This trans senior is living her best life in Montreal and wants the same for others
Vanessa Frey says she finally has the peace of mind to pursue music, art and other passions now that she’s comfortably housed. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC – photo credit)
On Sunday afternoons, residents at Montreal’s Manoir de Casson retirement home can hear their neighbor Vanessa Frey play the piano in the lounge – something she enjoys doing.
People will come to her days after her performances to tell her they love her shows and that she took them back to their youth.
“It’s like being Paul McCartney or something,” she said. “It’s not a retirement home for me. It’s like a hotel.”
But finding peace of mind hasn’t been easy for the 69-year-old trans woman.
Needing to find a new apartment last fall, Frey turned to social workers for help, but she said they had no experience working with trans women. Social workers struggled to find a place for them because of their gender identity, Frey said. Every place they called, they refused.
Her son suggested that she call a private agency he had found, which led her to Manoir Casson in the Saint-Laurent district.
“I’m still pinching myself. I wake up in the morning and I’m like, ‘Wow,'” she said.
“There are all these nationalities, all these religions, and everything seems to be working. I’ve never been looked at [with any discrimination] Nobody looks like that.”
Frey says she is aware that LGBT people, and trans people in particular, are often more vulnerable to homelessness. She said she has seen documentaries showing how older trans people are likely to be struggling and lonely, and have had negative experiences of her own.
“Now that I’m trans, people say, ‘Oh, it’s 2023,’ but it’s not [more accepted]she said. “Because I’m a baby boomer it’s harder because that really wasn’t there, everything was hidden back then.”
But she feels she has found a place of refuge.
“After my experience here, I can move on with my life. I have many things I want to do. I’m in art … I can do it now because I have my peace of mind,” she said.
Awareness Key to Acceptance
Although the environment at the Manoir de Casson is acceptable, this is not the case at every retirement home.
The story goes on
Advocates say that despite more people coming out of the closet in 2023, it’s still difficult for some seniors to be open and proud of their sexual or gender identity.
“It’s a struggle because the vast majority of senior living facilities are not inclusive of sexual and gender diversity, including here in Montreal in 2023,” said Julien Rougerie of Fondation Émergence, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of LGBTQ+ realities .
He says that sexuality and identity are still taboo subjects for some people, and that institutions often “maintain an approach or a culture that kind of wipes people out,” even when it’s not intentional.
Émergence offers all types of sensitivity training including the Aging Gayfully program which has been training those who work with seniors for 14 years. Manoir de Casson is one of the residences that uses the program.
Rougerie says offering training for staff and residents at a retirement home is a great way to raise awareness, get people asking questions and break taboos.
They first go through various terms and vocabulary to explain gender and sexual diversity before speaking about the realities of LGBT seniors through studies and testimonies. They also go through best practices to make people feel comfortable with who they are.
“In this particular case, transgender is definitely the category within LGBTQ+ people that is most discriminated against,” Rougerie said.
“And when you get older it’s even harder because either it’s too big a step forward to get out of the closet so you just get on with your life and pretend you’re the gender you’re not.” or you’re coming out of the closet, then sometimes you go through a legal transition or a medical transition… You will face discrimination or abuse.
But, he says, contrary to popular belief, seniors are not likely to be narrow-minded, homophobic, or transphobic. He says everyone always has a story to tell during their training sessions.
aging out of the closet
When Marc Fortin, the president of the Quebec Seniors’ Residences Group (RQRA), took office, he learned that someone in a residence under the RQRA had to be put back in the closet and was shocked.
“I was like ‘What?'” he said, “It was new to me.”
He asked his project manager to look at opportunities for diversity and inclusion, including those for the LGBT community, and that’s how he found Émergence.
After surveying his staff, Fortin found that 40 percent had failed to consider the diverse realities faced by LGBT seniors.
“We’re getting to a point where the [LGBT] Community really came into its own and now they’re getting older and reaching that stage,” Fortin said.
“It’s going to change … But we can’t let people live in the closet while this is happening.”
He said investors may be interested in opening residences specifically for LGBT people “like in Europe”.
“We need to get investors to be really sensitive and engaged,” he said.
Although it will take time to adapt training to LGBT identities and to change the culture in retirement homes, Fortin says he’s happy with what he’s seeing in the early stages and hopes everyone can feel having a place where he can age happily and comfortably.