On a conceptual level, Jim Brooks and Bob Campbell have always understood that discrimination against LGBT is a reality. And yet, they had long had reservations about fully believing people because they hadn’t experienced it themselves. “When I would hear these instances of egregious anti-gay harassment, I sometimes thought maybe, well this might be a little conjured up, or there may be something they’re not saying.”
It wasn’t until Jim and Bob were confronted with homophobia through housing that taught them how pervasive, nuanced, and insidious LGBT discrimination and harassment can be.
“It’s never happened before in our lives,” Jim said. “I mean, I came out when I was 17 in the 1970s, and Bob was out in the Air Force in the 1960s, and we’ve never had any direct discrimination like this until recently. I’ve had it flung right out in front of me now.”
* * *
They lived in a small active adult community, run by Dell Webb, which has communities across the country, in Tucson, Arizona. The two resided here only since early 2015, following nearly 15 years together in Broward County, Florida.
On Memorial Day weekend of 2015, Bob and Jim were using the pool at the Home Owner Association’s (HOA’s) community center. Bob recently had a stroke and the couple was using the pool as a way of continuing critical physical therapy work to get Bob back in shape and moving on his own again.
Before getting into the pool, Jim bent down on his knees to help Bob take off his leg brace, and as they got into the pool, he put his arm around his partner, supporting his weight. Jim stood behind Bob in the pool and tried to move him side-to-side –one of the therapy strategies recommended.
A woman swam past the couple, bumping into Bob with a force that knocked him off his balance and startled the men.
“I thought, ‘oh, she didn’t mean to,’ Jim said. Before Jim could think anything else, a man came across the patio and was yelling at the couple. “You’re not allowed to use that lane for anything other than swimming! The stranger’s volume and tone felt uncalled for. Jim replied, explaining that the lane they were using was also designed for physical therapy use. He tried to explain that Bob had a recent stroke, how they were using the lane for aquatic therapy, and that he was Bob’s partner and caregiver.
Jim was quickly cut off. A handful of other people in the pool area approached the couple, shouting, “You don’t live here! You don’t belong here!” They surrounded Jim, physically separating him from Bob, and continued to harass the two.
Nearly slipping on the concrete, Bob tried to scurry out of the water to reach his leg brace and cane. Jim told the irrationally angry group of people that he would be reporting the incident. He immediately located the desk attendant at the center and said he’d like to file a complaint.
The desk aide, hired by the HOA of the community, was less than helpful. She told Jim that he couldn’t file a complaint unless he had the names of the people involved. Jim asked if the attendant if he could look at the sign-in book for their names. Instead she handed him writing supplies and directed Jim to get the names himself.
“Like an idiot, I took the piece of paper and very politely went back to the group and asked for their names,” Jim said. He was met with a bellow from the group, with one man saying he was a retired police officer and threatening to physically remove Bob and Jim from the area. “If you don’t get out of here, I will throw you out of here and have you arrested,” the man yelled. Jim asked his name, and the man spat, “Barack Obama,” sarcastically.
Bob and Jim left with the paperwork, determined to file it that night. That evening, they reflected on the incident and how everything escalated so quickly.
“It’s hard to even relate the humiliation and fear we felt that day,” Jim wrote later.. “The look of pain and agony on Bob’s face as we drove home still haunts me, and I worried that the trauma would affect his recovery.”
“When we talked about it later, about why this happened, we realized that it was around the time that the Supreme Court was expected to rule in favor of marriage equality. We thought maybe that had something to do it. What it really boiled down to, it seemed, was that these people didn’t like seeing a gay couple in the nitty-gritty of life helping each other. They didn’t like grappling with older gay adults openly in love. “If we had been sitting across from each other, they would have been fine. But because we were performing the duties a spouse would have to his spouse, they didn’t like it. They didn’t like the look of two men touching.”
* * *
Over the next several months, Jim and Bob grew to experience institutionalized hostility and opposition from the HOA. They waited to have a hearing on their complaint for a full month. During the month-long wait, the couple realized that the confidential complaint they filed had been circulated to others in the neighborhood, distributed by the attendant at the community center. Throughout all of this, Bob developed a fear of returning to the pool, despite its importance for his rehabilitation.
By the time of the hearing, which they were only told about the day before , Jim was aware that gossip had spread about him and Bob. The committee and board members who attended the complaint hearing had participated in spreading insults. They claimed that the couple was rude, entitled, and looking for a fight. Several of the people involved in the incident had seen Jim’s complaint and modified their side of the story to contradict what he said. When Jim asked to see the video recording from that day, he was told the security tape was too fuzzy to show anything. He later discovered that the camera had actually been broken for months, in violation of stated policies and he was lied to.
Jim asked the committee to remove themselves from the hearing because of their clear bias, but this request was denied, as was Jim’s request to be a part of the subsequent board hearing on the incident. The only word Jim and Bob received from the HOA was a letter of reprimand, condemning their “aggressive and disorderly behavior and use of numerous curse words.” Neither Jim nor Bob had ever used foul language in conjunction with this incident.
“It’s clear to Bob and me that there was a deliberate effort by the HOA to send a message to us that we are not wanted here,” Jim said. “The HOA is not governed by anyone. Our only resort at the end of this would have been some sort of civil legal suit, but that would have bankrupted us.”
* * *
“I know how these bureaucratic things work,” Jim said, and I followed the correct procedures. I know to never make a fool of yourself, never raise your voice. I know that you stick to facts. You don’t include emotions. And to have done everything correctly and still be treated how we were was so chilling.”
Sadly, he now knows that discrimination occurs with gradation and isn’t as obvious as many would think. In the first incident, for example, he was not told explicitly, “I am treating you differently because you are gay.” He was not called any anti-gay slurs. But the context – and the motivations behind the mistreatment – can’t be ignored, and they reveal a subtle but especially harmful discrimination and lack of support.
“When this first happened, I was in a state of shock about it. But since then, I’ve realized that there is a real pattern here. This is happening wherever there is some sort of institution governing a population.”
“This is how it happens in most situations,” he elaborated. “First, a person is perceived to be different, and then a wall is put up to isolate them. Friends withdraw, then harassment and bullying begins. And after, there is character assassination and lies told about them. When the person finally gets up the nerve to report the incident to someone in charge, it becomes institutionalized bullying, or you’ll get no response to your complaints, or your accusations will be projected back onto you. After that, your pleas are ignored and you’re gaslighted – and by the end, you feel like you are going insane.”
“That’s what happened to Bob and me. The same lies were being told over and over again, and it put us in such a hard situation that we had to withdraw ourselves from that.”
* * *
The treatment they’ve received at their home in Arizona is why Jim and Bob have already moved to a different neighborhood in Tucson. It’s partially played a role in Jim and Bob’s decision to head back to Ft. Lauderdale, where they love the community and feel affirmed at every turn.
Moving now – after being in Tucson for less than two years – means taking a big financial hit. With their savings in the equity of the home, and having lived there for less than two years, they are unable to declare capital gains.
Still, Jim and Bob realize that they are fortunate enough that they can afford to move to a more inclusive community, something that they know is not true for most people. And the fact remains that even when they move back to Florida, they still won’t have any explicit state laws protecting them from discrimination in housing or public accommodations. Arizona and Florida are two of 31 states where LGBT Americans don’t have definitive state-level protections from discrimination.
What happened to Jim and Bob is housing discrimination, plain and simple. The methods taken by the HOA and the other community were used intentionally to make their lives intolerable and frustrating, to force them from the community, and to send a message that they were not welcome.
“People should be protected and not exposed to discrimination,” Jim says simply. “In Arizona, every morning I would go out and look at our garage door and make sure no one had written “fag” on it. That’s what the environment was like, especially after this experience with the HOA. We just aren’t comfortable here anymore.”
“I’m a completely out gay man,” Jim said. “But the effect this has had on us has been devastating. That’s how bullying and bigotry work. And that is why we are speaking out about this. After working for equality for all our lives, we have no intention of going back in the closet as seniors.”