STOCKHOLM — Ing-Britt Akerberg, 70, receives us in front of paintings of nymphs and a beautiful Persian carpet. A swaggering spaniel licks her toes. "I live in the apartment below," she explains. "But I'm keeping my friend's three dogs; she went to town to do a bit of shopping."
The apartment building is squeezed between a day nursery and a public geriatric hospital in Stockholm's calm Sandhamnsgatan neighborhood, where Scots pines are aligned with austere 1980s buildings.
The man who just knocked on the door is Christer Fallman. At 57, with a blonde mane, tanned skin and heady cologne, he's the youngest of the 34 residents of the Rainbow House (Regnbagen). Fallman, a landscaper, is also the founder of the facilty, which opened in November 2013, after four years of endless debates, as the only seniors facility in Europe reserved for members of the LGBT community.
"When Regnbagen was approved by the city, and we were allocated a building, all the decorators in town called me. They thought I wanted an extravagant house with state-of-the-art equipment, a spa, luxurious services," he recalls. "They were soon disappointed: Lots of gays have small pensions, don't get partner benefits, and some, ostracized by their family, are denied inheritances. We needed a reduced rent so the access to this residence could be considered as an option by all homosexuals."
Fallman, who is fond of the U.S., where five cities now have affordable residences for gay seniors, traveled to California last spring: Hollywood was a pioneer in 2007. The comparison with the late Harvey Milk, a charismatic politician and LGBT icon from San Francisco, doesn't bother him the slightest.
At first glance, nothing distinguishes Regnbagen from an ordinary retirement home. The 27 rooms or apartments, between 45 and 70 square meters (450 to 750 square feet), line the long linoleum corridors with their mural bars, foliage plants and large doors for better wheelchair access. Residents pay between 600 and 700 euros per month.
But there are those huge photographs that surprise visitors when they step out of the elevator. They show seniors on the outskirts of a forest. The higher you go, the more euphoric they seem, and the trees further and further away. "This series is called, â€˜Here we come,"" he explains.
The pictures, by Annica Karlsson Rixon, a well-known lesbian artist, were taken on the Djurgarden island in the eastern reaches of Stockholm, and have a symbolic meaning. "In Western societies, when people retire, they step out of the frame of interest. For homosexuals, growing old can also carry the fearsome meaning of returning to the closet," Fallman says. "Imagine a classic retirement home, occupied by heterosexuals who don't have the open-mindedness of the younger generations. Gay people can soon become the local curiosity, when they yearn for serenity. Here, there are 22 men, 12 women and four couples who share the same memories, the same ordeals. They feel at ease."
A secret life
Ing-Britt Akerberg's room provides her a soothing place to stay after years filled with a fair share of torment. "I was married to a handsome man, a Greek," she says. "We lived in Boston. When we returned to Sweden in 1976, we divorced."
Her ex-husband returned to Greece, and she stayed with their two children in Sodertalje, a small industrial town 30 kilometers away from Stockholm, and found a job as a bus driver. "Later, as I wanted to meet someone, I placed an ad in the local newspaper, explaining I felt bisexual."
At the time in Sweden, homosexuality had just been declassified as a mental illness. "That was in 1981, when lesbians met each other at night, in nightclubs," recalls Akerberg. "At the time, to protect themselves, they posed as guys. They were tough, wore black jackets. Not for me."
Akerberg received about 40 responses and eventually succumbed to the charm of a Spanish woman. The lovers moved to Stockholm with the two children who were then teenagers. "My son died of cancer the following year, at only 16," she says. "Barely older, my daughter Anna left home because my partner was becoming unbearable, drinking like a fish in front of the television."
In fact, the woman also left eventually, one morning without a word. At 59, Akerberg was single once more. She was a Metro driver in the Swedish capital working nights. Her aching and solitude both torment her. "I miss my heterosexual marriage," she says. "Life was sweeter, believe me."
Six years ago, when she heard about this retirement home project, she put her name on the waiting list with a small advance. "I moved in in November 2013, for the inauguration. And I'll only leave feet first!"
Akerberg now has a new ally, an elegant pensioner. "She's two years younger than me," Akerberg says. "At first, we barely greeted each other. Now, I keep her dogs and we regularly go out together, thanks to the Golden Ladies."
The Golden Ladies is a Stockholm association for lesbians aged 60 and over. It organizes five tea dances per year for its 35 members, a cruise in the Baltic Sea, private viewings and bowling outings. "We publish a schedule of the outings every two months," explains Eva Bohlin, the group's president. "Sometimes, more than 60 women come along, sometimes only five. It's as they want."
The Rainbow House also offers activities, including gatherings that encourage the residents to patch things up with family member who may have been disconcerted by a late coming-out. "Every Saturday night, we organize a musical quiz," Fallman says. "Sunday afternoon is a coffee break, the favorite time of the week for Swedes, where you share cakes and coffee."
The roof of the house is equipped with a patio with large teak tables, a barbecue and a stunning view of the pier, with ocean liners setting off for Riga or Helsinki. It's up on the roof where Bjorn Lundstedt, 75, enjoys spending his spare time. His younger brother regularly visits him. "He's always been there for me," Lundstedt says. "He often comes by with his wife and five children."
The resident is a former Scandinavian Airlines steward who finished his carrier as chief flight attendant on Boeing 777s. "I traveled around the whole world, learned several languages," he says. "My life was quite interesting, colorful."
At 20 years old, his father took him to see a doctor, who suggested castration, one of many ugly memories. "I never got the love I wanted from my father, but my mother has always supported me," he says.
Lundstedt grew up in Linkoping, a small town with a military past. Up until the 1970s, several artillery and grenadier regiments were set up there. Today, he lives alone at the Rainbow house in a comfortable 60-square-meter, one-bedroom apartment. "I still like going to the cinema or theater. And, of course, there are very nice gay bars and restaurants in Stockholm." Lundstedt would like the first floor of the retirement home to be a bit more lively, perhaps with a restaurant and a hair salon.
Fallman says the next step will be opening a residence for homosexuals with special health needs, elsewhere in Stockholm. "That would prove that our community can take care of itself at every step of life," he says. "Not all gay people would have to access it, but they'll know that it exists and that's very reassuring."
Fallman says he's recently added to his waiting list to one gay couple that likes to plan ahead: They are still in their thirties.