Retirement community's 50 shades of gray

  • by Ralph Harris
  • Wednesday March 4, 2015
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Ralph Harris speaking at a Commonwealth Club panel last<br>year. Photo: Candiece Milford
Ralph Harris speaking at a Commonwealth Club panel last
year. Photo: Candiece Milford

Can you imagine what a hotbed this must be if older people are still into the "Fifty Shades" thing? A straight married man in his 80s gets linked to a naked gay man after the Pride parade while his wife is standing by! A straight married woman encourages her husband to go off and live with his gay boyfriend. Several older men, after being with wives from a few years to decades, develop new relationships with men (one gay couple has tied the knot). Has the "older generation" changed this much? Is there really such an accepting retirement community in the heart of San Francisco where everyone feels safe and secure regardless of their preferred personal peccadillos?

Of course only their hairdressers know for sure about 50 shades of gray, but probably everyone at the Sequoias on Cathedral Hill has at least one gray hair. And not everyone's gray hair is the same color or texture as every other resident's. It's kind of like the variety of the people at the Sequoias. Add up all the demographic categories of residents and we easily have 50 shades of unique differences in terms of LGBTs, accepting straights, Asians, Canadians, Americans, Puerto Ricans, Hawaiians, blacks, whites, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, Republicans, Democrats, independents, immigrants, and native San Franciscans.

As I was looking at my retirement future when I was 67, I wanted to know that I would always be Free to Be You and Me , as in the theme of the record album, book, and TV special. That memorable project by Marlo Thomas, Carol Channing, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Alan Alda, Shirley Jones, and Cicely Tyson, according to Wikipedia, "was to encourage post-1960s gender neutrality saluting values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one's identity. A major thematic message is that anyone â€" whether a boy or a girl â€" can achieve anything." In my case I had lived in the Castro and Noe Valley neighborhoods, and I never wanted to sacrifice the atmosphere of open expression, even in a retirement environment.

I talked to several residents about their experiences at the Sequoias.

Sue Parsell is a lesbian who lost her partner after 45 years. Being a nurse, Parsell knew the potential difficulties of living alone as one gets older. "I found the Sequoias to be a wonderful, accepting community to feel secure in regardless of what happens in the future," she said. In her three years there, Parsell has been engaged with a full schedule of activities ranging from the library to the health committee to being an elected vice president of the resident board.

"I enjoy having deep friendships with both straight and gay residents, and everyone I know here does not judge or show any kind of attitude except friendliness," she added.

Tom Bier, an 83-year-old straight man, moved from Connecticut to the Sequoias a few years after his wife of 35 years passed away. How does he feel about all the gay presence in his new community? "The marketing effort of the Sequoias to attract gays was and is a great success. This is the best action they ever did. The gay community in our place has brought so much more culture and civility to this place. I cannot think of any negatives," Bier said.

Kathie Cheatham explained, "As a straight resident, I can say that most of us are very proud of our successful inclusion of LGBTs into our community. We are one, unified community that learns from each other and, basically, forgets about any sexual preference differences."

As president of the residents' board, Cheatham is convinced that inclusion enriches everyone's life. "I have observed that our residents actively welcome all people to our community, and we value the different perspectives that each person has on life, the arts and interpersonal relationships," she said. "We all grow and benefit from each other's uniqueness and couldn't imagine life here without inclusion. For me, personally, this is one of the great joys of living at the Sequoias where I have made so many stimulating friendships with people who enlighten me from their special life experiences."

The Sequoias has a statement of commitment to inclusion that reads in part, "We joyfully recognize that as human beings we are fundamentally alike in our needs and feelings, and at the same time we all reflect a rich tapestry of differences. Affirming this diversity means that we actively include all persons and value their variations."

The daily practice of these ideals accounts for the large population of LGBT residents who have found a comfortable home to enjoy their retirement years.

This statement goes on to explain: "We are committed to establishing and maintaining an inclusive, supportive, and responsive organization in which differences among all people are understood and appreciated. We believe a variety of backgrounds, styles, perspectives, values, and beliefs is an asset to all."

Janet Boeth Jones, who moved in when she was 71, said that as a straight woman, inclusiveness was a "non-issue."

"LGBT's had been my colleagues for 30 years in law publishing, and were members and clergy of my Episcopal Church for 33 years," Jones said. "Much of my social life was with gay friends. I was happy to see gay men as resident leaders at the Sequoias, and to see their outreach to the public welcoming the gay community, and the resulting increase in admissions."

Among the resident leaders Jones referred to, two gay men have been elected president of the resident's association, and four other men and women were the straight parents of a gay son or daughter.

Tyler Kelly has been living at the Sequoias for five years and said, "The prevailing attitude here seems to be, 'Oh, you are gay? Fine, who cares?' Or, as Pope Francis has put it, 'Who am I to judge?' I don't think I, as a gay man, would particularly want to move to an exclusively gay retirement community. That may be a good decision for some, but to me it would seem too much like a kind of ghetto. I prefer inclusiveness."

Laura and Gene Jacobson were among the straight couples who participated in our booth after the Pride parade. While hundreds of thousands of festive partygoers were adorned in all manner of dress â€" and undress â€" Gene Jacobson kept exclaiming how wonderful it is for people to be so free and openly expressive.

Laura Jacobson said, "Personally I feel very comfortable living here. I enjoy the diversity as I appreciated the diversity in San Francisco before moving into the Sequoias. It seems to me that Sequoias residents should reflect the city's population. If there have been any conflicts or problems here due to sexual orientation or ethnic background, I have not been aware of them. I am hoping that we will attract more Latinos and African Americans."

At that same Pride parade, another straight married man was approached by a naked celebrant, who told him how handsome he was and how he wished he were gay so that they might have a future. For weeks after, the resident boasted about his unexpected admirer, which made him vey proud. His wife, who was standing nearby at the parade, thought she went home with the prize catch of the day.

A few people in the LGBT community have asked me how freely they could express themselves if they moved to the Sequoias when they retire. My answer was simple: "There is no such thing as being too gay when you live here." We even reserve part of the dining room for LGBT monthly dinner parties, and no one else bats an eyelash. In fact the next day they want to know if they missed anything.

So what is the difference between non-discrimination, diversity, and inclusion?

Non-discrimination means that the door is open to everyone without restriction.

Diversity is the achievement of a broad range of differences.

Inclusion goes beyond merely having diversity and is about sustaining an inviting environment for people from all backgrounds, including LGBT, as well as the equal opportunity for each person to integrate and have full participation and respect. (In addition to residents, we have several gay managers.)

I think the whole thing is best summed up by Isabel Caglieri, who said, "I have not experienced any difference here at the Sequoias in any of my interactions with gays or straights. They are all just people, some nice and some sort of cranky, just like the general population. I think the Sequoias seems very inclusive, at least to me a straight old lady."

And Jean Wilcox replied, when asked about the inclusion of different orientations, "This is my comment: I don't understand the question. It's a non-issue."

Keep in mind this is not the liberal-minded millennial generation. These views are from the "Greatest Generation," people who grew up during the Depression and World War II.

Ralph Harris is a resident at the Sequoias in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.sequoias-sf.org.