MADRID — Though still energetic at 60, Elianne Garcia Ruiz can already foresee the struggles of growing old as a transsexual woman.
A former night shift attendant at a home for the aged, Garcia Ruiz has witnessed firsthand the kinds of abuses that elderly lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals receive from workers and other residents: Sexist slurs, she said, are only the most common.
She recalled a lesbian married couple leaving the residence because they had been forced to live separately. Garcia Ruiz later learned that their relationship had made an employee, who saw them kissing in their room, uncomfortable.
“In normal residences, they label you,” Garcia Ruiz said through an interpreter. She declined to name the institution, located fewer than 30 miles from the capital, where she had worked for five years.
The alternative to living in a group home, however, is a lonely one. Garcia Ruiz has neither a partner nor family and is by herself in an apartment in the small city of Robledo de Chavela in greater Madrid.
Her situation is not unusual. About 42,000 LGBT people above the age of 65 reside in Madrid, based on calculations using a 2011 study by UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. Many of those people have little support. Federico Armenteros is working to change that.
In 2010 he and five others started the December 26 Foundation, named for the day in 1978 when sexual discrimination became illegal in Spain. The organization is dedicated to building the first retirement home in the country that will cater to the needs of aging LGBTs. It's slated to open next year.
Besides dealing with the challenges of old age, this population also faces the possibility of indifference or discrimination from people at eldercare residences, or of isolation and depression should the choice be made to live alone, Armenteros said through a translator. The new retirement home, set to be built in a small neighborhood about 30 miles outside the center of Madrid, will be a space where people can find both privacy and company, he said, and be in the hands of those who are sensitive to who they are and what they need.
“Throughout Spain, there is no specialized space for aging LGBT individuals,” said Armenteros, 55, himself a gay man. “This particular generation, most of their lives, they were rejected socially by their family and friends.”
Despite having legalized same-sex marriage in 2005 under the left-leaning Socialist Workers’ Party, Spain has a long history of intolerance toward alternative lifestyles and expressions of sexuality. From the late 1930s through the mid-1970s, the nation was in the midst of a 36-year dictatorship under Francisco Franco, a military general whose extreme right-wing policies repressed and punished those who deviated from his conservative ideology.
“The most liberal [homosexuals] exiled themselves [during that period],” said Gema Pérez-Sánchez, author of the 2008 book, “Queer Transitions in Contemporary Spanish Culture: From Franco to La Movida.” “Those who stayed had to go into the closet really, really deeply,” she added.
Gender roles were strictly enforced: Men were the breadwinners and leaders of the family, while women played the part of obedient wife or daughter. Under the law, even the whisper of nonconformity from a nosy neighbor could lead to imprisonment, or confinement in a mental institution or sexual reeducation center. Such places meant beatings, abuse and even electroshock treatments, said Pérez-Sánchez, who also teaches 20th century Spanish literature, queer studies and feminist theory at the University of Miami.
The Catholic Church also supported Franco’s conservatism, Pérez-Sánchez said. That meant repression came from almost all sectors of the social order.
Garcia Ruiz, for instance, was 15 the first time she was sent to jail for being effeminate. She spent two weeks behind bars and lost her job in the process. Over the years, she was arrested six more times on similar grounds.
“They didn’t want homosexuality to be visible,” she said of the Franco government. At the time, she was not yet transsexual; Garcia Ruiz began the process of transforming into a woman in 1974 at the age of 21.
Autocratic rule ended with the dictator’s death in 1975, but traces of his time in power live on in Spanish consciousness, said Raquel “Lucas” Platero, a transexual sociologist and professor of psychology at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, in Madrid. He specializes in queer and LGBT studies in Spain. The country’s current aging populace, in particular, carries with it the memories – and, for some, the mentality – of life during the dictatorship, he said.
“Today in 2014, there’s a legacy of people who still think in their own minds that being gender-nonconforming, being homosexual … is a sort of deviance that’s linked to disorder, linked to sin, linked to a crime,” Platero said. “At the same time that we have same-sex marriage, we have high transphobia, we have high homophobia.”
Loneliness is another major issue. Like Garcia Ruiz, Juan Carlos Arquero Jimenez, 57, has no family and no partner. His support system consists only of the circle of friends he has in Madrid, though he lives 43 miles outside the city.
“It is difficult,” Arquero Jimenez said of being gay and growing old. The idea of a home that caters to aging LGBTs appeals to him.“It would be wonderful if there was a house for when we become older, and … to at least be in a space where you’re protected,” he said through a translator.
The December 26 Foundation’s residence is intended to be just that.
Currently an unused building in the picturesque town of Miraflores de la Sierra, the 88,300-square-foot property includes a five-story structure surrounded by oaks, pines and cypresses.
The residence will have 45 apartment-style rooms, a reception area, a conference room, a dining room and kitchen, a lounge bar and café, a common laundry area and a swimming pool, according to plans provided by Armenteros.
Funding limitations make it impossible to take in all clients for free, Armenteros said, but the foundation is devising a scholarship-type admissions process that provides for those who can’t afford the minimum rent of 500 euros, or just under $700 a month. The residence will be open to clients who are at least 60 years old.
More than its proposed amenities, what will distinguish this place from other eldercare homes will be its policy of prioritizing the hiring of LGBT professionals and staffers to work with the residents, said Armenteros. That way, the home will allow clients to live in an environment of tolerance and acceptance while providing jobs to homosexuals and transsexuals who have difficulty finding work – though heterosexuals are welcome, too, he said.
Reaction to the idea of a specialized residence has so far been positive.
About 20 people have expressed interest in living at the new home, which can accommodate up to 90 residents, said Armenteros.
Even aging LGBTs who don’t feel marginalized agree that there is value in being surrounded by their own community in the twilight of their lives.
“It’s the difference between living among friends and living among enemies,” Ramón Arreal, coordinator of the elderly committee of the Colectivo de lesbianas, gays, transexuales y bisexuales de Madrid (COGAM), said through an interpreter.
Though discrimination hasn’t been an issue for Arreal, he has heard many stories; the weekly group meeting of LGBT seniors that he runs at the COGAM office along Calle La Puebla in central Madrid is a space for such grievances. Most members declined to share their experiences in public for fear of further abuse.
Meanwhile, individuals such as Garcia Ruiz and Arquero Jimenez – who know what it’s like to be rejected just for being themselves – look at projects such as Armenteros’ and see hope for a better future.
“It’s good, the idea to have a residence home for us,” said Arquero Jimenez. “[It would be good] to finish your last days in peace and … in affection and love.”