That the two-story building on East Pike Street looks welcoming is not an accident. Home to the Seattle Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community Center is meant to be an accepting and safe place for sexual minorities. Since the center opened four years ago, many thousands of people have made use of the facility.
The center was established to be a safe meeting place for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community and a kind of unifying organization for the many groups that serve it. Among its many goals are providing resources for those people newly out of the closet as well as LGBT members who are new to Seattle. Beyond a wealth of health and social resources, the center offers numerous events, classes and social events aimed at creating a visible, public identity for the LGBT community.
Now a well-established organization, the center has made a significant change with a recent merger with the Ingersoll Gender Center. The Ingersoll center, founded in 1977, by noted activist Marcia Botzer, supports transgendered people, providing education, advocacy and a wide variety of resources for those with gender identity issues. But Ingersoll was under many of the same financial pressures faced by virtually all nonprofit organizations, decreased funding and limited organizational capacity chief among them.
In January, the Ingersoll board approached Shannon Thomas, the LGBT center's executive director, and brought up the subject of a merger. It took six months of due diligence to work out the details, and the merger became official last month. Joining forcers, Thomas said, probably allowed Ingersoll to continue operations. It might have folded otherwise, in which case a nearly 30-year organization and its institutional history would have been lost.
"Whey they came to use, it was perfect timing," Thomas said. "The LGBT Center had finished strategic planning, and one of our goals was to be more of a leader in the community, and the merger is one of the ways we can do more."
The merger is an important step as the LGBT center looks forward. The result is that Ingersoll now becomes one of the center's programs; it's no longer a specific institutional entity. There is a separate office for Ingersoll, and its activities are able to continue and expand.
Another sign of the center's strength and increasing involvement with the LGBT community was the role in played during this year's Pride festivities. With the larger festival having moved off the Hill, and the strong, often divisive feelings the move created, the center's middle position came with its share of challenges.
"We didn't want to take sides," Thomas said. "We wanted to be supportive of Seattle Out and Proud [Pride's organizers] as well as those who wanted Pride to stay on Capitol Hill. Our goal was to stay away from Us vs. Them conversations."
To that end, the LGBT center sponsored Queerfest, which created a wide range of activities on Capitol Hill, including music in Volunteer Park and a march down Broadway, intended to augment the official Pride program.
"Overall the response was overwhelmingly supportive," she said. "There was a huge turnout for a first-time event, and it was a grassroots, community celebration. We hope for bigger and better next year."
A series of community meetings at the center will begin in the fall in anticipation of next year's Pride. Thomas said the center will be involved, perhaps in the capacity of a facilitator or possibly even sponsoring something along the lines of Queerfest II. But it's too early to say at this stage.
Pointing to the more distant future, Thomas said that the conversation about creating LGBT senior housing has resumed. Initially, the senior housing component was a prime motivator when efforts at creating the LGBT center first began more than 10 years ago. Later considered too ambitious an initial goal, the center was established without the senior housing element. But that idea has never been forgotten.
"We're back into it again," she said. "As always, it comes down to money and institutional capacity. We need to build up a larger organization before we can actually pull it off. But we're talking about it again, and our 5-year strategic plan points to creating a needs and property assessment to get us started."
Thomas said that one sign of the center's health is the number of people who use its services. Last year, the center served between 50,000 and 60,000 people, an inclusive total that includes drop-in visits, official events as well as those who called in to the center's resource and referral line. More than 85 different organizations are institutional members - up from 32 when the center opened in 2002 - with dozens more having a loose affiliation.
It's still a pretty bare bones operation. The center operates with a staff of two, including Thomas, though at the moment she's searching for a new program director. More than 100 people contribute time as volunteers, including answering the phones for the resource and referral line. The operation survives on a $250,000 budget, of which more than half is needed for basic operating expenses. The vast majority of the center's funding comes from individual philanthropic donations.
The center, Thomas said, has established an identity and created something of a secure footing.
"That nebulous community connection that people are always talking about - that's what the community center's been doing for the last four years," she said. "Coming together strengthens us all. Social change for sexual minorities is still happening. Now our challenge is, what can we do next?"
More information is available at www.seattlelgbt.org or by calling 323-5438. The Seattle LGBT Community Center is located at 1115 E. Pike St.
Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 461-1308.