Belgium is due to open its first retirement home for gay people, but is segregation the answer to homophobia?
Gay liberation has truly come of age. Not only do we have the gay scene, with its bars and clubs, gay pride parades and gay marriages, now we even have retirement homes where homosexuals can go to spend their twilight years in peace, tranquility and, above all, dignity.
Johanna, the first retirement home for gays, lesbians and bisexuals (GLBs) in Belgium – the second country in modern times to recognise same-sex marriages – will soon welcome its first residents. There are already similar facilities in Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Situated in Schoten, near the diamond centre and port city of Antwerp, the complex sits on the site of a former brothel and is within easy reach of a popular gay sauna. Costing a hefty €60-€90 per night, the facility promises to be luxurious.
It will boast large terraces, a Japanese garden, internet access and en-suite bathroom in every room, an à-la-carte restaurant, a swimming pool, sauna and gym. “Gays tend to have more of an eye for beauty and quality of life, and we're catering to that,” explains Guy Sanders, the man behind the project.
This assertion strikes me as pandering somewhat to popular stereotypes, since there are plenty of gay slobs around and straight people can also possess and cultivate an appreciation for the finer things in life.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons why people of alternative sexual orientations may wish to retire to such establishments. Despite the leaps and bounds of recent years, society is still not entirely comfortable with its gay face, and this applies more so for older generations.
Although the majority of Europeans, particularly in western Europe, accept homosexuality, around half of all Europeans believe there is widespread discrimination based on sexual orientation. By having special retirement homes, older homo- and bisexuals can live out their final years with a sense of gaiety, while not being made to feel queer.
In addition, some retired gay people report that they face discrimination in retirement homes from staff and other residents, which could force them into the closet in their twilight years. “When you're old, the last thing that you want to do is to have to hide,” says Christian Hamm, a board member of a gay nursing home in Berlin. “And you certainly don't want to give up your identity and live in some hostile environment, possibly sharing a room with someone who despises you.”
Although Johanna's management insist that separation is not their goal and that open-minded straight people are also welcome to live at the home, I'm not sure that segregation is the best answer. Of course, people are free to choose where to retire, but not all GLBs can afford private retirement homes, while state-run ones are, and should be, operated under the principle of equality of access.
In addition, I'm a firm believer in the fact that sexual orientation should be viewed as incidental to one's character and does not actually define it. After all, the GLB community is just as diverse and varied as the population at large.
During a recent discussion over drinks, some gay friends, my wife and I agreed that the idea that there is a specifically “gay culture” is something of a myth which emerged hand-in-hand with the gay lib movement. For instance, there are plenty of gay men who aren't “creative” and plenty of straight men who are “sensitive” and in tune with their “femininity”.
There were pragmatic and practical reasons why homosexuals, a group that has historically been marginalised and discriminated against, chose to band together to struggle for their emancipation and rights. But true equality and emancipation is when what people do in their bedrooms – or wherever else they choose – has no bearing on who they are in the outside world.
Rather than construct homes for GLBs, which by separating people could help perpetuate discrimination, a far better idea would be to make existing establishments more gay friendly. The Pink House (Het Roze Huis) is calling for the introduction, in Belgium, of a HoLeBi-friendly label.
Other initiatives could include awareness raising and training for personnel and residents, and an alert service or hotline for gay retirees who have been subjected to discrimination.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 15 September 2008.