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Older, out, and infinitely proud: a look inside a lifesaving LGBTQ senior home.

Our LGBTQ seniors deserve better. Finally, more people are paying attention.

Older, out, and infinitely proud: a look inside a lifesaving LGBTQ senior home.

As a transgender woman, 65-year-old Eva Skye knows firsthand that living her truth means living in danger too. Three years ago, the only home she had was at a single room occupancy housing facility, or SRO, for those living in poverty. There, she often chose to trek up several flights of stairs to her fifth floor room instead of taking the elevator out of fear she'd be trapped and assaulted by other residents.

When I talk to Skye, her brightness fills the room with color. She's rocking a hot pink top, flashy blue fingernails, and a rainbow bracelet wrapped around her left wrist. "I’m a 65-year-old trans-queer punk mom," she explains in a gentle voice, brushing back hair dyed the color of rosé wine.

Eva Skye. Photo by Robbie Couch/Upworthy.


It's amazing what a difference a few years can make. Skye's quality of life has improved dramatically since 2014, when she moved out of the SRO and into Town Hall Apartments on Chicago's north side, one of the country's few LGBTQ-inclusive affordable housing centers for seniors.

But not every LGBTQ senior is that lucky.

Pushed back into the closet

In contrast to young Americans — a demographic coming out as LGBTQ earlier in life and in larger numbers — data and discouraging anecdotal evidence suggest LGBTQ seniors are retreating into the same closets they once escaped years prior to avoid discrimination today — whether it be at the hands of their peers, as in Skye's case, or at the hands of a senior care industry that carelessly erases them.

An alarming 2010 study discovered just 22% of LGBTQ seniors felt comfortable being "out" to health care workers. Many respondents had been harassed or refused basic services because they were LGBTQ; some, incredibly, reported being told that they were being "prayed over" or that they'd "go to hell" because of who they loved or how they identified. Instead of facing these abuses, many LGBTQ seniors said it was easier to simply blend in — even if it meant becoming invisible.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Elderly LGBTQ people are far more likely to live alone and far less likely to have adult children they can rely on as they age compared with their straight, cisgender peers. There's a greater chance they'll end up in nursing homes, where this type of discrimination can take place. Staff members at such care centers often don't even believe they have LGBTQ residents — not because that's actually the case but because residents often choose not to come out in such uncertain conditions.

A safe place to grow old

Walking through Town Hall's cafeteria during lunch, the nurturing, jubilant atmosphere feels worlds apart from the findings of that 2010 study.

The cafeteria in the Center on Addison. Photo by Robbie Couch/Upworthy.

Through the Chicago Housing Authority's Property Rental Assistance Program, Town Hall has been providing studio and one-bedroom apartments to low-income seniors — most of whom identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer — for over three years.

"Seniors, as they get older, tend to want to go back into the closet," confirms Todd Williams, senior services manager at the Center on Addison, which provides many programs to Town Hall residents. "They suffer from isolation, and they feel as though they can’t necessarily be themselves in their own communities."

Eugene Robbins, another Town Hall resident, understands that struggle well. Before moving in three years ago, he'd been living in a housing project a few miles away where being gay and black had its challenges to say the least.

As a proud man of color born in Selma, Alabama — where, he recalls, white supremacists threw bricks through his family's home windows — he avoids trudging through too much past heartache. But Robbins acknowledges the stains discrimination has left on his life: "As the old saying goes, when your back is against the wall, you'd be surprised at what you can do," he reflects on his time in the housing project.

"I’m happy here," he says of Town Hall. "I feel good here."

Eugene Robbins (left) and Marti Smith (right). Photos by Robbie Couch/Upworthy.

At Town Hall, residents gush about their improved lives as if the apartments were their grandchildren's straight-A report cards. Skye says living in her top-floor studio apartment, with Lake Michigan just beyond view, makes her feel like Alice in Wonderland. Marti Smith, a 72-year-old "card-carrying lesbian," considers herself "extremely lucky" to have landed there and credits Town Hall and its programs with saving her life.

Smith survived throat cancer in the late 1990s. It wasn't just a health setback, it was a financial one too. The cancer's many lingering effects were considered pre-existing conditions and — long before Obamacare — deemed her uninsurable. Smith racked up credit card debt to pay for the necessary care.

The apartments' affordable rates, along with a bevy of center services that help residents manage external costs, are invaluable. Smith has used almost every program offered through the center, she says — free of charge, of course. Residents with ailments like Parkinson's disease and juvenile diabetes — even 30-year AIDS survivors — have benefited greatly from the Center on Addison, Smith notes. "There's no way that I could ever pay back what I have gotten," she says.

Books line the wall at the Center on Addison. Photo by Robbie Couch/Upworthy.

The building's refurbished hallways, where rainbow flags and smiling faces welcome you around most corners, makes Town Hall feel like a queer oasis, safe from the systemic challenges waiting outside. The Center on Addison, which operates on the building's first floor, offers innovative programs and experiences to residents, from those more focused on socializing and well-being — like yoga, trips to the theater, and genealogy classes — to less fun (but certainly just as critical) services — such as help managing health care benefits and job readiness workshops. Programs at the center are open to LGBTQ nonresidents who live in the Chicago area too.

Scaling success beyond Chicago

Outside groups have toured Town Hall and the Center on Addison in hopes of replicating its success elsewhere, Williams says. Locally, the apartments have become astoundingly popular among seniors hoping for a coveted studio or one-bedroom: "We no longer have a waiting list," he notes. "The waiting list was so long, we actually couldn’t [continue it]."

That's the sobering punch that complements touring Town Hall: There's overwhelming demand for more places just like it and nowhere near enough facilities to accommodate. Queer seniors, with their unique needs, are more likely to live in poverty; in Chicago alone, roughly 10,000 LGBTQ seniors could potentially benefit from affordable, queer-inclusive housing. With its 80 apartment units, Town Hall simply isn't enough.

Town Hall's outdoor terrace overlooks Chicago's Lake View neighborhood. Photo by Robbie Couch/Upworthy.

Fortunately, more doors are opening for people like Skye, helping queer seniors close the closet doors for good. Along with Town Hall, facilities in cities like Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and San Francisco are blazing trails for the often overlooked demographic within the LGBTQ community; New York City is in the midst of building its first two queer-inclusive centers as well — one in Brooklyn, one in the Bronx.

"Pandora’s box has been opened," Skye says of her new take on life after moving into Town Hall. "Look out world, here I am."

If only every LGBTQ senior could say the same.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash

Gem is living her best life.

If you've ever dreamed of spontaneously walking out the door and treating yourself a day of pampering at a spa without even telling anyone, you'll love this doggo who is living your best life.

According to CTV News, a 5-year-old shepherd-cross named Gem escaped from her fenced backyard in Winnipeg early Saturday morning and ended up at the door of Happy Tails Pet Resort & Spa, five blocks away. An employee at the spa saw Gem at the gate around 6:30 a.m. and was surprised when they noticed her owners were nowhere to be seen.

"They were looking in the parking lot and saying, 'Where's your parents?'" said Shawn Bennett, one of the co-owners of the business.

The employee opened the door and Gem hopped right on in, ready and raring to go for her day of fun and relaxation.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."