Gay Old Time

Vern Johnson's rest home for homos is good news for the gay and gray

NT: But heterosexual fogies get dumped into nursing homes by kids who don't want to take care of them. How would a gay old folks' home be different?

Johnson: I think the biggest thing is the socialization that's going to take place here. The fact that everyone is gonna be out, everyone can be themselves. It's not just a building or a complex, but a real community where everyone can feel comfortable being themselves.

NT: Maybe the next generation of gays will be comfortable being themselves in general.

Vern Johnson (with Calamus chef Duane Mantey) caters to friends of Dorothy Kilgallen.
Emily Piraino
Vern Johnson (with Calamus chef Duane Mantey) caters to friends of Dorothy Kilgallen.

Johnson: It's happening. As society is evolving, it's almost chic to be gay in some circles. I know a group of older, moneyed women -- you know, Rose Mofford's crowd -- who can't wait to come to lunch here. It's happenin' to be gay now. There are changes going on in society.

NT: Meantime, seniors with same-sex partners aren't allowed to share rooms at most facilities?

Johnson: I heard a story recently of a couple in Sun City who had to have two separate apartments. It comes down to policies in the individual organizations, the fact that we're not protected as other [minorities] are. That's what we hope to address here. I think [Calamus is] making the world a little bit better place.

NT: You're at least making it a place where no elderly gay man has to live a day without camp.

Johnson: There's gonna be a lot of camp, and a lot of drama, I'm afraid.

NT: But please: No drag shows.

Johnson: They're not on the agenda, but we do have a piano, so I'm sure there'll be some flag dancing going on. It's gonna be fun. I mean, we're gay, we're fun! You know?

NT: Another stereotype: that all gay people are "fun." Trust me, it's not so. But getting back to what you said about gay people having more money: What about gay people with limited income? This place is pretty ritzy; can they afford it?

Johnson: Probably not. We're marketing to that middle income section, and we're comparable to other retirement facilities with like services. We'll see how it floats. No one's done [a gay retirement community] on this scale before. There's a small one in Akron, Ohio, with six rooms, and then of course there's the lesbian trailer park in Apache Junction.

NT: A lesbian trailer park in Apache Junction.

Johnson: They've had some problems with discrimination issues. It's a very secret-secret, ya-ya sort of thing.

NT: You mean at that place, you really do have to prove you're a lesbian to get in?

Johnson: Well, there were lawsuits. They weren't letting men in. I've heard this thirdhand; I don't know the details.

NT: Why would men want to live in a lesbian senior citizen trailer park?

Johnson: I don't know. Our facility is co-ed. We're marketing to men and women. Why not, you know? I've looked at different options for the women. We've looked at doing a women's floor, and the women I interviewed in our focus group said, "We don't want to be separate, but we want to be grouped together!" Time will tell.

NT: What if a 30-year-old wrinkle queen wanted to move in?

Johnson: We'd have to let him. If someone wants to live this way, why not? It's about having a carefree lifestyle in a resort setting. We have a concierge room where you can have a continental breakfast and a happy hour every day. Dinner in the restaurant is included in the rent.

NT: But you're not talking about gourmet purée, right?

Johnson: Well, we're going to have to individualize service for certain people. If someone can't eat too much sugar, the chef will work with you and we'll get you what you need. We'll work with you.

NT: But aren't people going to assume that what you're also providing is humpy nurses giving enemas to old guys?

Johnson: (Laughs.) I don't know. Is that what the assumption is?

NT: I think so.

Johnson: We're not a bathhouse or a clothing-optional resort. We may have a pool boy running around, who knows? But people want competent, educated people to provide services. When we hire people, we're not hiring strippers.

NT: This place is great. Can I book a room for when I get old?

Johnson: Sure. Come on, I'll show you a model.


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