Moving into Long Island’s first affordable LGBT senior citizen housing complex has Mike Trillo literally over the rainbow — the rainbow flags that hang on lampposts in front of the Bay Shore building that opened in September, the first of its kind in a U.S. suburb.
“It’s just four walls, but it represents a sanctuary,” Trillo, 60, said on a recent afternoon, as he sat at his kitchen table in the one-bedroom apartment he leased in September. Trillo had been living in a nearby building where he’d felt compelled to conceal his sexual orientation. He regularly drove by to check on the construction of the Bay Shore building, setting his heart on these very corner sunny rooms.
“I actually came out in this area,” said Trillo, who visited his first gay club, the now-shuttered Bunkhouse in Sayville, after graduating from East Islip High School in 1979. He quickly found friends, a sense of community and employment as a DJ and lighting tech in mainland Long Island’s then-vibrant gay scene. In the Fire Island communities of Cherry Grove and The Pines, his digital system lit The Miss Fire Island Contest and a stage show starring comedian Kaye Ballard, among other events.
The welcome wasn’t always warm, however, when Trillo sought a safe place to live as an openly gay man. He recalls one bad experience while renting a room in Floral Park: “They found out I was gay, and they asked me to leave.”
The Bunkhouse and other gay nightclubs are closed now, Trillo is retired from a second career as a licensed hair stylist, and he’s finding a renewed sense of community in a building where he feels “grateful” to be living among friends.
“It’s nice to be around people my age, and that we can live together in a safe environment,” he said.
Trillo starts his day at 6 a.m., watching the sunrise through his south-facing window, meditating, writing in his journal and eating meals while, he said, “two gay ducks” play in a small pond below his side window.
“I imagine I’ll be here a long time,” adds Trillo, who has been "clean and sober" for four years and is looking forward to starting a Narcotics Anonymous chapter in the LGBT senior center soon to open downstairs.
Pioneering, welcoming, convenient
For Long Island’s gay and lesbian elders, there’s no place quite like the LGBT Network’s senior citizens home, Long Island’s first affordable LGBT senior housing complex, and the first of its kind outside urban America. Born and raised in the era before landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions legalized same-sex intimacy and marriage, residents of the building say they feel they can finally exhale and live out their retirement years in an accepting, respectful environment.
“Our elder generations were the true champions in fighting and laying the groundwork for many of the rights we have today,” said David Kilmnick, president of the LGBT Network. “They took care of us and it is now our responsibility to take care of them to ensure the highest quality of life, where they can live their golden years.”
Kilmnick said the four-story building, which has 75 apartments, mostly one-bedroom units, is “at 100% capacity.”
"Every single residence is an affordable unit, and anyone who meets the income guidelines, which range from 50% to 80% of Suffolk County area median income, can apply no matter where they live,” Kilmnick said.
The Bay Shore apartments were filled on a lottery basis and are for households with at least one resident 55 or older. Monthly rents range from just under $1,000 for a one-bedroom to $1,875 for two bedrooms, with three quarters of the units renting at $1,200, Kilmnick said.
Steps from Bay Shore’s Main Street, the building is also in walking distance from public transportation hubs, including a Long Island Rail Road station.
“It’s a unique building in a great spot in Bay Shore that provides walkability to restaurants and culture, and is close to Fire Island and the beach,” said the project's architect, Salvatore Coco, a partner in Beatty Harvey Coco Architects in Melville.
Residents don’t even have to leave the building for an LGBT-friendly gathering. Kilmnick expects the building’s 8,000-square-foot LGBT Network Senior Center to open this summer, offering “a wide range of social support, advocacy, arts and culture, nutrition, health and fitness and food programs, mental health and benefits entitlement initiatives.”
'I feel free'
Elaine Felton, 67, an African American lesbian who is a retired state employee, isn’t waiting for the center to open to find friends.
“Yesterday was Pajama Day,” Felton said, giving a visitor a tour of her one-bedroom unit, which has big windows she keeps free of curtains to let the sun shine in. On days when the weather isn’t good, she and a neighbor, also named Elaine, stay in pjs all day, going from apartment to apartment, watching streaming services on TV. “We’ve got popcorn, we’ve got movies, and a friend of mine is coming over shortly to make sure my Surround Sound is functioning properly,” Felton said.
Her living room, bedroom and foyer are decorated with photos of her African American and Native American ancestors and mementos from past Gay Pride parades — “stuff I’ve had for years, and this is the first time I get to display it,” Felton said.
Her voice catches as she shows a photo display dedicated to her dad, her “food partner,” who died in January at age 94. “We would go on adventures, at street fairs, food fairs and restaurants, having the time of our life,” she said.
The view outside her window reminds her of Queens, where she grew up a “tomboy.” She didn’t come out until her late 30s, when she realized that she had felt love for a female teacher in her school days.
From that point, living openly meant contending with “dual discrimination” when apartment hunting, Felton said. “People kept saying, 'It’s already gone,' ” said Felton, but the apartment would still be available the next day. She did rent happily for a while from Wyandanch homeowners who invited her in for peach pie.
But the Bay Shore building is different. “Having my own place is magnificent. Everything is brighter, I feel free, as if I can do anything, anytime, anywhere, and I’ve got some great neighbors who keep an eye on me.”
Felton’s been invited to dinner by a 76-year-old hall neighbor who “loves to entertain,” and she looks forward to "bringing music and dance" to the yard.
“Beyond my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined that my retirement years, my senior years as an LGBT member, would be fantastic,” Felton said.
“I feel like I need to be here,” Jeffrey Quinitchette, 63, a retired Stony Brook Hospital clinical nurse assistant, said of his one-bedroom apartment. After retiring at age 55, he’d considered moving to North Carolina, but ended up staying on Long Island because he loves living by the water and near his family.
Quinitchette’s childhood memories are happy. He’s known he was attracted to other males since sixth grade, and he had other gay friends growing up in Bellport, in a family that “embraced me with unconditional love.”
His experience living on his own, however, “wasn’t gay friendly,” he said. He lived for 30 years in a Coram apartment building where he said the management was “good,” but kids teased him when he walked outside. Some of his neighbors, Quinitchette recalled, would sometimes say, ‘that’s the gay boy,’” or call him an anti-gay epithet. “Being called names — that brought back old memories,” he said.
Those old memories are fading as he settles into his new apartment, which features an open floor plan, a small foyer “and a good view out the window,” he said. “Plus I have a dishwasher, which I never had before.”
“I can walk to the doctors, the CVS is down the block, and it’s a 20-minute ride to the Sayville-Fire Island ferry,” Quinitchette said. “It’s awesome to be able to afford to live here and still have what you need to have.”
His apartment features universal design elements, such as grab bars and safety handles in the bathroom, and doors wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or walker. “Thank goodness I don’t have to use them yet," Quinitchette said, "but I’m glad they’re there because I’m going to age gracefully.”