Rainbow Vista in Gresham looks like any other retirement community. Austere facility on the outside, pastel floral wallpaper on the inside.

But Rainbow Vista isn't your typical old folks' home. In fact, it's one of the only retirement centers in the Portland area intended specifically for gay, lesbian and transgender seniors. At Rainbow Vista, the 12 current residents can live without fear of having to hide their sexual identities.

"We're not just gay-friendly," says Bill Stein, an 89-year-old resident. "We're gay."

Even in live-and-let-live Portland, suitable facilities for senior citizens who are gay are uncommon. And although national polls show increasing acceptance of gay rights, gay and lesbian senior citizens who need supportive housing in retirement find themselves in a difficult spot, says Mya Chamberlin, director of services for seniors and the homeless at the nonprofit Friendly House. "They have to lean on people they don't know if they can trust," Chamberlain says.

LGBT seniors are more likely to rely on nursing homes and other institutions for long-term care because many are single, childless or estranged from their biological families, according to a 2010 study by the National Senior Citizens Law Center. Many elders also reported they could not be open with facility staff about their health needs. Some in the survey even reported they had been denied medical care because of their sexuality.

Chamberlin, with a program called Gay and Grey, hopes to combat such forms of housing discrimination through a new Portland survey of gay-friendly facilities for older residents. The housing assessment would take an independent look at centers' nondiscrimination policies—or lack thereof. It would also ask facility managers questions like, "Would it be a problem if somebody who appeared to be male dressed in what we think of as female clothing?"

Chamberlin says the result of the survey will offer consumers something similar to a seal of approval. 

Gay and Grey estimates there are over 10,000 LGBT seniors in the Portland metro region. Sharon Messerschmidt, 73, and her partner, Jo Hamilton, 69, have been together since meeting at a Christian motorcycle rally in 1986. But they have felt free enough to express themselves in public only since 2000. Messerschmidt worries about what might happen to her freedom if she were dependent on a long-term care facility.

"I would like to think I have the guts not to go back in [the closet], but in 15 years when I'm frail…I'm not sure I'll be strong enough," she says. "Older gay people have had our fight. We're not interested in continuing to put up the fight. We want a safe place to be ourselves.” 

FACT: Friendly House will be hosting the 2011 Gay and Grey PDX Expo, an LGBT seniors' resource convention, 10 am-4 pm Saturday, May 21, at Friendly House, 1737 NW 26th Ave. For event details, see gayandgreypdx.org.