Coming home: Meet the residents of JCAA

After years of planning, the John C. Anderson Apartments will celebrate its ribbon-cutting ceremony Feb. 24. The LGBT-friendly senior apartment building is home to 56 units, and is only the third of its kind in the nation — and the largest-ever LGBT building project that is fully publicly funded. While the project is historic in nature, it’s the stories of its inaugural residents that are even more remarkable.

Here, we present some of their histories.

Elizabeth Coffey Williams

“What does this project mean to me? It wasn’t just life-changing, it was kind of life-saving.”

Colorful handmade quilts adorn Elizabeth Coffey Williams’ new JCAA residence, a testament to one of the many skills she honed during more than two decades living in the Midwest — an experience that came to an abrupt end in 2012, plunging her into homelessness.

Coffey Williams, 65, a native of Brooklyn, grew up in Philadelphia and then lived in New Orleans, San Francisco, New York City and Baltimore after being thrown out of her parents’ home when she told them she was transgender at age 18.

“I graduated from high school, a National Merit Scholar, and that afternoon came out to my parents, thinking, How could they not know? I wasn’t very good at being anyone other than who I am,” she said. “But that afternoon I was homeless. Literally.”

It took six years for her parents, who have since died, to welcome her back home, although she said her four younger siblings were wholly accepting.

After her coming-out, Coffey Williams stayed with her uncle and went on to earn a college degree in fabric design, although she jokingly admitted, “It was the ’60s and I was more interested in dancing in the streets of San Francisco.”

It was during her years in Baltimore — a town she said at the time was like “Alice falling down a sleazy rabbit hole” — that she further explored her artistic interests and connected with the acting world.

“I had 12 years of traditional Irish-Catholic parochial schooling, and suddenly here I was with all these incredible, artistic, marvelous, exciting, bohemian, free-living people down by the docks in Baltimore with crazy hookers and foreign sailors. It was fabulous,” she said. “I met this renegade Baltimore arts-school fledgling filmmaker and we became friends.”

That filmmaker was John Waters, and he enlisted Coffey Williams for a spot in “Pink Flamingos,” a 1972 film that went on to become an iconic LGBT classic and an underground hit. Coffey Williams appeared in three more Waters films.

She moved back to Philadelphia and began working at Lickety Split on South Street, where “Pink Flamingos” fans would often visit during her shift.

After leaving Lickety Split, Coffey Williams opened and operated her own construction company and began dating, and eventually married, a former boyfriend.

“He promised me the white-picket fence and, at that time, that’s where I was finding myself headed. But sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for,” she said. “He turned out to be a narcissistic, drug-abusing alcoholic with the morals of an alley cat.”

Her husband “played the part well” and was good arm candy, she said, as long as she wore long sleeves to hide her bruises.

“But I stayed.”

She moved to the Midwest and spent 26 years there, going on to become a mother to a child conceived from one of her husband’s extramarital affairs. Despite the ongoing marital problems, Coffey Williams pursued her passion for quilting and became heavily involved in the area’s LGBT community — co-founding and facilitating an LGBT gender group, serving on the board of a performing-arts organization and an HIV/AIDS organization and as artistic director of a folk festival, among other ventures.

But, by the fall of 2012, conditions with her husband had finally reached a breaking point and she made the difficult decision to return to Philadelphia, selling her quilting machine to help fund the move.

“I put everything in a truck and my family said, ‘Just come home,’ even though none of them really had room for me. But there was room to store my stuff and I stayed with my brother, and with my niece. I was sheltered but, after 26 years of a 12-bedroom house with three bathrooms, a big quilting studio, the dog, the kid, what I pretended was the great husband, I was in effect homeless again. I was that 18-year-old kid who was thrown out of my mother’s house. Again.”

She learned about the JCAA plans after returning to the area and said the support of its backers, and the community at large, got her through the difficult transition back to Philadelphia.

“There was Mark [Segal], there was this home at William Way with Chris Bartlett who just welcomed me with open arms, there was Micah [Mahjoubian], Franny Price, Henri David — they all just welcomed me home. They said, ‘I promise you’ll be OK. Just hang in there, you’ll be OK. We’re not going to let you slip through the cracks. We can’t make it stop hurting, but we can stay with you until you’re OK.’”

While Coffey Williams said she’s blessed to be close to her siblings and family, who helped her move into her new apartment, many LGBT elders are aging without family support and with histories of being confronted by homophobia. Projects like JCAA and the growing attention being placed on the LGBT senior community can help alleviate some of those demoralizing injustices, she said.

“I have so much more to give, and so do many other people. And people are starting to recognize that, and respect what we tried to do for our community and what we still can do. Gratitude doesn’t even begin to express what I feel that I get to be part of this project. A year ago, I didn’t know if I was going to be living in a refrigerator box under a bridge; I had been thrown away like an old piece of garbage. So I’m sitting with my palms up, with an excited sense of surrender now about what will happen next.”

Michael Palumbara

When Michael Palumbara, 70, moved into JCAA Jan. 2, he had a lot to commemorate. The next day would mark 27 years since his HIV diagnosis — and the 23rd and 22nd years, respectively, that he was tobacco- and alcohol-free. And he was now free in a new way.

Palumbara was born and raised in Peekskill, Westchester County, N.Y., but has lived in Philadelphia for more than 30 years. Palumbara, who described his environment growing up as “semi-country, semi-suburbs,” knew he was gay early in life but didn’t come out until he was in his his 20s.

“I probably first realized that I was gay in my late teens but I didn’t do anything about it until I was 28-29,” he said. “It was pre-Stonewall, so you could still be institutionalized for being gay and, with my family, there were a lot of strongly negative feelings and expressions about people who were gay.”

Palumbara, a registered nurse, was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987. He said the acceptance process was a long and difficult one, especially as he was losing his friends to the epidemic.

“People were dying left and right. There was a point where I couldn’t answer the phone because, every time I did, it was someone to tell me that another friend had died so it was a very difficult time,” he said. “I used to keep a memorial list because I would forget the people who died. There were 104 names on it. You can’t process that many deaths, so someone helped me to let go of the list because they are gone and I am not and there was no point.”

Palumbara said he drew strength and hope from the teachings of Louise Hayes, author of “The AIDS Book: Creating a Positive Approach” and had to remind himself “in every plague, not everyone got it and not everybody who got it, died.”

“When the medical community uses the word ‘incurable,’ what they really mean is they don’t know how to cure. It isn’t really incurable. Nothing is incurable, but there are a lot of things they don’t know how to cure yet,” he said. “Rather than buying into the idea that I had to go home and die, I started to look into alternative and complementary therapies.”

Palumbara, who previously lived in Northeast Philadelphia, has neuropathy in his legs and said his new apartment has done wonders for his mobility.

“Where I was living before, I had 11 stairs to climb to get in and 11 stairs to get out and that is where I was having a lot of trouble: stairs,” he said. “Here, you come in right off the street and there is an elevator. In the bathroom, there are all these grip bars, which make me feel safer.”

Palumbara said JCAA is also in an ideal location, with everything in walking distance.

However, the sense of community and proximity to like-minded neighbors was most appealing when he applied for a JCAA residence.

“I liked the idea of being with other LGBT seniors because where I was living, there was only one person in the whole neighborhood who was gay and he was not a senior,” he said. “It was nice to talk with people and not have to explain to someone the histories.”

Palumbara said he was fortunate to have several friends help him move into his new space last month.

And he has already begun to expand his circle.

“I feel very safe here and that means a lot. I have already begun to make good friends, so I know if I needed them, I could call one of those friends,” he said. “We are getting use out of the Community Room. We were playing Uno until a little after 1 a.m. It means a lot to me to have friends that are my age. When we talk about Stonewall, I don’t have to explain what it is.”

Susan Silverman

For Susan Silverman, the Feb. 24 ribbon-cutting ceremony for JCAA couldn’t come at a better time — it coincides with her 65th birthday.

“Yes, you did this for me! Thank you, Mark,” Silverman joked. “It is incredible, wonderful. Up until now, my best birthday was my sweet 16 and I think this is going to top it.”

JCAA is a reunion of sorts for Silverman and PGN publisher and Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund president Mark Segal; the pair helmed Gay Liberation Front in New York, which was born out of the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

At that time, she said she and her peers could never have imagined a project like JCAA coming to fruition.

“We had no role models and in lots of different conversations, we would ask what it would be like when we got older,” she said. “We would have these fantasies of having a retirement home called Gay-dy Shady Acres. It was a dream that this could happen. I just didn’t think I would be alive to see it.”

Silverman came out at age 19. Although born in Brooklyn, she had been living in the Lower East Side when the Stonewall Riots happened.

“I was politicized by the civil-rights and anti-war movements. I came out in a flurry of political activity with incredible support. It was an exciting, electric time,” she said. “My generation really was committed to making change.”

Silverman, who worked as a social worker focusing on victims of child abuse and bereavement issues, joked that being LGBT runs in her family, with three bisexual relatives and one transgender relative.

Family acceptance varied, she said.

“My mother actually gave me her death blessing when I came out to her and said to me, ‘Now I won’t have to worry about my baby and now I can rest in peace because women will take care of my Susie.’ I just thought that was an astounding remark from someone of her generation,” she said. “My father wouldn’t speak to me for years. We had a wonderful reconciliation maybe 15 years before he died and became really close. My mom died when I was 22, so I am glad my father reconciled.”

GLF involvement acted as a channel for Silverman and others to branch off.

“Gay Liberation Front was a catalyst for a lot of other important groups that then grew out of it,” she said. “I went on to organize Radical Lesbians. We all went into directions that interested us and built on it.”

Her background in community work could serve Silverman well at JCAA; she said she’s eager to help organize programming, such as poetry readings and women’s events, at the complex.

Silverman’s best friend, Denise, also moved into the building, and the pair shared a moving truck.

She said it was refreshing to move into a community of people who were waiting to welcome her.

“I have enjoyed everyone I have met. I am friends with the people on my floor. We don’t have to be told to help each other out; it is a community and just a given.”