True to her name: Judy Freespirit spearheads LGBT movement at Jewish Home

Judy Freespirit assumed that moving into San Francisco’s Jewish Home would expose her to a new group of gay and lesbian friends.

She is out and she is proud. And this is, after all, San Francisco.

When she moved into her garden view room, she hung theater posters of various one-woman shows in which she starred. She gave prominent placement to her framed Old Dyke Award, given to her by National Center for Lesbian Rights.

But after four months of zipping through the halls on a glossy red motorized scooter looking for a gay community, she had to face reality.

“Where are the old queens and dykes?” she wrote late last year in the residents’ newsletter. “Am I the only one?”

The 230-word essay garnered a lot of attention — from the staff. They wanted to work with her to make the Jewish Home more inclusive and more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents and staff. But not one of the 420 residents knocked on Freespirit’s door to say, “You’re not alone.”

“You can imagine how alienated I feel,” she wrote. “It would be like going to New York and finding no other Jews. Who would not be confused by such a situation?”

Freespirit, 71, represents a small but growing number of gay seniors needing residential care. Their health ailments may mirror those of the general population, but their other struggles are unique.

LGBT seniors often don’t have traditional family support to help them as they age. Gay seniors are twice

as likely as straight people to be single in their senior years, according to SAGE (Service and Advocacy for Gay Elders).

Today’s gay seniors didn’t grow up attending Pride parades or watching “Will and Grace.” Many of them have hidden their sexuality throughout adulthood; even if they’ve been out for a long time, their straight peers are often not as comfortable with their gay lifestyle. Consequently, LGBT seniors may face discrimination and isolation, in some cases feeling like they need to go back in the closet when they enter a senior living facility.

“We do hear about people being mistreated, but for the most part, many of the seniors don’t expose their orientation for fear of that,” said Moli Steinert, director of openhouse, an S.F. nonprofit that serves aging LGBT individuals and trains organizations to be more welcoming of gay elders.

“People are incredulous that LGBT seniors might in fact have difficulty accessing the senior service system in San Francisco of all places, but in fact, we’ve found very few LGBT seniors using existing services,” she added. “Part of that is because the senior service agencies are not creating a welcoming environment.”

There are 25,000 LGBT seniors older than 60 in San Francisco, which represents 17 percent of the city’s senior population, according to a 2003 openhouse study.

Nationally, the Gay and Lesbian Task Force estimates there are more than 3 million LGBT Americans over the age of 65, a number that is expected to double by 2030.

Judy Freespirit wants to make sure the Jewish Home is ready for those baby boomers.

Freespirit was born Judy Berkowitz. She grew up in a working-class secular Jewish family in Detroit. She went to college (“I did what I was sent there to do, which is get my Mrs. degree.”) She got married (becoming Judy Ackerman), had a son, and moved to California.

When she discovered the women’s movement in 1970, she left her husband and became Judy Freespirit.

“I had always been someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother,” she said. “I wanted to find a name for myself that I could work at living up to. I’m getting closer all the time.”

She is the only openly gay person living in the Jewish Home, but she’s not the first. Ten years ago, Etta Perkins and Cora Latz, an elder lesbian couple, celebrated their 25th anniversary with a recommitment ceremony while living at the Jewish Home. They have since died, but their photo albums — of their first commitment ceremony in 1973, and their second in 1998 — are now a part of the archives at San Franisco’s GLBT Historical Society.

Mark Friedlander, the Jewish Home’s director of resident programs and services, officiated the recommitment ceremony, blessing the couple under a chuppah made from a rainbow flag. The ceremony was an understated affair in his office — private compared to the crusade that Freespirit has undertaken.

“No resident during the 28 years I’ve been here has put herself out there the way Judy has,” Friedlander said.

He’s been openly gay since he first started working at the Jewish Home. Residents and staff have never been anything but kind, he said. Still, he wants to transform an open attitude into open policy and practice.

“I had been in conversation with other staff about looking at these issues, but when Judy came on the scene, it was, like, ‘OK, let’s get it out there. Let’s invest the time and energy and make it real. Let’s get some work done,'” Friedlander said. “Are we as LGBT-friendly as we could be?”

The Jewish Home is ahead of the curve among Jewish senior agencies.

Staff at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco and in the East Bay said they’d be happy to help a gay senior who requests services, but neither organization has yet to establish official programming or support groups specifically for LGBT seniors. However, both groups are in contact with other nonprofits working directly with LGBT seniors, such as openhouse and Lavender Seniors of the East Bay.

“We’re ready to work with [gay seniors], but so far, they haven’t come to us,” said Ada Burko, director of the JFCS Suse Moyal Center for Older Adult Services in Albany. “And that is exactly part of the issue — that generation is much more closeted to begin with.”

Agencies locally and nationally are addressing LGBT seniors’ needs in two ways. In rare cases, people are building residential facilities specifically for gay and lesbian seniors.

More often, agencies such as openhouse or Lavender Seniors of the East Bay are trying to make existing agencies more friendly to LGBT individuals.

In Boston, the Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home Foundation is planning to build what could be the nation’s first skilled-nursing home for LGBT elders.

Barbary Lane Senior Communities on Lake Merritt in Oakland opened its doors one year ago. Named after the fictional street created by gay author Armistead Maupin, the 46-unit independent living facility is intended for gay and lesbian seniors, though straight seniors are also welcome.

Openhouse just partnered with city officials to build San Francisco’s first affordable, independent LGBT senior housing facility, which they expect to break ground on later this year.

Still, “we don’t want to recreate the whole system, we want to be integrated into the existing system,” Steinert said.

That’s exactly what Freespirit and the Jewish Home staff hope to do.

For the past three months, Freespirit and a handful of other staff have gathered for what they call a Lavender Salon. They spend an hour every month talking about things they can change to make the Jewish Home more gay-friendly for staff, residents and volunteers.

During a recent meeting, they talked about how the Jewish Home’s application is “so heterosexist, it’s unbelievable,” said Eileen Levy, a social worker. She recalled a gay man requesting an application for his partner, who had dementia, but she never heard from him again.

“Imagine if that guy took home a new application and said, ‘Look how hip the Jewish Home is.'”

The group agreed to revise the application. They also talked about reaching out to patients needing short-term care.

“You never know if they might need to come back in the future,” Friedlander said.

Carole Burns, volunteer coordinator, told the group she had been in conversation with Congregation Sha’ar Zahav to create opportunities for gay parents and their children to volunteer at the home.

Freespirit, a lifelong activist, decided there needed to be a subcommittee to create programs in honor of Pride month in June. Maybe show a movie with a gay protagonist, then have a group discussion? Maybe invite the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony to perform? She also suggested ordering buttons online, printed with a rainbow flag or the phrase “I support gay rights.”

Organizing is second nature to Freespirit, who has spent her life advocating equal rights for gays, women, people with disabilities and those who are overweight. She’s well known as one of the original factivists (fat activists) and has published numerous essays and plays on the topic.

But for now, her focus is on making the Jewish Home as gay-friendly as possible.

“The resident of tomorrow,” Friedlander said, “will be much better because of the work Judy is doing today.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.