By Daniel Reynolds
Originally published on Advocate.com August 29 2013 6:00 AM ET
Having first broken ground in 2006, Triangle Square, operated by Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing, is one of the nation's few affordable housing facilities specifically tailored to LGBT seniors. The Advocate visited the Los Angeles-based community in order to speak with some of its residents and ask them for tales of "first love." Here are stories both sweet and sad from the seniors we met.
Alice Herman, 77
Alice Herman, a former teacher, came out after falling for a coworker at the school where she worked in her native New York. She was 22 and married at the time.
"I left my husband to be with her, and then she left to go get married to a guy," she recounts, but adds their breakup was a blessing in disguise. "The best thing in the world was that she broke up with me, because a year later I met the person I would spend the next 45 years with."
That person, Sylvia, "a Lucille Ball redhead," says Herman, initially refused to meet her for a blind date. (The date was being facilitated by a mutual friend who cautioned that they they might not like one another because they were "completely different people.") Regardless, Herman called Sylvia three times before the latter finally relented and agreed to meet her.
"I said, 'It's OK if you meet me and you don't like me, but I can't understand how you don't like me when you don't know me,'" Herman remembers telling Sylvia. "She liked that," Herman adds.
When Herman arrived to meet Sylvia at her apartment, the 4 foot 11 "and a half" redhead ran into her life, and it was "love at first look."
"We were night and day for the next 45 years," says Herman, whose partner died four years ago. "Two completely different people. She was everything I’m not. She was gregarious. She knew Greenwich Village like the back of her hand. I was the 42nd Street librarian. ... I wanted to be in bed at 10 o’clock at night, and she was just ready to go out at 10 o’clock at night. But everything that she was opened a world to me that I never would have known.
"She used to say that I made all her dreams come true. I would tell her she made my life worth living."
Andy Segal, 67
A native Angeleno, Andy Segal was 17 years old and caring for a 4-month-old son fathered by her first boyfriend when she came out as a lesbian. Segal, a former receptionist at the Park La Brea housing complex, recalls being asked to dance at a party as a major turning point in her life.
"I thought it was a guy that asked me to dance, so I got up," says Segal. "And all of a sudden, she spoke, and I was like, whoa. I was just drawn to her. And once she brought me out, I knew that I was complete."
After her experience at the party, Segal began going on dates with women. While on one of these dates in a park in Los Angeles, Segal first saw her "other half."
"She was playing softball, and so she noticed me. I was shy, very shy. And so, a couple of days later, I went to Joani Presents," she recounts, referring to a North Hollywood lesbian bar popular in the 1960s and '70s. "And she was in there. She had a friend of hers, Bobby, come up to me and get my phone number. And we talked on the phone every day. ... And I saw her right away. I just really liked her, and we stayed together until she died, which was about 2005. But we raised my son together."
She united with her partner, Barbara Roe, whom she affectionately called "Skid," in a 1972 wedding ceremony officiated by Rev. Troy Perry, the founder of the Metropolitan Community Church. Afterward, they and their friends celebrated at Joani Presents, the bar where they first officially met. The couple would repeat the service with Perry exactly 25 years later.
"It was a beautiful relationship," says Segal, whose partner died four years ago. "I was very, very blessed."
Bryant Gordon, 76
As a student at University of California, Berkeley, Bryant Gordon would drop off his girlfriend at her sorority by her 11 p.m. curfew. Afterward, he would head down to a gay bar that was popular with college students.
While at a party one night, Gordon met Bob, and the two began a relationship that would last for years to come. Eventually, the couple moved to New York together.
“Every day was a memory, every day was fabulous,” Gordon says. “We rarely argued. He had a lot of passions and a lot of interests. ... He always made sure I was happy.”
Bob died in 1984 of an AIDS-related illness, an event that, in addition to being emotionally traumatic for Gordon, caused a rupture among family and friends.
“There were some relatives and some friends of ours that dropped us completely,” says Gordon, who moved to Hawaii for several years after Bob’s death. Hawaii, he says, was “therapeutic.”
Today, Gordon, 76 is seeing a 27-year-old Filipino man who is “more straight than gay. … Bob was Filipino, too. I have a thing for Asians.”
Gordon is cheerful and quick to joke about the experience of dating across race and generations.
“We drank too much that night, and the sex was awful,” he recalls about the first date with his new lover. “It was embarrassing for everybody.” And has it gotten better? “In my mind, perhaps.”
Melvin Weiss, 77
For Melvin Weiss, a Pittsburgh native, one of the most terrifying moments of his life occurred in Amsterdam, where he lived for 13 years. After answering a knock at his door, he found himself looking squarely at a pistol. The man holding the gun was an ex of Weiss’s partner at the time, Henny. The armed stranger claimed Henny owed him money.
Improvising a scheme, Weiss called the neighbor downstairs, purportedly to ask if Henny was there. (Henny was hiding in the closet.) Through a series of “yes” and “no” responses and a little luck, the neighbor realized their plight and called the police. They were saved. But their relationship was already on a downward spiral.
Weiss originally met Henny after moving to Amsterdam, a city whose Old World charms and liberal ideas about sexuality inspired Weiss to make it his home. He opened a sex shop, which was where he met the man with whom he’d share the next seven years.
“He came by one evening,” recounts Weiss, who says Henny was initially looking for his business partner. “He was in a bad mood. He was having a problem with a younger lover. He was always complaining that he was attracted to younger people, but every time he does that, it’s a problem situation. He didn’t want to go back to the apartment because he was afraid the kid would be there. So I said, ‘Fine, come over to my place. You can sleep on the couch.’”
“Somewhere during the middle of the night, he picked himself up and got into my bed,” he continues. “He laid down next to me and held on for dear life.”
A relationship began. Both of the men were in their 30s at the time.
Henny operated a “house with boys,” a brothel, which is legal in the Netherlands. As their relationship progressed, Weiss found himself becoming a father figure to the young men supervised by Henny, who had a difficult time managing their affairs. Ultimately, Henny left Weiss for an older man, a “sugar daddy in the south of Holland,” but Weiss maintains that he realized the relationship was over the day that the man with the gun arrived.
“I knew that was the end,” Weiss says. “As far as relationships go, it always has to be a two-way street. And when I realized it was a one-way street… there’s nothing there. But he was my first real love. The first [person] I ever gave myself completely to in a relationship.”
Today, Weiss says age and singlehood have given him a sense of freedom from the dramas of the past.
“I enjoy my freedom. I enjoy being alone,” he says. “I can do what I want to do, when I want to do it.”
Ed De Hay, 76
Nearly every inch of Ed De Hay’s walls is covered with frames containing some form of artwork: paintings, photographs, and mementos collected throughout his lifetime.
“When I put that first hole in the wall, it was like a fever. I couldn’t stop,” he says. “And now I have to stop, because there’s no more space.”
When asked about his first love, De Hay’s answer is immediate.
“His name was Ronald. He was a professional ice skater with Sonja Henie,” De Hay says, referring to the Olympic figure skater and film star. “He was with their ice show, and they toured all over the world.”
“[Before we ever met] I used to watch him skate on the old Ed Sullivan show. And I remembered him, and I moved out here in the middle of the ’60s. We both lived in the same neighborhood… and I went to the gay bar, and he was there. We started talking, and that’s how we met. We were together for 34 years.”
De Hay, holding a portrait of Ronald that contains a lock of his hair, recounts how his partner fell in love with skating at an early age.
“When he was a kid, he used to run away from home. And they’d say, ‘Oh, he’s at the ice show,’ says De Hay, referring to Ronald’s family. “And they said ‘OK, we’ll pay for lessons. That’s what you want to do, that’s what you want do.’”
As he toured the world, Ronald would incorporate drag and comedy into his ice skating routine, which earned him the stage name of “Ruby.” He was also called “Mr. Christmas” by friends, because his birthday occurred close to the holiday. This coincidence factored into the themes of many of the couple’s social gatherings.
“He started what we called a ‘stitch and bitch’ club,” De Hay says. “Anybody who wanted to, he would teach them how to make Christmas ornaments. And you would bring your own booze, potato chips, and we’d just have a good time.”
“It got to the point where we could finish each other’s sentences,” De Hay remembers. “We’d go out and buy a birthday card, a Christmas card, and we’d always come home with the same one. We were like two peas in a pod. It only happens once in your life, when you meet someone like that. “
Rosie Blohm, 72
Rosie Blohm, 72, moved to Los Angeles more than 40 years ago, transplanting her life from the East Coast, along with her boyfriend at the time. But the honeymoon was short-lived. An argument resulted in her lover’s sudden departure, leaving Blohm alone and devastated.
“I couldn’t take it, because I was really, really in love with him,” Blohm says. “I tried to commit suicide. Then, somebody told me to get ahold of the Gay and Lesbian Center.”
At the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, a nonprofit dedicated to serving LGBT Angelenos, Blohm met the organization’s founder, Morris Kight. Sensing her needs, Kight recommended Blohm to a gay halfway house where he knew she could stay. She accepted his offer of housing. But although she had shelter, Blohm continued to be depressed over the breakup.
“Every time I walked out of the house, I started crying,” Blohm says. “I was really in love… and that’s when I found out about MCC.”
Founded by Rev. Troy Perry in 1968, the Metropolitan Community Church is a Christian denomination that specifically reaches out to LGBT people. There, Blohm found support.
“I found out that God is love, and love is for everyone, no matter what you are,” she says.
Her confidence restored, Blohm began to become active in her community. She joined the International Imperial Court System, one of the world’s oldest gay organizations, and rose to the high rank of empress. In recent years, she has also become a deacon in the Unity Fellowship Christ Church in Los Angeles.
Her personal life also began to flourish. She was introduced to a man named Robert by a mutual friend at a party. The two hit it off, and he escorted Blohm back to her apartment after the soiree.
“So he took me home to my place, my little room on the corner of Franklin and Highland … and we got it on,” Blohm says. “Three times. It was love at first sight.”
Rosie and Robert will be celebrating their 39th anniversary this October.
Nancy Valverde, 81
In 1948, Nancy Valverde was 17 years old when she was first arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. Her crime was masquerading, an old statute that prohibited men and women from wearing gender-noncomforming clothes. Police pointed to her short hair as well as the zipper in the front of her pants as evidence, and she eventually was sentenced to three months in prison. These were clothes that she wore for comfort, says Valverde, while working to support herself financially.
“I was a juvenile. I wasn’t supposed to be there with those older women. Of course, I didn’t mind it,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t even know the word ‘lesbian.’ The first time I heard it was in jail.”
One day, she ran into a woman named Mary Sanchez, whom she had met before at a bar with mutual friends. By chance, Sanchez was moving her belongings out of her apartment, and Valverde offered to assist her.
“The next day, my back was shot,” Valverde says. “Destiny. I believe in that — the invisible forces.”
Valverde stayed in bed while Sanchez, who was pregnant at the time, cared for her. She told Valverde about the troubles she had been having with her boyfriend. By the time Valverde’s health improved, Sanchez had ended the relationship, prompting Valverde to offer to help support her and her unborn child.
“I said, ‘I’m not lazy, I work,’” she remembers telling Sanchez. “And she looked at me really sad, as if she’d heard that line before.”
Already two weeks behind on the rent (a total that, at the time, amounted to $14), Sanchez managed to convince her landlord to let her become the building’s manager. They were able to stay together in the apartment.
Valverde and Sanchez became a couple and sustained their relationship for 25 years. However, they broke up after Sanchez’s child grew to become an adult suffering from drug addiction, causing a rift between the pair.
“I couldn’t see myself putting up with an addict for the rest of my life,” says Valverde, sadly. “And I walked out. I miss her every day of my life.”
Throughout her lifetime, Valverde helped raise four children of women she loved. She raised one child, Salvatore, for six years, before his birth mother, who initially rejected the baby, returned to take him away.
“They said lesbians could not raise kids,” Valverde says.
But 10 years ago, Salvatore tracked down Valverde, and the two reunited. Valverde keeps a picture of him and his wife in her apartment, along with a photograph that the pair took together when he found her as an adult.
“This is the best place that I’ve lived in,” Valverde says of Triangle Square. “People know what you’re about.”
Sal, a wickedly smart and humorous GLEH resident, says he would do anything (short of murder) for friend or family. But relationships have been historically more elusive.
“I was barely 21, and I worked downtown at a department store in the receiving department [while] I was going to LACC,” Sal says, referring to Los Angeles City College. “I was extremely naive and innocent. I saw a flyer about a bar... I think it was called The Klondike. And I go in. I’m nervous. I’d never been to a place like that."
“I had seen the movies. I sent a drink over to this attractive guy. And he came over. We started to talk. He was Irish. This man didn’t just kiss the blarney stone, he bit off a piece… He scared the hell out of me. He wanted to get serious. And I ran the other way."
For Sal, the Irish man's approach was "too much, too soon." But that did not stop him from beginning a relationship.
“I think it maybe lasted six months," he says. "He wanted to move in. I wrote him a note that said, ‘I can’t give you what you want. In order to give you more, I’ll give you less of me.’ And I left. And who knows what might have happened? But I wasn’t ready for that, and who knows if I ever will be? It’s a big commitment.”
“I am seeing someone and he’s a friend with benefits," Sal reveals, when discussing his current love life. "He’s Latin, and he’s … I’ve known him for about 14, 15 years. I met him coming from a bar called the Faultline, and he’s got this gorgeous green eyes. He says, ‘Hi,’ and we exchange numbers. He says, ‘Call me, and I’ll have you over for dinner,’ and we did. But we lost contact."
"And I’m leaving the same bar, maybe four, five years later, and he’s walking in, and I’m walking out. He looks at me and says, ‘I know you.’ And I said, I know you, too… And [now] we see each other.”
Jimmy Hughes, 74
Jimmy Hughes did not have the easiest time growing up. Despite being an excellent student, Hughes was expelled from his high school for being gay, a black mark that made him ineligible for most types of work. Feeling helpless, he nearly ended his life. But through tenacity and the help of a nun who overheard him praying at a hospital chapel, he was able to secure a position as a surgeon’s assistant as a young man. And for a brief amount of time, he had Johnny.
“Johnny and I, he was a little bit on the shy side, but just adorable,” Hughes says of the man he loved. “And his father absolutely hated us. I never was quite sure, but I think he might have been ‘mob,’ because he worked out of Vegas. He was a card guy. And he threatened us both.”
One day, Johnny called the hospital while Hughes was assisting in surgery. A nun insisted he leave the procedure early, in order to accept the call. He did, and, upon picking up the phone, heard the voice of a frantic Johnny.
“I can’t live without you,” Hughes recalls Johnny saying. “And my dad, he is going to kill you unless I promise never to see you again. And I know he’ll do it, and you know he’ll do it. So I’ve taken a bunch of medication. And I just want you to know how much I love you, but I can’t live without you.”
After the call, Hughes rushed over to the house where Johnny lived. Neighbors were in the street, as well as Johnny’s grandmother, who warned Jimmy not to go inside.
“You gotta get out of here,” Jimmy remembers her saying. “His father’s around, and he will kill you. It’s just too late, Jimmy.”
Hughes left, but searched through the newspapers the next day for news of Johnny’s death. He found nothing. He figured that the family did not want him to attend the funeral.
“I couldn’t tell anybody about [what had happened],” Hughes says. “And it kind of made me afraid to get into a relationship again with anybody.”
Decades passed. Five years ago, Hughes was visiting San Francisco to attend the city’s gay and lesbian film festival. While having dinner with friends, he saw a man outside the restaurant with a familiar face.
“It was Johnny,” he says. “But it was a young Johnny, so it couldn’t be him. I was 69 at this time. I dropped my drink, and I went outside to this young fellow.”
“Forgive me, but you look like someone that was very, very important in my life,” Hughes said to the young man.
“I’m Jimmy,” the young man responded.
“Jimmy?” Hughes asked.
“Jimmy,” he repeated. “I’m named after my father’s best friend.”
“What’s your father’s name?” Hughes asked.
“Johnny,” he said.
As they spoke, the young Jimmy revealed that he was gay, which was the reason he was attending the film festival. His father, he said, was very understanding.
Realizing that Hughes may be the man he was named after, he gave the older Jimmy his father’s phone number, which allowed Hughes to call and confirm that the young man's father was indeed the partner he thought had died long ago. Eventually, Hughes was able to pay him a visit.
“It was a very difficult visit because of the emotion, and because I had to respect his wife at that time,” Hughes says. “But I was so glad that he lived.”