The LGBT Center That Changed Our Lives

New York's LGBT Center, 31 years young, is undergoing a massive renovation. It has changed lives, and been the home of the most landscape-changing campaigning groups. Why do we still need it?

courtesy LGBT Center National History Archive

“If it wasn’t for the Center, I wouldn’t be alive today.” Thom, who did not want to give the Daily Beast his second name, was diagnosed with HIV in 1992, and experienced first-hand how important New York’s LGBT Center was.

In 1995, Thom had enlisted in the Center’s first annual Cycle for the Cause AIDS bike ride from Boston to New York. His health had become a concern while training, but because of a 1-year-waiting-period on pre-existing conditions with his new employer’s health insurance plan he was unable to get proper treatment he needed.

So, he turned to The Center’s Community Health Project (now Callen-Lorde). It was one of the first organizations in the building, along with the Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE).

Over the past three decades, New York’s LGBT Center has slowly been transforming the headquarters they purchased from the city in 1983, a former maritime trade school built in the mid-1800s. They’ve replaced pipes, wires and windows, and even added an elevator.

But they are about to unveil one of their biggest projects yet—a $9.2 million overhaul of its entire facilities, creating state of the art performance spaces, adding a cafe and the Bureau of General Services Queer Division’s bookstore to make the space a social destination.

The Center has helped so many people in so many different ways. For Thom, the Community Health Project made sure he received the proper treatment he needed and cleared him to continue the fundraising bike ride, which he still does today. At the time, Thom wasn’t undergoing treatment due to the lack of available medications.

The following year, he developed pneumocystis pneumonia—a serious infection associated with HIV and AIDS. Still without insurance, the Center immediately connected Thom with the right resources, making sure he was getting the best treatment possible.

“The Center was actually able to get me into the hospital and get me the new medications that were available,” Thom said. He returned from the brink of death, though he’s not the only “Lazarus story” The Center has seen, Thom said.

It was 1983, in the opening years of the AIDS epidemic, when the Lesbian and Gay Community Service Center first opened its doors in Manhattan’s West Village (Bisexual and Transgender was added in 2001). It was the first of its kind, not just in its title, but for being a brick-and-mortar institution for the lesbian and gay community.

It began offering health counseling and social facilities at its West 13th Street location just a short walk from the historic Stonewall Inn, where riots sparked the modern phase of the gay rights movement in 1969.

The Center’s building served, as it still does today, as a home-base and one-stop-shop for those seeking health and comfort during—back then—a time of rapid, and massive, loss.

Besides HIV and AIDS, this was also a time of far less acceptance and equality, and the Center was a place where people could come—whether out or closeted—to meet their peers and gain a stronger sense of community.

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ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was famously founded in 1987 during the Center’s first fellowship program for cultural speakers, First Tuesdays (it’s now Second Tuesdays).

Larry Kramer, the renowned activist and playwright, was invited to talk after a last minute cancelation. It was then that he famously spoke out against the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which he helped co-found in 1981.

The very next day, Robert Woodworth, who is now the Director of Capital Projects, was figuring out a permanent meeting spot for what would become known as ACT UP. They still meet at The Center today.

“[It’s] the granddaddy story of how things get born here,” he added. “The emergence of GMHC in the beginning and the Center coming along a couple years later began to build the infrastructure that allowed other things to happen.”

GLAAD (Gays and Lesbians Against Anti-Defamation) and Queer Nation—an extension of ACT UP focused on violence and discrimination—were also founded at the Center.

“It felt as though lesbian and gay men were really taking charge of their own course, that nothing was going to be handed to anyone,” Ector Simpson, the former Director of Cultural Programs, told The Daily Beast. “If we were going to maintain a level of visibility and our proper place in the world, we would have to be active and vocal about it. The Center provided the proper backdrop for a collective to take place.”

Through its 31-year history, over 300 organizations and programs have formed or operated out of the Center, catering to 6,000 visitors a week on topics such as HIV/AIDS, addiction and recovery, mental health, family services, youth, and a myriad of interests and hobbies. It now hosts 13,000 club and event bookings annually.

“It’s such an amazing cross-section of the community at any given point in history—what’s going on here,” Glennda Testone, the Center’s Executive Director, told the Daily Beast.

Statistically, the LGBT community faces a higher risk of HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, suicide and, specifically LGBT youth, homelessness.

With its vast web of resources and services, including its support groups, the Center has often helped save these people lives.

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“We really are the first stop for people who are looking for information,” Testone said, listing off a wide range of services they are able to connect people with: HIV testing, starting a family, immigrant asylum, health insurance, and support groups.

But the Center doesn’t just act as a transient place for people with legal or health questions. While it does service the community, it also gives them a place to call home and exist without any stigmas from the outside world.

“One of the things that make the Center special is that it is a safe space,” Orie Urami, the Director of Meeting & Conference Services told the Daily Beast.

She told a story of a fellow employee who identifies as a butch dyke (a lesbian who takes on a more masculine identity). While commuting home on various evenings, she’s noticed the many looks they receive from fellow passengers on the subway, ones she perceives to be judgmental.

“She goes through this everyday outside of these [the Center’s] doors and I forget that when I am here,” Urami said. “But, I know that when we are here, we are safe from that [judgment]. We can celebrate who we are without any of that stuff.”

Simpson also encountered similar situations during his tenure at the Center.

“For many years, there would be folks who had no other place to change—put on male or female attire—other than the Center,” he said of visitors who identify as transgender, who would be waiting outside before the Center had even opened.

“They could be the person they truly identified as being and spend an hour or however long there. They had that place where they could just be themselves.” And they still do.

Among the long list of community groups who meet at the Center, you are guaranteed to find an event for you—clubs for nudists, motorcycle enthusiasts, knitters, gardeners, gay shamans, opera lovers, and artists. And there are many more.

Art is something that has been a highlight at The Center since its first group show—“The Center Show”—in 1989. Forty-one artists were invited to create site-specific works throughout the building as a reaction to the current social and political climate.

Most famously, Keith Haring’s Once Upon a Time depicts a point of sexual liberation, before the AIDS crisis sprouted such fear of the act. The bathroom mural, which has been impeccably preserved on the second floor of the Center, depicts a labyrinth of male sex organs intertwined and exploding in ecstasy.

On the first floor, what remains of George Whitman’s Adam and Eve, Leon Golub and Nancy Spero’s various figures, are now set within the Kaplan Assembly Hall’s new sound-enhancing walls and highlighted by LED lights.

Within these newly renovated spaces, the Center will be able to better accommodate an array of cultural events ranging from community dances and performances to private parties and public meetings.

“This is a renovation that we have gone to great lengths to preserve the history … and the unique feeling of the things that have happened here over the last 31 years,” Testone said. “But we also wanted to significantly improve the functionality of the space and make sure that we can do what we need to in the future.”

But, in 2014, with marriage equality a given in New York, and in a time of far greater acceptance for LGBTs generally, why do we still need an LGBT Center?

“There are always going to be new generations coming out of the closet—and when I say new generations, I don’t just mean young people,” Richard Burns, the Center’s former Executive Director, told the Daily Beast. “People still come out at all ages and they need a safe place to do that, to find support, perhaps to find council, to find friends. They need a way to connect into the LGBT community and culture, and the Center is a safe, wonderful place to do that.”