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Pink Pensioniers: Germany's Gay and Gray Get a New Home

Discrimination is a fact of life for gays and lesbians over 60, and fears about going to an old people's home are widespread. But a new batch of care services in Germany are catering specifically to aging homosexuals -- and demand will likely grow.

Hans-Paul finds reading the paper difficult, he lets television pictures wash over him and he doesn't like to leave his little flat in the Nippes neighborhood in Cologne, Germany. For decades he has been plagued by an eye illness. It won't be long before the 69-year-old will need to be helped out with his daily life. Hans-Paul, who prefers not to give his second name, expects that he will soon have to move into some sort of old people's home.

But a normal old people's home doesn't come into consideration for the former probation officer. "I would rather not live under one roof with heterosexuals," he says. Han-Paul is gay and for people from the 60+ generation, that can often pose problems.

The pensioner is afraid of discrimination: He fears he could be rejected when he is at his weakest. A survey of 2,500 homosexual pensioners in Munich showed that more than 70 percent are concerned that old people's home care workers or other residents may exclude and treat them with hostility. "I don't want to take the risk that I might have to live with former Nazis or others who would have reported me to the authorities in the 1960s," Hans-Paul says.

The Cologne resident, whose long-term partner died in 1998, is interested in "Villa Anders," which translates as Villa Different, a new home for gays and lesbians which should be completed at the end of next year. In the mixed-generational project, young people will be there to support older people in their daily life.

'Pink Godparents'

The initiative is one of many similar projects. There is Rosa Paten (Pink Godparents) in Frankfurt, a gay nursing service in Berlin and a homosexual flat share in Hamburg. In Frankfurt an old people's home is reserved for homosexuals and in Berlin the Village Care Home recently opened, providing rooms for 23 aging gays and lesbians.

Thousands share Hans-Paul's wish to live among other homosexuals. Those interested in Villa Anders meet regularly in a Cologne community center. Over coffee and cake, the men share very different life stories. But they have all experienced one thing over the past decades: extreme discrimination.

Hans, 63, sits at the table. His wish for privacy was shattered when someone saw him surfing on a gay Web site. His middle-class lifestyle fell apart: He was snubbed at the office and the golf club, people whispered and tried to avoid talking to him.

Manfred, 69, dared to openly show his love for another man and was punished with a fine by a local court in his hometown in 1965. Back then Germany's criminal code still contained Paragraph 175, which made homosexuality a punishable crime -- it was only deleted in 1994.

Almost 90 percent of gay men over 45 have been a victim of homophobic violence, studies carried out in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia have shown. And despite the long list of celebrities who have come out of the closet, the risk of discrimination is far from over, said Hans. When a Berlin monument for homosexual victims of the Nazi years was vandalized in August, "it sent a shiver down our spines," he says.

Special Care

Michael Bochow of the Social Science Center in Berlin has been working with gay senior citizens for years. The sociologist has met hundreds of fearful, vulnerable and "extremely lonely people." He says the suicide rate among homosexuals is five times as high as it is among heterosexuals. "It is a group which is, in part, deeply traumatized," says Bochow. "And for that reason they need special care."

Nedzad Ignatenko, 34 years old and himself openly homosexual, has responded to the situation by co-foundeding a nursing service for gays and lesbians in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. He says he discovered a "gap in the market."

He says many of his customers were "extremely happy" that they didn't have to hide their sexuality, that he didn't ask about children or grandchildren, but rather asked about what gay bars they used to go to. Ignatenko also thinks that senior care will have to increasingly cater specifically to homosexuals because in the future there will be igreater numbers of pensioners with AIDS.

Critics of the new approach to care homes warn of "ghettoization." But that fear is incomprehensible to Kerstin Wecker, who leads the Village Care Home in Berlin. The men and women she and her co-workers look after see their new home as "a sort of protected area" not as a "ghetto". Recently a man moved into her center from another "normal" old people's home. But it was only after he arrived at the Village Care Home that he dared to put up a picture of his late partner.

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