Neil Heilpern is scared that one day he might end up in a retirement home surrounded by straight residents and staff who will treat him "like dirt."
Heilpern, a 67-year-old bisexual man who cross-dresses and also goes by Nikki, is working to avoid that fate for himself and others. He has been happily married to his wife, Veronica, for 37 years, although when they first met, he had a crush on her brother.
A retired Portland-based freelance journalist who grew up all over as an Army brat,Heilpern for the past nine years has been speaking up about challenges facing the elderly LGBTQ demographic. This weekend he will speak at the second annual Gay & Grey PDX expo, which offers free, gay- and lesbian-friendly health and housing resources.A coalition of nonprofits, including Friendly House, Q Center and Providence ElderPlace, is sponsoring the event.
WW: What are some of the problems elderly gays and lesbians face?
LGBTQ patients have a whole additional bundle of concerns. There are couples where one passes away and the other winds up going into a nursing home. And they don't know if there are any other gay people around. They get into a little bubble and go back into the closet. They don't socialize or feel free to be themselves. And they wind up having depression. I remember one person telling me he went into this really nice [nursing] home and he didn't keep it quiet that he was gay. The head of the home came to him and said, "Instead of coming to dinner at 6 pm, why don't you come to dinner at 5 pm?" The person asked why and was told, "Well, so-and-so over there is a fundamentalist Christian, and they don't feel right sitting down at the same table where you are because you're a homosexual."
Have you experienced those things?
I can't say that I have, but one of my greatest fears is that if my wife goes first and I wind up in a senior home, I'm going to be treated like dirt.
But isn't society generally pretty accepting nowadays?
Young gay kids, for the most part—it's just part of growing up. And their straight friends accept them…. [But] older gays still have that haunting memory even though society has generally moved forward. The older you are as an LGBTQ, the more you have those feelings of looking over your shoulder. Many young people can't even understand what it was like back then. So we want people to understand that we have certain special needs in addition to just being old.
What was it like for you growing up?
I first became aware that I was different around maybe 8 or 9. I knew I wasn't like the rest of my family or like the rest of my friends. I had no words for it. When I was young the discrimination had a lot of hatred. A lot of people were disgusted with anyone who was LGBTQ. Your life could be ruined. I was expected to be daddy's little soldier. And little soldiers don't cry. Little soldiers don't dance around like a ballerina. So I had to do that when the family was out of the house.
Were you ever caught?
No. I'm a good actor. They had no inkling at all. I remember when I would be alone in the house, sometimes I'd put my sister's clothing on and I put some music on and danced in the living room. Whatever a 9-year-old's version of ballet is. It was beautiful. It was natural to me. Once during a walk in the park with the family, we saw this man who was quite effeminate. He was by himself in his own little world and he was dancing in a little grove of trees. I had never seen anybody else dance the way I danced when I was alone. I thought it was beautiful. In that park somebody from the family said, "Oh, look at that little faygeleh [Yiddish word for queer]." And it's like, all of a sudden I realized they don't like that.
Why do you cross-dress?
There are times when I really feel like putting on a tuxedo and going to a grand ball. There are times when I want to put on a pair of jeans and romp in the mud. And there are times when I feel so feminine I want to look feminine. Growing up I loved my masculine self, I loved my feminine self. And part of the struggle for me personally is which cubbyhole I am supposed to be in, until I realized that I could create my own cubbyhole that's different from anybody else in the whole world.
What does your wife think about your cross-dressing?
She knows who I am. She doesn't particularly like to see me dressed up all the time, but she knows it's part of me and God bless her.
Gay & Grey PDX, 10 am-2 pm Saturday, May 22. Friendly House, 1737 NW 26th Ave., gayandgreypdx.org. Free.