How a transgender senior created a haven for LGBTQ elders.

The Matriarch of Spirit on Lake

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Placemakers: Sept. 14 2016 2:17 PM

The Matriarch of Spirit on Lake

Show notes

Spirit on Lake in downtown Minneapolis looks a lot like any other apartment complex built over the past few years. But something very specific sets it apart from nearly every other one in the nation: It’s an affordable-housing development aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors. It was the brainchild of someone who deeply understands the unique challenges of this community—because as an 82-year-old transgender woman, she’s part of it.

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Rebecca Sheir

Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.


Barbara Satin

Barbara Satin is a transgender activist who’s been deeply involved with LGBTQ issues locally and nationally—particularly around the issues of aging and faith.

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Rebecca Sheir: A few miles south of downtown Minneapolis, there’s this four-story apartment building. It’s at the corner of 13th Avenue South and Lake Street, a major thoroughfare running east to west. It’s called “Spirit on Lake,” and from the outside, it looks a lot like any other apartment complex that’s popped up over the past few years. It’s got a refined, modern look: a multitextured façade of brick, stucco, and siding, sleek aluminum balconies. But as building manager Kathleen Tully shows me the day I visit—

Sheir: So nice to meet you!

Tully: Nice to meet you. Come on in!

Sheir: —something very specific sets Spirit on Lake apart from nearly every other apartment building in the nation. One clue lies in the windowpanes.

Tully: There’s the yellow and green, I guess those are the next ones.

Sheir: So red, orange, yellow, green.

Tully: Yep!

Sheir: I like how as you turn the corner you can see the glow of the color.

Sheir: We’re looking at the windows inside Spirit on Lake’s stairwell. As you walk down each set of stairs, you’ll see the colors of the glass follow the colors of the rainbow: they go from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to purple.

Sheir: That is a fabulous purple.

Tully: When you drive by, and the motion sensors turn those lights on, it’s a wow factor at night. It is amazing!

Sheir: Then there’s another rainbow at Spirit on Lake—this one, inside the fitness room, in the form of hand weights. The lightest ones are red, then orange, all the way down to the heaviest ones, which are, you guessed it, purple.

Tully: Um, actually one of the investors spotted them and said, “We need those!”

Sheir: One more clue about how Spirit on Lake is different lies outside the fitness room—

Sheir: So, everyone gets their mail here?

Tully: Everyone gets their mail here and then we keep a little calendar of what’s going on.

Sheir: —in the lobby.

Tully: We did a great senior workshop. It was held by the Better Business Bureau and they came out last week and did a “Scams for Seniors and Frauds.”

Sheir: So, workshops for senior citizens, rainbow weights, rainbow windows. You might be able to guess what’s going on here. Spirit on Lake is a development aimed at gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender seniors. Not only that, but it’s affordable housing making it the first development of its kind in the Midwest and the second in the country built to serve this population. So how did this sanctuary for older GLBT people come about in Minneapolis? Turns out it was the brainchild of someone who deeply understands the challenges of this community. Because she’s a part of it. I’m Rebecca Sheir, and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit and the people who shape them. Back in Spirit on Lake’s lobby, Kathleen Tully takes me over to this painting on the wall.

Tully: Isn’t that just amazing?

Sheir: It’s beautiful!

Sheir: It’s a portrait in a big, giant frame, and it shows a woman. An older woman with spectacles perched on her nose a warm smile lighting up her face. Auburn hair flows past her shoulders and silver and gold jewelry sparkles from her neck, wrists and fingers.

Tully: They got together when we first opened and they presented it to her on our opening day. It just really kind of highlights that I don’t think we’d be here today if it hadn’t been for Barbara’s unfailing optimism and hard work!

Sheir: “Barbara” is Barbara Satin: an 82-year-old native of St. Paul. You’ll see her name on a brass plate at the bottom of her portrait, along with the words: “Matriarch of Spirit on Lake.”

Sheir: How do you feel about that title: “Matriarch”?

Satin: I love it! [Laughs.] It acknowledges my, my age and all, and my status. I think it’s great.

Sheir: This, yes, is the Barbara Satin: a name she created, by the way, when she came out as transgender.

Satin: So I came up with Barbara: named after the first girl that I ever was infatuated with. And then “Satin,” the fabric of my life.

Sheir: Barbara was in her 60s when she came out. Since then, she has devoted her life to GLBT issues—particularly when it comes to aging.

Satin: Here in the Twin Cities, we have about 25,000 to 30,000 LGBT people who are 60 and older. We are per capita, the fourth largest LGBT community in the country. And that surprised even me when I found this out!

Sheir: It surprised me, too. But Barbara’s right. According to the American Community Survey:

Satin: It was San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Sheir: And more and more of this population is getting older. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that as many as 4 million Americans aged 60-plus are GLBT.

Satin: Yes, we age just like everybody else ages, but we age in many cases with differences: whether you’re a survivor of AIDS, whether you are a trans person that presents a body that is different from what you show in the way in which you dress—a trans man with breast cancer, or a trans woman with prostate cancer. Those are all issues that we can face, and we’re concerned that our caregivers aren’t going to understand or accept that, and we’re going to be treated badly.

Sheir: Older GLBT people are also more likely to suffer from depression. Alcohol and drug abuse, too. Because even though GLBT rights have come a long way in this country especially over the last few years Barbara Satin says older members of the community have been through a lot.

Satin: Their whole lived experience as GLBT people has been one of harassment, condemnation, being called “pervert,” being called “sinner.” And it’s not something that it’s just easy to erase and say, “Well, now that’s all over with.” When you’ve lived something like that, you’re always fearful that there’s going to be backlash.

Sheir: That’s definitely how Barbara felt for a long time. She says as early as age 5 or 6 she had feelings she thought were as she puts it “unusual.”

Satin: The feelings about liking things that are feminine, so I knew early on that I was something different. But keep in mind in 1934, we didn’t have words for what we talk about as trans and transgender, transsexual, all those things. We had transvestite, and you really had to search for that one!

Sheir: Barbara didn’t dare to talk to her mother, a widow who had her hands full raising four kids. She was afraid her doctor just wouldn’t get it. And coming from a Roman Catholic family, she certainly wasn’t about to approach her priest.

Satin: If I went to the priest, I probably would get, you know, “This isn’t good. Stop doing it. It’s sinful.” So, I realized the one thing I could do is to sort of stuff it all inside, and that was mostly how I lived my life, even through most of my adult life.

Sheir: Barbara eventually joined the Air Force, got married, and had three kids.

Satin: Two boys and a girl. My oldest son is a physical therapist. My second oldest son is a psychotherapist. My daughter is a cosmetologist. And if you think about that, I have the best of all worlds, because if my body goes, I go to my oldest son. If my mind goes, I go to my second oldest. And if I need my hair done—it needs some coloring right now—I go to my daughter!

Sheir: And it was actually her kids who helped Barbara come out of the closet. It all started when her second-oldest son the psychotherapist called her up one day and said, “Hey, can we go have a beer and a hamburger someplace?”

Satin: And I said, “Sure!” I’m thinking he’s going to ask Dad for some fatherly advice. No, that’s not what happened. We sat down and had the beer and the hamburger, and he said, “You know, I’ve got to ask you. Something’s going on with you. You’re different. You’ve changed. You’re not the same fun-loving, easy-going guy that we know as Dad.” I said, “Jamie, I’m going to tell you something I have never told anybody. I’m transgender.” He put his hand on mine, and he said, “Dad, thank you. We’ve been waiting for you to tell us.’”

Sheir: Since then, Barbara’s had her share of struggles. She parted ways with the Catholic Church, she separated from her wife for a while. But now Barbara embraces and celebrates what she considers to be her true self. And Spirit on Lake is meant to help other people do that very thing.

Sheir: What was the aha moment when that whole building was born?

Satin: Well, I have to tell you the story of Gail and Glenn. Because that is the genesis of what became Spirit on Lake.

Sheir: Gail was a transgender senior at Barbara’s church: a United Church of Christ congregation called Spirit of the Lakes. And, UCC, you may know, tends to be more liberal when it comes to social issues—like civil rights, women’s rights, GLBT rights. Anyway, one Sunday evening, Gail had a stroke.

Satin: And in order to get treatment at the general hospital here in Minneapolis, and eventually treatment at the vet—the VA in Minneapolis—and essentially to get treatment in recovery and services after that, Gail basically had to go back to being Glenn.

Sheir: The word Barbara uses is “degendered”: They basically “degendered” Gail. And when church members heard about what happened, they immediately got together.

Satin: And talked about the fact that, you know, this is an issue that’s going to occur in the future. And we as a GLBT community are totally unprepared for this. We have no conversations around aging issues. We have no conversations around how do we respond and respectfully treat people who are old and need services?

Sheir: Barbara started a group called GLBT Generations, and they started talking about what the elderly in their community needed most. Maybe they could start an assisted-living facility? Or a specialized nursing home?

Satin: But then we also realized that some of our broadest visions of what might be were pretty unrealistic. We didn’t have any kind of expertise for that. So we decided we had to broaden the membership of GLBT Generations and make it separated from the church, but still connected to the church.

Sheir: The group did a survey of the GLBT community in the Twin Cities asking people about their concerns when it came to aging. And Barbara says many respondents said what worried them most was having a safe, secure and friendly place to live as they got older.

Satin: So we decided we’d do something for the community, and in doing that, we decided we would focus on building housing for GLBT seniors. Forty-six units of GLBT cooperative housing.

Sheir: They partnered with a local nonprofit developer, and units started going like hotcakes. That is, until a little something called “2008” rolled around.

Satin: And just about then, the housing market collapsed on us. And many of the people, most of the people, who were planning to move into the co-op, lost the equity in their homes, and had to back out because they just didn’t have the wherewithal to continue the process.

Sheir: Barbara says at that point, they thought they were done. Washed up.

Satin: The project was dead on its feet.

Sheir: Well, as we know, Spirit on Lake wound up being resurrected as an affordable-rental property. But, how did it make that pivot? We’ll find out and meet some of the residents who call this GLBT haven home after the break.

Sheir: From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today we’re visiting Spirit on Lake: Minnesota’s only affordable-housing complex aimed toward older members of the GLBT community. It’s the second development of its kind in the country; the first one is in Hollywood. As we heard before the break, Spirit on Lake was originally planned as a co-op. And a good number of units had been snatched up when the housing crisis hit. Spirit on Lake was a partnership between numerous entities including GLBT Generations the group Barbara Satin started to address GLBT aging issues and a local non-profit developer. And as Barbara will tell you, just when they’d given up hope that Spirit on Lake would ever become a reality

Satin: The leader of that nonprofit said, “You know? We had a lot of people who were interested in living here but couldn’t afford ownership. They didn’t have the resources to own property, but were looking for a GLBT community to grow old, and what about looking at affordable rental?”

Sheir: Because here’s the thing: in addition to all the other challenges older GLBT people can face, a major issue is often money. Compared with American seniors as a whole, GLBT seniors tend to be less financially secure. Case in point? The poverty rate for older heterosexual couples is 4½ percent. For older lesbian couples? It’s twice that. So switching Spirit on Lake from co-op to affordable rentals actually made a lot of sense. But as Barbara Satin explains there were a few catches. First: Since Spirit on Lake was now designated as affordable housing, they couldn’t rent exclusively to GLBT people.

Satin: Under fair housing laws you cannot discriminate. People can’t discriminate against the LGBT community in housing. We can’t discriminate against the straight community in housing.

Sheir: And though they got funding from a number of entities including the city and church, it wasn’t earmarked for senior citizens.

Satin: Because we couldn’t get any senior money in Minnesota for this project, we had to go through a process that doesn’t allow us to discriminate on the basis of age, which you can if you have senior money.

Sheir: Turns out this “senior money” doesn’t come easily in a lot of places. Across the country, seniors are seeing a shortage of decent, affordable housing. It’s a problem of supply and demand. The senior population is growing fast: By the year 2030, people aged 65 and older will comprise more than a fifth of the overall population. The demand for senior housing will more than quadruple but at the current rate, the amount of available housing won’t keep pace. And that, says Barbara Satin, is a big problem.

Satin: I think it’s important for a lot of LGBT seniors and other seniors, that they are in a facility that is geared to who they are and their place in life at the moment where having maybe the energy and the chaos of young people may be challenging to them. I think it’s important to have the senior affordable housing issue more front and center than it currently has been.

Sheir: So she tried to build this place anyway, but to make it open to everyone. These days, about half of Spirit on Lake’s tenants are GLBT elders. Much of the other half, interestingly enough, are Somali Muslim immigrants: The Twin Cities have the country’s largest Somali population, and this neighborhood has become a major hub. Barbara says the two communities within the building coexist quite peacefully. In fact, a few years back, an Imam came in to give a presentation on the basics of Islam and Somali culture, and the seniors found it fascinating.

Satin: I think if they fully understood the wonderful complexity of the relationships within Spirit on Lake, the queer community and the Muslim community interacting the way they do, people would shake their heads and say, “Wow. That’s unbelievable, but yet, that’s so wonderful.”

Sheir: In terms of reaching its original target clientele, Barbara Satin says Spirit on Lake does it more or less unofficially through word-of-mouth a booth at Twin Cities GLBT Pride.

Satin: It’s not as though we don’t want people to know about it, but we want to be sure that the LGBT senior community is the primary focus of our underground marketing!

Sheir: And that marketing has been pretty effective; the day I visit, the building is all leased up. Because beyond the senior events Spirit on Lake holds and those rainbow weights and windows the place has a number of selling points for the older gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender crowd. You’ll find one of them on the building’s first floor.

Satin: There is fiction, nonfiction, lots of DVDs.

Sheir: The Quatrefoil Library is one of the country’s only GLBT lending libraries. It moved here from its original, very cramped quarters in St. Paul.

Satin: We’ve had a number of GLBT community newspapers, and the archives for most of them are here in this facility.

Sheir: Something else GLBT seniors might find attractive at Spirit on Lake is its policy on dogs.

Sheir: Hello!

Scott Quale: This is Delilah. Delilah, stay down!

Sheir: You are adorable!

Quale: She has no manners. Delilah, no! OK, come on in!

Sheir: Scott Quale is one of the original residents of Spirit on Lake; he’s 59, and he moved here in 2013. He lives on the fourth floor with his two dogs: a feisty little Shih Tzu named Delilah.

Quale: Delilah’s never shy.

Sheir: I can tell she’s a bit of an extrovert!

Sheir: And a more introverted cocker spaniel named Jo.

Quale: Where did Jo go?

Sheir: Where are ya, Jo?

Quale: Jo! She’s being shy!

Sheir: See, another major risk factor for GLBT seniors is isolation, since they’re much more likely (A) to be single, and (B) to live alone. So Spirit on Lake openly encourages dogs.

Quale: It’s really hard to find an apartment that will let you have a dog. You know? And here we can have two. I think that’s wonderful because I don’t know what I would do without my dogs.

Sheir: There aren’t a whole lot of places in the United States like this. So if there weren’t a place like this, where would you be?

Quale: I know I’d probably be living someplace, in an apartment. But I wouldn’t be able to live as freely as we do here. Everybody knows that I’m gay. I’ve never had anybody make any derogatory remarks, make any comments of any kind negatively. I couldn’t say that if I lived someplace else. I like being who I am! And being accepted for that. And that’s not easy as an older gay man!

Sheir: Especially as an older gay man with HIV.

Quale: And just to go to a hospital, you can feel the stigma of having HIV. And to go to a nursing home scares me.

Sheir: Because, Scott says, going to a nursing home can often mean one of two things: You either come up against serious homophobia or ...

Sheir: So, do people go back in the closet if they have to go into a nursing home?

Quale: Yeah. I wouldn’t want to live in a nursing home. I would off myself before I would go there.

Lucretia: I’m not going to leave this place until toes up. You know, I’m going to die here. I’m not going to assisted living, I’m not going to a nursing home, I’ll hire a nurse.

Sheir: 62-year-old Lucretia K.—she asked that we not use her last name—is also one of Spirit on Lake’s first residents. She’s had a lot of health problems, and before coming here, she was at a church-affiliated assisted-living facility.

Lucretia: And they were overtly homophobic and I would complain about homophobic remarks in the elevator and threats, and management wouldn’t do anything. They said that “people were entitled to their opinions.” And I don’t know what kind of mental or physical health I would have been if I had stayed there. I mean, this has been a psychological lifesaver for me.

Sheir: Lucretia mentions that about a year back, she got really ill again, and was so glad she was here, at Spirit on Lake.

Lucretia: My life was in jeopardy and it was my family of choice that rallied around me. Not my family of birth. Didn’t hear from them but I heard from my family of choice.

Sheir: And that’s another thing about Spirit on Lake. A lot of its older GLBT residents are no longer connected with their families. They might be divorced from spouses alienated by siblings estranged from their kids.

Sheir: Craig Anderson moved to Spirit on Lake from a suburb called Inver Grove Heights.

Craig Anderson: It was an interesting community but very homophobic community, I mean, you saw that on a number of occasions. You know, I didn’t dare put up a Pride flag outside my place; that would have been the kiss of death in that neighborhood. So I was thankful that I found this place. God forbid, I’d probably still be out in Inver Grove Heights somewhere. That’s where family is. But that’s my family of origin. This is my family of choice. That’s the difference.

Sheir: Since Spirit on Lake opened, a few other affordable-housing projects focused on GLBT seniors have sprouted up in the United States, including one in Philadelphia, another in Chicago. But as Spirit on Lake “matriarch” Barbara Satin points out, if you add them all together …

Satin: We’re under 500 units across the country for LGBT seniors who may be looking for an affordable place to live that’s going to offer them community that’s going to be secure and respectful and supportive of who they are.

Sheir: So there’s plenty of work still to be done. And part of that means trying to educate caregivers for the elderly, so that nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are more welcoming to GLBT seniors. Barbara’s heavily involved with Training to Serve: a nonprofit that does just that.

Satin: We’ve trained through Training to Serve about 4,000 to 5,000 senior-care providers. And it’s going to have an impact at some point, hopefully

Resident: Before I need it!

Satin: When you need it. It’s going to have an impact but without that kind of understanding and training it’s a challenge for LGBT seniors.

Sheir: We’ve been hearing those words a lot, haven’t we. This is “a challenge for GLBT seniors.” That is “a challenge for GLBT seniors.” Finances, emotional problems, physical issues. But Barbara Satin has hope. Hope that it won’t always be this way. Especially when she looks at the new generation. Again, Barbara has three children, and between them they have seven children. And when Barbara came out, she told her sons and daughter that they could decide how to break the news to the grandkids.

Satin: Well, my oldest grandson met me at Pride. He was there, and came up to me and said, “Hi, Grandpa.” And it was wonderful conversation and very supportive. And the rest of the kids, they all have been told. And the reaction was like, “Oh, great! Can Grandpa come to school and talk?” And, “Oh, you’re so cool!” It’s a good indication of where the younger generation is around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Because for the most part, they’ve got trans kids in their class. They’ve got gay kids. They’ve got lesbians in their class. It’s no big deal. For my generation, for my kids’ generation, it was a big deal. But it’s a lived experience for my grandkids. And I think that’s wonderful. Yeah.

Sheir: Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.

For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to You can drop us a line at You can follow us on Twitter; our handle is @SlatePlacemaker. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes. It really does help.

Coming up next time on Placemakers:

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Satin: After the building had been open and this had been up for a while, I came to visit one day, and somebody was getting into their car and she came running over to me. She said, “Are you the person in the picture?” And I said, “Yeah.” She said, “I thought you were dead!” I said, “Not as far as we know!”

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