Dr. Imani Woody is the CEO and founder of Mary’s House for Older Adults and is an advocate for women, people of color and LGBTQ/SGL (Same Gender Loving) issues for over three decades. She recently was awarded an AARP Purpose Prize for her work.
Senior Planet: When did you start Mary’s House? I read how your dad going into a nursing home made you think about LGBTQ seniors in that same situation.
Imani Woody: My dad had me and my wife and other family members to advocate for him, and he was still treated like a room number. We eventually pulled him out and he died at home.
So many elders in the LGBTQ+SGL community do not have kids or grand kids to advocate for us.
But what if he had been an old out gay man, or a lesbian or an out transgender elder? I can’t imagine what it would have been like. So many elders in the LGBTQ+SGL community do not have kids or grand kids to advocate for us. And during the AIDS epidemic, we lost many logical family members.
It’s hard to be old and gay, and we’re going back into the closet. I know an older lesbian living with her daughter who can’t be her gay self anymore and a gay man in an assisted living residence who told his friends not to visit because of the perceived and actual homophobia. At Mary’s House our motto is “Bring your whole self.” Follow the Platinum Rule: Treat people like they want to be treated. Not how you want to treat them.
At Mary’s House our motto is “Bring your whole self.”
SP: You are building a residence in DC for LGBTQ seniors with 15 units. I love the fact you are building on the site of your childhood home, and that you named it after your mother, Mary. Please tell us more.
IW: We will be groundbreaking this spring or summer. It is not an apartment building. It is 15 units, single rooms with private baths, the only communal housing in the USA for LGBTQ elders. We are building family. Residents will take a class in communal living. The kitchen/dining area/great room/quiet room/hot tub will all be shared. We will have a Stonewall garden with a yellow brick road.
SP: Can you talk about the Villages at Mary’s House? I understand that these services for LGBTQ seniors have been going on for 10 years. How does this outreach work?
IW: Several neighborhoods in DC have areas designated ‘Villages’ where neighbors help one another to age in place. Our project is not geographic but defined by population: LGBTQ+SGL. We have volunteers that connect with our members, daily or weekly via text, phone, or virtual. We provide drive-bys to say hello face-to-face. We send birthday, anniversary and thinking of you cards. We provide PPE and food cards for our members in need. We can provide professional mental health and other information and referral requests.
SP: You’re 70 years old, an activist in the gay community, working with LGBTQ seniors for decades. Why is this work important to you and to society? And what have you learned?
IW: I’ve learned we are resilient. In DC and other cities back in the 60s, if you were caught cruising, your name was printed in the paper. You could lose your job, your apartment, your friends, your life. Eisenhower signed an order that “homosexuals” could not work for the government. It took Obama to reverse Clinton’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. I want people to respond to a call to action and to revoke the rules that are unfair. We are here. We are not invisible. Same gender loving people are here to stay.
SP: What about your hopes and plans for the future?
IW: We can’t build enough affordable, welcoming communal housing. I’d like to see the model of Mary’s House Residence and the Villages at Mary’s House in every state and every city, not just DC.
Want to know more about Pride at Senior Planet? Visit the Pride page to get the scoop on all the events and activities scheduled in June – a movie night, an oral history quilt, and a trivia challenge! Details to come!
Want to find Pride community online? Senior Planet hosts a Pride Discussion Group! This social group meets virtually every Monday from 4-5pm EST to discuss current events, LGBT history, dating, friendship, or whatever is on our minds. The group is intended for older adults, age 60 and over, who identify as LGBT+ and are looking to connect with others in the community.
Kate Walter is the author of two memoirs: Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter; and Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, New York Daily News, AM-NY, Next Avenue, The Advocate, The Village Sun and other outlets. She taught writing at CUNY and NYU for three decades and now works as a writing coach.