By Jewelle Gomez
For a while it became popular to snicker at the affectations of ‘Baby Boomers.’ Tye-dye? Cheech and Chong? Free love? How trivial could a generation appear to be? But all such icons obscured the truth that Boomers were born into years of social activism; being change agents became our reason for being during the 1960s and 70s. So it’s appropriate that on the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, activist Marcy Adelman is launching her dream built on love.
She founded Openhouse in 1998 with the goal of developing LGBT welcoming housing and services for LGBT elders. Who better to envision such an encompassing project but an old-school New Englander who’s a veteran of those movements some folks dismiss?
Marcy moved to San Francisco in 1972 to live as an out lesbian, and, as she says, “I didn’t realize how lucky I was to drop into a gay women’s movement. There was an amazing sense of breaking down barriers and creating community.” She’d been prepped for the experience growing up in Massachusetts in an intergenerational, Russian Jewish family. There she learned the vital importance of being proud, and applied that to her experience as a lesbian.
Marcy’s life’s work blossomed inside her when she stood in line for the Frameline LGBT Film Festival. She’d attended the Jewish film festival regularly, since the intergenerational landscape reminded her of her home. Surveying the waiting audience at the LGBT film festival she wondered: “Where are all the old people? Where did we come from?” Marcy continued on to graduate school and started her therapy practice, but continued to feel the pull to make LGBT elders more visible.
While she was studying at San Francisco State, she passed a posted notice about a study being done by a USF researcher on gay men. She immediately called Professor Fred Minnigerode and asked why lesbians weren’t being included. When he expressed his concern about obtaining a sufficient number of lesbian participants, Marcy (typical of her refreshingly forthright manner) jumped in and offered to find them. Working with Ellen Lewin, then an anthropology professor at UCSF, and with others, Marcy engaged enough lesbian participants to create a more representative study. Out of that project grew the anthology Marcy edited, Long Time Passing: Lives of Older Lesbians (1988).
The study and the book reinforced what she’d learned in her family. “Elders are a source of resiliency for us in the LGBT community,” she says. “They are the lessons learned.” She then did a study on mid-life lesbians, but there were few outlets receptive to the work. It was clear that lesbians were (and remain low) on the list of priorities for most health and social scientists. It wasn’t until 2010 that the very first clinician’s guide to lesbian health appeared (Lesbian Health 101, edited by Dibble and Robertson).
Another impediment to interest was the deep, and necessary, focus on the rise of HIV infection in the gay male community during this period. Simply living, rather than the complications of living, long preoccupied the LGBT community. We threw all of our emotional and financial support toward banging down the doors of government resistance to research and care in order to defeat the pandemic.
This shifted somewhat by 2000, when more effective HIV medications became available and as mature Boomers began talking more about aging. Those youngsters chaining ourselves to the White House fence to demonstrate against war in 1969 were by then almost 60. As Marcy says, “We talked over wine and cheese with friends and were focused on ‘retirement villages,’ but we were really taking our dream of living and thriving together into old age.” Many talked of buying land together, and some did, or of buying an apartment building or simply moving into apartments closer to each other. But Marcy’s vision was more than plots of land or brick and mortar. It was about creating a supportive community.
On regular walks with Jan Faulkner, founder of the LGBT Pacific Center in the East Bay, Marcy found a fellow Boomer who had the clinical and research experience to understand the issues and help support the vision. Rainbow House, as it was called in the beginning, was intended to be mixed income housing for LGBT seniors. Marcy then raised the idea with her partner, Jeanette Gurevich, a member of the radical psychology movement of the 1960s. Despite her agreement on the value of the idea, Gurevich was clear—this was not going to be an easy project.
Marcy felt reassured that: “In some relationships, what each person has helps make you better than you’d be without them.” That confluence of passion and realism made the project a goal for both Jeanette and Marcy. This was a gift because, as Marcy explains, “Once Jeanette started something, she didn’t stop.”
As Openhouse developed into a non-profit, the women searched for funding and allies, such as Mercy Housing, which became a partner. “Being a grass roots organization, we needed to raise consciousness around aging,” she says. “We needed to get people to dream again as the HIV plague started to subside. Two lesbian therapists with little experience in practical aging programs had to convince people of the urgency of this. Hundreds of people needed to want to dream about something bigger than themselves. Long before we had a building, we were able to change people’s hearts and minds.”
Today when she speaks of her partner Jeanette, there is the slightest softening in Marcy’s usually strong and direct voice. She identifies Gurevich’s sudden death in 2003 from a heart attack as her biggest challenge, both personally and professionally. The two had become a vanguard unit, pushing through impossible odds to bring light to places that remained in the Dark Ages. Despite this tragic loss, Marcy, through sheer force of will, continued to cut a path through unknown, and sometimes apathetic, territory.
“All the information we had was anecdotal so far; so we set out to do a study with over 1000 participants,” she says. “We met with supporters like Pam David, at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, who suggested we needed to have a gathering of service providers and find out where the service gaps were. Who were their elders and what were the needs? In some cases, as Marcy reports, “Professionals didn’t think they had gay people in their programs! So we began to embed ourselves in the broader service and housing community. We provided the first LGBT cultural humility training in 2004.”
Securing a site for the Openhouse apartments and services was challenging. “We didn’t have the deep pockets or political strength to pull it off,” she explains. “But what made it work was those who stepped up. These were all people I didn’t know. Sometimes I’d seek them out, but often they just came. I don’t often speak in these terms, but there’s something spiritual about starting something like this with no resources. Really, the resources became the people themselves who stepped up to write a grant or who staffed a table at Civic Center for Pride Day.”
Those volunteers helped to make this Baby Boomer dream a reality. Now there is an LGBT friendly space with mixed income housing. It includes vital services for elders, like case management and social activities that decrease the isolation that often plagues elders, creating health and psychological problems. When Openhouse holds its annual Spring Fling on April 30, it will, fittingly, honor Dr. Marcy Adelman—along with AIDS activist Cleve Jones—as the intrepid founder of this historic institution.
Fifty years after we donned our beads, feathers and picket signs, we now head up major institutions, meet with legislators, sit on boards and wear pink pussy hats to demonstrations. The legacy continues. As Marcy says: “We were creating community in the 1970s, still we didn’t know our history yet. We’d been kept from each other. So, to go from that in my lifetime to this experience, it has been a miraculous journey—a community finding itself, maturing and embracing life.” On March 23, 2017, when Openhouse celebrated its grand opening at 55 Laguna Street, Marcy Adelman was there to welcome us home.
Jewelle Gomez is a writer and activist. She is the author of the double Lambda Award-winning novel, “The Gilda Stories.” Her latest play “Leaving the Blues,” about the life of celebrated Blues singer-songwriter Alberta Hunter, recently had its world premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco.