August 15, 2017
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She’s transforming her childhood home into a community for LGBT seniors in D.C.

Imani Woody is building a network of support for a population often underserved

Scheduled to open in 2020, Mary's House for Older Adults hopes to be a safe haven for LGBT seniors. Photo by Mikhail Klimentov

By 2030, the number of seniors who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is expected to double, growing from 3 million to an estimated 6 million. But safe housing options—developments where LGBT seniors don’t have to hide their sexual orientation—are lacking.

The District of Columbia has the highest percentage of individuals who identify as LGBT, more than in any state. Despite this, D.C. doesn’t have any senior housing facilities dedicated to LGBT older adults. Imani Woody, a longtime resident of the district, hopes to change that by transforming her childhood home into a housing development for LGBT seniors.

In 2010, Woody founded Mary’s House, a nonprofit dedicated to building the district’s first LGBT senior housing facility. Current plans for the development feature a communal kitchen, a hydrotherapy tub, a garden with a walking path, a yoga room, and a library, among other amenities.

The development will also be accessible to lower-income segments of the LGBT population, although the exact details are still being worked out. Woody said Mary’s House will have 15 rooms, serving those who can pay low, moderate, and market rate.

This kind of housing is in high demand, especially now. According to a recent investigation, 48 percent of LGBT “testers” in a study experienced “at least one type of adverse, differential treatment” when seeking housing. Another survey found that 78 percent of LGBT seniors don’t believe they can be open about their sexual orientation with nursing home or long-term care staff.

“One of the concerns we found was that there was fear among a lot of LGBT seniors about going into certain facilities, including nursing homes or retirement homes, because of their [belief] that they’d have to go back into the closet in order to receive services without discrimination,” Sterling Washington, the director of D.C.’s Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs, told the Washington Post.

One of the biggest omissions on this front is at the federal level: when it comes to housing, only 20 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"We’re creating family, not just apartment living." — Imani Woody, founder of Mary's House

“We’ve made really great strides over the past ten years with marriage equality—we’ve taken huge steps forward. But there are still areas within federal law that don’t protect LGBT individuals around employment, around housing,” said Kelly Kent, Director of the national housing initiative for SAGE, an advocacy nonprofit for LGBT seniors.

That’s where organizations like Mary’s Place step in. The nonprofit, named in honor of Woody’s mother, hopes to ensure that this house creates close, familial bonds. “We’re creating family, not just apartment living,” Woody said.

Mary’s Place is currently in fundraising mode, searching for both money and a developer interested in taking on the work. Getting to this stage required a lot of work: navigating D.C. housing code, organizing community outreach, staying abreast of changes to D.C. zoning law, hosting community fairs and events, getting support from neighborhood groups, and presenting to a board of zoning appeals.

Despite the difficulty, Tim Helm, the vice chair and treasurer of Mary’s House, knows that Mary’s House is on the right track. “The embrace of the community has been pretty damn amazing,” Helm said.

The finished facility will not shy away from its purpose and identity. It will feature a stone wall and a yellow brick road—nods to the Stonewall riots of 1969, and the phrase “friend of Dorothy,” a slang term used to identify gay men when homosexuality was illegal in the U.S.

“I think without our history we’re doomed to repeat and forget the sacrifices that were done for me to be a lesbian and to say out loud that I’m a lesbian, to say out loud that I’m building housing for LGBT folk,” Woody said. “I’m standing on the shoulders of those folks who said ‘I’m a friend of Dorothy.’”

Woody, who is 65, recounts some of the issues LGBT people have faced throughout the past. “You could, in our city, go to Fort Dupont, and hang out. That was the cruising spot back in the day. The police would raid it,” Woody said, recounting the numerous threats facing LGBT people in the city. “The names of the people who would be arrested would be put in the papers. Your name would be in the papers. You could be fired. Your children could be taken away from you. You could lose your life. I have to give a nod to the people who were brave enough to even say ‘Are you a friend of Dorothy?’”

A 15-unit development isn’t a catch-all for the problems facing LGBT seniors. “We are … recognizing that just given the sheer demographic surge, that we’re never going to be able to build our way out of this issue,” Kent said.

Woody is determined to try. “We want it in Ward 8, Ward 1, Ward 2, all across, and then we want it in Maryland,” she said. “We want our little communal-style living everywhere. In every state. That’s the goal. Every ward and state.”

Mary’s House D.C., the first step on that path, is scheduled to open in 2020. “My board, when they said that to me, I said, you all just broke my heart,” Woody said. “You know I want to open up tomorrow.”

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.