BY SID MARCH
What better place to settle in for your golden years than the Land of Enchantment? Red mesas rise into impossibly blue skies. The perpetually sunny weather gives way to cool nights and even the occasional snow. A land of four glorious seasons, it’s hospitable and welcoming, not to mention mind-bendingly beautiful. These are just some of the reasons that Bonnie McGowan chose New Mexico as the home for Birds of a Feather, close to 20 years ago.
Birds of a Feather is a gay and lesbian resort community located on 160 peaceful acres of rural land with a three-sixty view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The nearest urban mecca is a village of less than 2,000. Although serenely remote and surrounded by the New Mexico National Forest Area, the homesteads are situated barely 90 minutes from an international airport in Albuquerque, a blink away from medical services and basic necessities in the nearby community of Pecos, and just half hour from the cultural delight that is gay-friendly Santa Fe and its host of restaurants, theatres, and art galleries. Everything you can imagine is within arm’s reach.
McGowan touts Birds of a Feather as a place where gay and lesbian retirees – and not-so-retirees – who want a sustainable, warm, accepting community, can spend their mature years with minimal concern about intolerant neighbors or latent (and sometimes blatant) homophobia. Although the community specifically invites gays and lesbians, all are technically welcome. “We support diversity,” she says, relaying a story about a straight couple and a gay male couple that lived in the same apartment building in Los Angeles some 20 years ago. Now nearing retirement age, and still sharing the bond they made as neighbors, they’re seeking out a community of like-minded people where they can retire side by side. The couples approached McGowan about the possibility of the straight couple joining their gay friends at Birds of a Feather. Her response? “Absolutely!” Birds of a Feather will accept residents who are gay, lesbian, trans, straight, queer, and beyond. It’s a non-issue to McGowan as long as any non-LGBTQ residents are allies of the community.
A gay and lesbian oriented retirement happy space sounds almost too amazing to be true. It’s easy to imagine an isolated bubble of rainbow retirees, singing Lady Gaga (or k.d. Lang? Elton?) while playing checkers and chasing around countless grand-puppies. The reality, however, is bigger and better. Residents of Birds of a Feather have become an integral part of the Pecos community at large, volunteering for local fund drives, sitting on the board of directors at the medical center, helping run a food bank, volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and providing support for local businesses. This positive action and visibility is key for the promotion of tolerance and acceptance. “It’s helpful to see that gays and lesbians are pretty darn normal.” McGowan laughs.
McGowan started developing her concept nearly 30 years ago. Working as an investment banker and in the public defender’s office unwittingly prepared her for both the legal and financial aspects of building a boutique community from the ground up. It’s a process that involves community approval, site plans, business plans, financial projections, lots of paperwork, and huge creative visions. She conducted online surveys and engaged focus groups to find out what people wanted, where they wanted it, and how they wanted it done– and she did it.
There are a mere handful of others who have created communities that specifically welcome LGBTQ people of retirement age. As the Baby Boomers become grandparents, the demand for communities for the 55+ set and assisted living facilities is likely to substantially increase; it’s just a matter of numbers. In the US, where same-sex marital rights are still limited, aging gays and lesbians often face grave prospects when they are in the times of greatest need. We have all heard horror stories of elderly lesbian couples being assigned to separate rooms in the same facility, bedridden and unable to visit each other, of life-partners disallowed hospital visitation in their final days; beyond devastating, it is heartbreaking. Communities like McGowan’s seek to help alleviate this pain by creating safe spaces for LGBTQ couples and ensuring the closet door is left wide, wide open. Birds of a Feather hopes to eventually provide medical resources, transport vans, and/or assisted living facilities when more residents have the need, so people can stay comfortable in their homes and the community for the absolute maximum duration.
So, what makes Birds of a Feather so appealing to its residents? People can stay in a neighborhood built for them, specifically, with “the support of friends, neighbors, partners, and what we call ‘chosen family’,” McGowan says. Residents become a tight knit group. “Until we reach a point in society where my partner and I can walk down the street holding hands in [any] community and feel safe, there is still a need for this,” McGowan says, commiserating with me despite the almost 40 years between us. Even if we come to the forefront of progress and an increasingly hospitable environment toward LGBTQ people develops, McGowan is sure communities like hers will still be popular: “There will always be a need, or desire, for people to be able to live with [other] people that have had similar life experiences.”
And this, so far, has been true. Though expansion has slowed through the economic downturn and crash, McGowan isn’t giving up. The community is viable and growing, albeit a little slowly. McGowan and her partner, Lisa, have started designing some smaller, more affordable homes, as small as 1000 square feet, to make the community more accessible. With the green design of eco-nests, McGowan’s desire to preserve nature as best as possible (the majority of the utilities have been wired underground to prevent aesthetic interference with scenery and they use special advanced nitrate septic systems to avoid polluting the ground water), and the spiritually profound location (New Mexico is prime real estate for a vision quest), buying into the community isn’t exactly cheap — but for many, it is worth it.
Members purchase their lot and work with approved designers to customize their homestead. Birds of a Feather offers a variety of sizes and floor plans to accommodate different lifestyles and needs. They’re slated to start Phase II of production with new types of homes available: who says the real estate market is at a stand still? Still, with the recent bankruptcies of several assisted living facilities and comparable communities, potential buyers have expressed concern. Defiant in the face of any adversity, McGowan securely insists, “we’re not going anywhere!” as she lists lots that are purchased, builds that are scheduled to start in the spring, and forward motion with a homeowner’s association. It sounds like Birds of a Feather is doing just fine.
Visit Birds of a Feather to learn more about the community.