Letter from Stockholm: Inside Europe’s first gay old-age home
- Rebecca Davis
- 01 Aug 2014 (South Africa)
In November last year, Europe’s first retirement project exclusively for elderly members of the gay and lesbian community was launched. Called Regnbågen –“Rainbow” – it’s based in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. There’s already a long waiting list for tenants, and other major global cities are considering similar initiatives. REBECCA DAVIS checked it out.
When Björn Lunstedt told his father he was gay, his father sent him to a doctor. The doctor had a simple solution: perhaps Bjorn should castrate himself?
That was in 1960’s Sweden. Homosexuality had technically been de-criminalized for two decades, but would be considered a form of mental illness until the late 1970s.
Lunstedt never got that castration. Today he is 73 years old, and he lives in a place which might have seemed unthinkable in his youth. Opened for business in November last year, it is Europe’s first old-age housing project for gay people, where Lunstedt rents one of 27 apartments.
Photo: Regnbagen, Europe's first housing project for LGBT seniors, is located in central Stockholm
From the outside, Regnbågen looks like nothing special: a slightly clinical apartment block well situated in central Stockholm. Even inside, indeed, there is little to hint at the singular initiative taking place within its walls. The décor is tasteful and minimalist, in typical Scandinavian style: blue accents and wood. Only a gay flag coiled in the corner of Regnbågen’s common room reveals anything about the demographic of its inhabitants.
Chairman Christer Fallman is Regnbågen’s youngest tenant, at 55.
“Elderly people in [Stockholm’s] LGBT movement have wanted this for many years,” Fallman said on Thursday. Regnbågen is five and a half years in the making, but the idea of a housing project for old gay Swedes pre-dates Regnbågen’s establishment by at least two decades.
Regnbågen operates as a cooperative, and inhabits a building owned by the Stockholm City Council. Fallman says it was important to him that the cost of renting one of their 27 apartments would be affordable to anyone on a state pension. Taking Regnbågen’s central location in one of Europe’s most expensive cities into consideration, its tenants are paying a fraction of the rent they would be elsewhere. On the ground floor of the apartment building there is a health clinic, a hair salon and a restaurant.
Its location, Fallman jokes, could not be more perfect for its inhabitants: “You can take Bus number 1 from directly outside straight to the concert hall.”
Regnbågen’s tenants current number 33. 30 percent are women, and there are four couples. Fallman says it was his intention originally to make the properties available to anyone, gay or straight – “I wanted a rainbow house where everyone was welcome”. But Fallman was outvoted by other members.
“They said: ‘We want to have something of our own,’” Fallman says. “These are people who during their lifetime have been classified as criminal, classified as sick. A lot of gay people came to Sweden from Finland, after being beaten or manhandled for being gay. Some of them are here.”
In a country as famously tolerant as modern Sweden, why is old-age care specifically for gay people even necessary?
“We find it very important because otherwise there is the possibility that you have to move back into the closet when you move into elderly care,” says Fallman. “That is a risk even in Sweden.”
Lunstedt agrees. “Other [elderly] people maybe don’t know anything about what they have gone through. It makes them much more vulnerable.”
“Not everyone wants to live here, and they don’t have to,” Fallman points out. “But we like it.”
As news of Regnbågen has spread, so too has the demand for apartments within it. There are currently almost 100 people on the waiting list: one registers first to become a ‘member’ of Regnbågen.
“We have no guarantees if any member is gay or not,” Fallman concedes. “We cannot test them.”
Lunstedt tells the story of a woman who asked him how she could get her hands on one of the apartments.
“I told her, ‘You have to be gay,’” Lunstedt says. “She replied: ‘It’s no problem!’”
The future Regnbågen chairman, Lars Mononen, pops into the common room to say hello. He is a youthful-looking 64. Regnbågen’s oldest tenant is in her 80s. Regardless of tenants’ age, there is a vibrant social programme for every month. “Björn makes the hors d’oeuvres,” Fallman says.
Photo: Bjorn Lunstedt (l) and Christer Fallman (r) are two of Regnbagen's current tenants
Lunstedt runs through some of the events on their calendar: “In August we have our Crayfish Party. Every Saturday we have a melody quiz. On Sundays there is fica” (a Swedish term for meeting up to drink coffee and cake).
Have there been any Regnbågen love stories yet?
“None yet, but many friendships,” Fallman says.
“But we don’t only meet gay people,” Lunstedt interjects. “It’s not like that.” The tenants host parties and dinners at which everyone is welcome, regardless of sexual orientation.
Fallman says he’ll be leaving his apartment “feet-first”.
“What we have here is just a good example of an elderly group who want to be together,” he says. “To be friends. To speak the same language and share memories.” DM
Rebecca Davis is in Stockholm on the invitation of the Swedish Institute