This trans senior is living her best life in Montreal and wants the same for others

Vanessa Frey had a hard time finding housing a trans senior, and she says she wants everyone to have the peace of mind she found. Advocates say LGBT people are often more at risk of homelessness and discrimination.

Advocates say LGBT seniors are more likely to face discrimination, homelessness

A woman with long red hair playing the piano in front of a window.
Vanessa Frey says she finally has the peace of mind to pursue music, arts and other passions now that she's comfortably housed. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

On Sunday afternoons, residents of the Manoir de Casson retirement home in Montreal can hear their neighbour Vanessa Frey play piano in the lounge — something she loves to do.

People will come to her days after her performances to tell her they love her shows and that she brought them back to their youth.

"It's like being Paul McCartney or something," she said. "This is not, to me, a retirement home. It's like a hotel."

But finding peace of mind wasn't easy for the 69-year-old trans woman.

Last fall, Frey had to find a new place to live and turned to social workers for help, but she says they had no experience working with trans women. The social workers struggled to find a place for her because of her gender identity, said Frey. Every place they called turned her down.

Her son suggested she call a private agency he had found, which led her to Manoir Casson in the Saint-Laurent borough.

"I still pinch myself. I wake up in the morning and I'm like 'Wow,'" she said.

"There's all these nationalities, all these religions, and it all seems to work. I've never been looked at [with any discrimination] nor does anyone look at each other that way."

Frey says she's aware that LGBT people, and particularly trans people, are often more vulnerable to homelessness. She said she's seen documentaries showing how older trans people were likely to struggle and be lonely and has had negative experiences of her own.

"Being trans now, people say 'Oh it's 2023' but it's not [more accepted]," she said. "Because I'm a baby boomer, it's more difficult because that really wasn't there, everything was hidden at that time."

But she feels she found a haven.

"In my experience being here, I can get on with my life. I have a lot of things I want to do. I'm in the arts … I can do it now because I have peace of mind," she said.

WATCH | Frey performs at her new home while describing her struggle: 

Trans woman, 69, finds 'harmony' after being turned down by other seniors' homes

4 months ago
Duration 1:01
Vanessa Frey says she struggled to find a retirement home because most facilities weren't interested in accepting a trans woman.

Awareness key to acceptance

Though the environment at Manoir de Casson is accepting, that isn't the case for every seniors' residence.

Advocates say that, though more people are out of the closet in 2023, for some seniors it's still difficult to be open and proud of their sexual or gender identity.

"It is a struggle because the very vast majority of housing facilities for seniors are not inclusive to sexual and gender diversity, including here in Montreal in 2023," said Julien Rougerie of Fondation Émergence, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading awareness of LGBTQ+ realities.

He says sexuality and identity are still taboo topics for some people and often facilities will maintain "an approach or culture that kind of erases people," even if it's not done deliberately.

Émergence provides all sorts 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 to both staff and residents of a seniors' home is a great way to raise awareness, let people ask questions and break down taboos.

They first go over various terms and vocabulary to explain gender and sexual diversity before talking about the realities of LGBT seniors through studies and testimonials. They also go over the best practices to let people be comfortable with who they are.

"In this specific case, being trans is definitely the category within LGBTQ+ people that face the most discrimination," said Rougerie.

"And when you age, it's even trickier because either it's too much of a step forward to come out of the closet so you just keep living your life pretending to be the gender that you're not, or you come out of the closet, then sometimes go through a legal transition or a medical transition ... you will be exposed to discrimination or mistreatment."

But, he says, seniors are not more likely to be closed-minded, homophobic or transphobic, contrary to popular belief. 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), first started at his job, he learned that someone at a residence under the RQRA had to go back in the closet and was shocked.

"I was like 'What?'" he said, "It was news to me."

He asked his project manager to look into diversity and inclusion opportunities, including those for the LGBT community, which is how he found Émergence.

After polling his staff, Fortin found that 40 per cent hadn't considered the different realities LGBT seniors face.

"We're getting to a point where the [LGBT] community really came into its own and now they're getting older and they're getting to that stage," said Fortin.

"It's going to change … But we can't let people live in the closet while this is happening."

He said maybe investors will be interested in opening residences specifically for LGBT people, "like in Europe."

"We need to get investors to be really sensitive and involved," he said.

Though adapting training to LGBT identities and changing the culture in seniors' residences will take time, Fortin says he is happy with what he's seeing in the early stages and hopes everyone can feel they have a place to age happily and comfortably.


Erika Morris

CBC News journalist

Erika Morris is a journalist at CBC Montreal.

With files from Kwabena Oduro and Sarah Leavitt