Many residents are quick to say that they don’t want an all-gay enclave, just a majority one where gays can show affection without fearing rebuke, and find respite from a world in which the vast references to romance and daily life are in a heterosexual context.
“We were glad to have a mixture,” said Jan Gaynor, 64, who has a condo with partner Barbara Cohn, 63. “It’s more like living in the real world, not one that is strictly one or the other.”
There is little chance a person not comfortable with gays would move into RainbowVision, Silver said. “You have to pass three rainbow flags before you even get in the place,” she said.
Still, some recent moves by management have fanned worries about an influx of outsiders. It’s about to start offering memberships to nonresidents who want to use the gym, eat at the restaurant and use RainbowVision’s public spaces -- such as the Truman Capote Library -- for functions.
Gaynor was co-chair of a resident council that met with management to express its concerns. A compromise was worked out that will make the memberships available at a measured pace, with evaluation periods built in.
“I don’t see a whole bunch of homophobic people coming in here,” Gaynor said.
The straight people who have come so far, residents said, have been respectful of the gay majority and mindful that many gay seniors spent decades hiding their sexual orientation out of fear they would be fired or imprisoned. When Harry and Margaret Ritche became interested in buying a condo, they checked if they would be welcome.
“We called and asked, ‘Do you take straight people as well as gay and lesbian?’ ” Margaret said.
They moved in six months ago.
“If anyone here is uncomfortable with us,” Harry said, “they never let us know.”
Several weeks after Bergstrom made his comments about wanting to maintain a gay majority, he had not changed his mind.
But he also wasn’t so worked up about it. He spoke about a straight couple that had moved into RainbowVision. At first, they rented a unit and then decided to buy a condo.
Before that happened, tragedy struck.
“He had a stroke and passed away,” Bergstrom said. “We were devastated. Such lovely people.”
It would have been easy for the widow to move. “But she said, ‘I would have no friends if I moved. This is where I live now.’ ”
Bergstrom paused to get his composure.
“It’s kind of like the opposite direction,” he said. “When you get to know them, you love them.”