When Mitch Harvey came to Leisure World (3701 Rossmoor Blvd., Silver Spring, Md.) to take care of his ill mother, he had no idea what he was going to do with himself. Harvey felt like he wouldn’t fit in.
“I thought this is not for me,” Harvey says. “I’m too young, I’m gay. Who am I going to be friends with? I looked around and didn’t see anybody. I felt very much out of place.”
Harvey was less alone than he realized.
Pam Galef and Pat Ritter, longtime friends from Long Island, N.Y., decided to move to Leisure World to join Galef’s parents who lived there. Impressed by Leisure World’s amenities, sports and clubs, they thought it would be a good fit for them.
“As we’re walking through the community our gaydar is going off,” Ritter says. “I had a headache almost every day. I know that the people knew that I knew. They would look me in the eyes and there was recognition there and they would look away.”
After seeing how many gay people were living at Leisure World, Galef and Ritter got together with their friend Mary Twigger and decided to start an LGBT group last November. They put an ad in the Leisure World newspaper inviting people to come meet one another over coffee and cake. The plan was to meet at Twigger’s home. The interest in the meeting was far greater than the three expected and instead of meeting at Twigger’s home, they moved the meeting to the main clubhouse building. The group continued to meet there a few times before becoming an organized club.
Harvey was one of the residents who responded to the ad. He joined the group and became the secretary, Galef became president, Twigger vice president and Ritter became treasurer.
Leisure World’s LGBT group has since become a safe haven for senior LGBT members. The group hosts outings, including dinners, picnics, cruises and museum tours. They attend the theater together and have plans to participate in Hillwood Estate’s Rainbow Picnic.
Yet Leisure World’s residents’ diverse age range can sometimes make it tricky to plan events. Residents at Leisure World, a 55-and-over community, can be as young as mid-50s and go up through the 100s. Some residents are still working while others have been retired for many years. Harvey says that with this huge age range, it isn’t always easy to make an event that everyone can attend. He says residents in their 50s can feel overlooked in a community like Leisure World.
“If I say I want to set up a bowling trip, this group looks at me and says, ‘You think we can pick up bowling balls?’ It’s like saying, ‘Let’s go out and go boating,’ and even less can pick up a canoe paddle,” Harvey says.
There’s more diversity in the group than just age. Each resident has his or her own experiences being gay and their own coming out stories.
Harvey, who is 60 and from the suburbs of New York, came to the District area for college and settled here while working in the travel agency business. Eventually he married a woman and had children, not coming out until he was in his late 40s. He admits he didn’t really start living a gay life until he was 51 when he moved to South Beach, Fla., finally returning to the local area to care for his mother at Leisure World.
“I was taught to live a ‘normal’ lifestyle,” Harvey says. “ I was living a false life for 45 years.”
Twigger, a Washingtonian, was married to a man for 17 years and had a son. She lived with a previous partner for 18 years and even while living with another woman she did not come out until her mid 40s, after her relationship with her partner ended.
Ritter has been out since the 1970s and Galif has been out since the 1990s. Since Ritter came out sooner, her views on the struggles gay people have faced are a stark contrast to what Harvey and Twigger have been through.
While Harvey and Twigger say they haven’t experienced any blatant homophobia, they credit it to coming out later in life. Ritter recalls times when she would have to run from her car to the bar in order to avoid getting beat up by neighborhood boys for being a lesbian.
Although there are gay residents at Leisure World and an LGBT group to support them, some still find it difficult to come out of the closet at these stages in life. Harvey says that some may have had rough times with homophobia the way Ritter experienced and are still afraid to come out. These residents tend to come out after a major life change.
“There are still a lot of people in our community, especially the seniors, who are involved in a straight relationship and when the partner passes that’s when they come out. We have had a couple of people who have been in that situation,” Ritter says.
Even some residents who choose to participate in the LGBT group have chosen to remain as secretive about attending the meetings as they can. Some members will not sign their name on the roster because they do not want a record of them being there. Harvey says that some fear what their neighbors will think if they discovered that they are gay.
The culture of living a closeted life among this generation made it challenging to gain recognition for the group at first. Some residents had no idea that gay people were living in Leisure World and that there would be a need for the group at all. When Galef explained to one person about the group, the person responded by asking where these people were coming from and if they were going to bus them in.
Ritter recalls during a Leisure World dance party, she and her friend Galef got up in front of everyone and slow danced.
“It was like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’ But you have to break the ceiling, you have to do something,” Ritter says.
After the initial introduction, the Leisure World community’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Residents have been accepting of the group and the group’s float for Leisure World’s Fourth of July parade was greeted with smiles and cheers.
“It’s just amazing the reception,” Twigger says. “I think that’s the thing that has a lot of us going, ‘Oh my god.’”
Harvey created a website for the group, leisureworldlgbt.com, and the owner of the Leisure World Brand, Heidi Cortese, contacted Harvey. Cortese was impressed by the work Harvey and the others had done. Now, there are plans to expand the LGBT group into other Leisure World communities. Ideas include having meet ups in other states between different communities, setting up a program where members can swap houses for vacations and even a photo contest, one for gay residents and one for straight ones with a grand prize of a vacation.
Harvey, Ritter, Twigger and Galif are organizing a premiere party on Dec. 4 at their Leisure World location to celebrate being the first active LGBT group at Leisure World. An open bar, hors d’oeuvres and dancing are planned.
“I feel very passionate about it because I know what I lived through. There are many people that are gay that are afraid to say they’re gay that haven’t really had a life yet,” Harvey says. “It’s a very sad life and it shouldn’t be.”
He hopes this group can help those residents accept who they are and start living their lives fully.
“I can truly say that my happiness came when I was able to accept who I was,” Harvey says. “I didn’t have to pretend to be the husband of a wife and live like the Cleavers in ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ That’s why it’s important.”