By Dr. Imani Woody
I’ve lived as an out lesbian for more than 30 years. Like many Black women of my generation, I did what was expected of me: I went to school, married a man, and had children. In my late 30s, I started looking for the lesbians. What I found, especially as I grow older, is that life moves in a miraculous cycle, from finding yourself to finding your people. You don’t necessarily do it in that order. And you never do it just once.
It was 1980 and I was reading everything I could get my hands on about gay life in Washington, DC. One day, The Washington Post had a story about a women’s bookstore called Llamas, which was owned by lesbian activist Mary Farmer. I looked up the address, took the train to Dupont Circle and found my first lesbian of African descent—a sister who knew others like me in the city. The rest is herstory.
At 40, I threw a blowout birthday bash and invited women in their 20s, in their 50s and in between. I even bought a t-shirt that proudly read, “This is what 40 looks like.” Later, I joined Nubian Women, a social justice group for mature women of African descent, and went on to become the president. The sheroes of this group included Joanna Banks, Linda Leeks, and Marquita Sykes, all of whom valued older, Black, women-loving-women women and mentored younger sisters like me. I created the Celebration of Life: A Living Wake Program to celebrate generations of women of African descent. At that time, getting older was something to look forward to. I was grown, gifted, Black, and a woman. What could be better? I was in my prime.
But the reality of growing older is that with the perks come the pangs. As lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same-gender-loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, we can face constant stigma and systematic bigotry based on sexual identity and orientation, which can create challenges for integration of our whole selves into society. As LGBTQ/SGL people of African descent, we often have to fight for acceptance in society at large and in Black communities. Imagine growing older, retiring, looking for housing and having to add ageism to this battle. For many, these challenges translate into fear, isolation, depression, going back into the closet and even suicide.
Fortunately, safe and affordable housing can eliminate some of these obstacles. Over the last five years, I’ve been working to create an environment where LGBT/SGL people over 60 can bring their full selves. In 2011, I founded Mary’s House for Older Adults, an organization that creates housing to address affordability and access with the intent to meet the needs of LGBT/SGL older people through wellness programs and community-based services.
As I moved from 40 to over 50, there were the hotel and airline discounts. There was even being honored as a Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) LGBT Pioneer. (I swear I thought of wagon trains.) But there was also the internalized ageism. (Yep, I colored my hair.) And the subtle hints that I was aging. Younger people that I thought of as peers started responding to me with a “yes ma’am.” The ageist macro-aggressions began: “You don’t look over 50!” Along with the assumptions that I can’t work my Android. Then there was the peer pressure to not ever feel old around younger people – it could be contagious.
That is why I couldn’t be more excited to help create environments where LGBT elders can live and thrive. It were similar safe spaces that nurtured and nourished me when I was coming out in my 30s. At Mary’s House, we’re creating community, one unit at a time. The first residence, scheduled to open November 2016, is being built from my childhood home in Fort Dupont, Washington, DC.
Talk about coming full circle.
Dr. Imani Woody is the founding director, President and CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults, an LGBT friendly residential housing organization in Washington, DC. She lives with her wife of fifteen years in Washington, DC.