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Paradise Lost 

Long-time partners discover their Marana retirement community may not be the safest for LGBT couples, families

click to enlarge Robert Campbell, left, and James Brooks

MarÍa Inés Taracena

Robert Campbell, left, and James Brooks

The first few months living in Marana's Sunflower Retirement Community, the surroundings felt comfortable to long-time partners James Brooks and Robert Campbell. Still, the gay couple was cautious.

They didn't go to many potlucks or gatherings at the community center. The uncertainty of what other people's reactions would be to their relationship loomed. After all, the experiences with many of their family members hadn't been the best—lots of siblings cut ties and there were many, many parental disappointments.

For the last 12 years, they're just happy they have each other.

Sadly, Campbell had a stroke in March. Brooks has been his caregiver, and is invested in getting Campbell back to where he was. He's at every physical therapy session at the Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs clinic (Campbell is a Vietnam vet), and has researched what type of activities Campbell can do from home to improve his health.

The idea of doing aquatic physical therapy in the retirement community's pool came up. Brooks thought is was a perfect way to help with Campbell's recovery.

On the afternoon of May 24, the couple walked to the pool area. At the time, Campbell still wore a leg brace and relied on his walker.

The air was hostile.

A woman bumped into Campbell when he made his way to one of the pool's lap lanes. He didn't think much of it, he says. Then a man from across the pool started yelling at them, screaming Brooks and Campbell weren't allowed to be in the swim lanes. The couple was told to leave.

Brooks says he tried explaining Campbell was a stroke patient and that they were trying to do his physical therapy. In no time, Brooks was out of the pool and surrounded by people screaming in his face, he says. Campbell was frightened. He pulled himself out of the pool and dragged himself on the pavement to be near Brooks.

"We started to realize that there is something wrong here, there is something going on," Brooks says.

Just a few days earlier they had talked about what a great place they had chosen to move to from Florida.

"I told the (front) desk attendant what had happened ... and she refused to help me. She gave me a pen and paper and said, 'If you want to file a complaint, you gave to get the names yourself,'" Brooks remembers. "I went back out there and tried to do that. It blew up. People started threatening me. One man threatened that he would throw me out if I didn't leave. (Another) man said his name was Barack Obama."

Cases like Brooks and Campbell's are common, according to the organization Services and Advocacy for GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) Elders, or SAGE.

SAGE recently collaborated with the LGBT civil rights group Equal Rights Center in a survey where 200 heterosexual and homosexual individuals in 10 states called various retirement communities with resident 50 years and older. The center found that, when it came to LGBT people, 48 percent of the time there was "some kind of differential treatment, fewer housing options, higher fees or rents, or possibly more extensive application requirements than the heterosexual counterparts," according to Serena Worthington, director of National Field Initiatives at SAGE. Worthington has been in constant communication with Brooks and Campbell.

The "problem" with Brooks and Campbell's situation is that no homophobic slurs were used. So, their discrimination based on sexual orientation claims are harder to prove.

Arizona doesn't have a law prohibiting housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But this, "Does not in any way mean that it is permissible to discriminate against same-sex couples in Arizona," says Karen Loewy, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, a national LGBT legal organization. Loewy has also been in touch with the couple.

"Courts and human rights agencies across the country have increasingly recognized that discrimination against LGBT people, and specifically against same-sex couples, is a form of sex discrimination. Both the Arizona Fair Housing Act and the Federal Fair Housing Act prohibit sex discrimination, so a housing provider—whether a landlord, realtor, homeowners association, property manager, or municipality—that denies or resists providing fully equal housing rights to LGBT people risks liability under these provisions," she says in an email.

Brooks and Campbell filed a complaint the day after the pool altercation. A hearing with the Sunflower Board of Directors on the complaint happened in June. There, Brooks was told he would not be informed of the committee's recommendations, or what actions the board would take, if any, in response to the complaint, according to documents obtained by the Tucson Weekly.

Two statements emerged alleging Brooks and Campbell were the ones out of line. One from a man who said if he had still been a law enforcement officer, he would have arrested Brooks for disorderly conduct. Another from a woman accusing Campbell of being a part of the mess, when at the time "Bob was still unable to bathe himself."

In July, the couple received a letter from the board saying that, during an executive meeting, the board had found (they) were the ones in violation of the code of conduct, and that if there were any other similar events, the couple would face consequences. "(There was) no reference at all that (the board) did an investigation into our complaint," Campbell says.

Even though they pay for the amenities that come from living at Sunflower, the couple doesn't use them, because they fear for their safety. They say it's sad. They've made great friend there, but a small group of residents have tainted their experience, they say.

The governing board president and Sunflower's management did not respond to an interview request from the Tucson Weekly.

Recently Brooks and Campbell decided to put their house up for sale. But when they realized they probably wouldn't be able to afford a nice home in a safe area in Tucson, they decided to stay at Sunflower. They plan to continue making noise with the board until a fair hearing for their complaint takes place.

Lately, the couple rarely leaves their home, unless it's to drive to the VA for Campbell's appointments.

"The thing that hurts me the most is, I have always been, wherever I have lived, the kind of neighbor who helps the older lady across the street. My name (here) has been destroyed. My character has been assassinated here and I don't have any control over that other than to tell the truth and get the word out," Brooks says. "This is more important than ever because we are going to stay here."

More by María Inés Taracena

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