Old and gay with nowhere to go? Fear not -- there's a place for you, thanks to Vern Johnson, a former health-care worker who's just launched Calamus Communities, Phoenix's first gay retirement home. Johnson and a business partner have fitted out the former Les Jardins Hotel with posh accommodations for the infirm, and super-chic decor that screams "Girlfriend!" We met in the resort's swanky restaurant to discuss the travails of gay grandpas, the importance of a good gay bar, and those nasty rumors about hunky pool boys.
New Times: Why a gay old folks' home?
Vern Johnson: I've always been in the health-care business, and I've heard for years about how older gay people were having to go back into the closet to get retirement services. Yesterday I toured with a couple from Sun City, two elderly gay men, and they were talking about their friend who was in a retirement facility, and how they can't go to see him anymore because he's afraid if he has only male visitors, they're all gonna know he's gay.
NT: But he is gay. Why does that matter, in terms of this guy's health care?
Johnson: What you have to consider is that a retirement community is a community. It's not just an apartment. You have congregate meals; you have activities. You want to be accepted, and you're back in high school again -- it's that same sort of a scene. You've got the popular boy, you've got the nerds, all the other folks. And you have to fit in, otherwise you're ostracized.
NT: So you have to lie about who you are if you're an old guy living in an enclosed community, so your neighbors won't hate you.
Johnson: Well, I wouldn't. But if you're 80 years old, and you grew up in a different generation, you know what I'm saying? It's a generational thing. That's why I felt there was a need for this. It always seemed a travesty when you lived your life as an out gay person and then, to get health care or other services you need to exist, you have to hide your sexuality. I always felt we could change that.
NT: Do you suppose gay septuagenarians are the last generation of people who will feel that being closeted is a necessity?
Johnson: I don't know. I hope so. I hope [Calamus] will make a difference toward that. I'm hopeful, because we're sort of in the middle of this Fab Five thing now; even my mother is picking up the phone and saying, "Oh, you gotta watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." She's in her 70s, and she came down here to look at the facility the other day. And she said, "Now, can I live here? I'm not a lesbian, but I don't think old lesbians have sex anyway. Can't I just move in?"
NT: What did you tell her? I mean, can straight people live here?
Johnson: Of course. We can't discriminate. But we're being very clear that we're a gay and lesbian facility, that that's the market we're going after.
NT: And you're thinking that probably elderly heterosexuals won't want to live here among a lot of old fruits.
Johnson: I don't know, but if they do, come on in! I've heard a lot of different things, and it's still early. But we want to be a gay and lesbian facility.
NT: Well, what are you going to do -- ask for proof at the door? "Show me your gay card, or you can't come in!"
Johnson: (Laughs.) I know. But we put it right on the cover of our brochure that we're trying to create a gay facility here. I did a lot of research, and I found that gay men tend to live in central Phoenix, but lesbians live everywhere -- from Apache Junction to Sun City West. So I felt it was important to create a facility that was close to the bars, because my research showed me that gay seniors get the majority of their socialization from the bars. Gay men and bars -- there's that relationship.
NT: Which promotes the notion that gay people can't exist without a bar to hang out in; that gays have to have special little segregated places to hide out in. You have a bar here at Calamus, which seems unusual for a retirement community.
Johnson: It wasn't part of my initial business plan, but the bar was here when we bought the building, so I thought, "Why not open it?"
NT: It always comes down to bars.
Johnson: But that's part of the gay life.
NT: Oh, God. No. It isn't. Don't you think there are more homos who don't go to bars than those who do? I think that's just a stereotype, like limp wrists or having a superb fashion sense. Anyway, is there really a preponderance of lost, homeless gay old people?
Johnson: I'm generalizing, but gay people tend to be a little better off than straight people, because they have more money. I think gay people want an upscale facility.
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.
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.
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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.