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'It was the freedom': Friends share what Pride means to them living in 1st gay retirement community

Although they all live alone now, they're far from lonely — they lean on one another for friendship and support.

PALMETTO, Fla. — Nowadays, the month of June is widely recognized as Pride month. You'll find rainbow-colored flags flying outside city halls, LGBTQ parades and festivals happening across the country.

Decades ago, acceptance like this didn't exist, which is why some retirees flocked to America's first gay retirement community in Palmetto, Florida — the Palms of Manasota.

Mary, 80; Ron, 83; and Fred, 72; were three of the originals to move in 20 years ago and since then, they've watched the Pride movement grow and evolve in ways they could have never imagined.

Here's some of our interview:

What does Pride mean to you?

Mary: It's an opportunity to come together as a group and celebrate who we are and the fact that we've developed as a community.

Ron: I feel it's a freedom for us gay people.

Fred: Being proud that you're gay instead of hiding it like we used to do.

Watch 10 Tampa Bay's Pride Month special, "Proud to be in the Bay":

When did you come out?

Fred: I was very religious and as a young adolescent, I started praying for God to take away the gayness. (Years later) One day after work, Iwent to the Atlanta YMCA, and there were people swimming in the pool who were gay and that’s how I came out at the YMCA — which is why I love that song Y.M.C.A.!

Mary: I knew I was gay but I didn't name it and I could never bring it up to my family because they were staunch Catholics and it just wouldn't go over. I went into the convent myself and I had a really good experience. I stayed 14 years but a lot of it was just coming to terms with who I was so I really lived the best life I could and I got to the point that I knew I was good and I was OK and I could say, yes, I do like women.

Ron: Believe it or not, I really came out while I was in the service. We formed our own club. When I started we only had 25 members and when I was getting ready to get discharged, we had 135 members but we had to be very very cautious.

What brought you to the Palms of Manasota, originally known as America's first gay retirement community?

Mary: I thought it was a wonderful concept, gay people helping each other age.

Ron: It was the freedom. Walk in the streets. If we wanted to hold hands, we could.

Fred and Ron both recently lost their partners of thirty-plus years. Mary's single now, too, but the friends rely on each other in a familial way. When one is sick or needs surgery, the others do their grocery shopping, laundry, or whatever else needs to be done.

What is your advice to someone out there who is still hating themselves because of who they are?

Fred: Find a support group or group of gay people and just hang around them, you'll feel better, not so alienated.

Mary: I think the biggest piece of it is to really go inside yourself and take a good look inside and see how good you are and discover that.

Final thoughts for the LGBTQ community?

Fred: Somebody asked me if you had to do it over again, would you choose to be gay and I tell them, hell yeah!

Mary: Live the life that you were meant to live.

Ron: A lot of love and care.

10 Tampa Bay: Proud to be in the Bay — see related coverage: 

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