Blue Ridge Pride: There’s new hope for an LGBT Community Center in Asheville

The following commentary was written and submitted by Blue Ridge Pride, a local LGBT advocacy organization:

While lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals are making gains around the country, movement in North Carolina on this front has been dismally retrograde.  Last year saw the passage of an antigay marriage amendment, coming on the heels of a state supreme court decision ending adoption by same-sex couples.  Discrimination in housing and employment against LGBT individuals remains legal, and no state-level protections against hate crimes exist.  Moreover, the governor has appointed to the board of education a staunch opponent of efforts to combat the bullying of LGBT youth.  For the state’s LGBT community, the present looks bleak, but perhaps not the future.

As hopes of a progressive North Carolina crumble into ruin, there is renewed interest in an LGBT community center in the city that, two years ago, a state senator dubbed “the cesspool of sin” because of its domestic-partner registry.  Latest census figures indicate a 3 percent growth in the number of same-sex households in the city, and approximately 12 percent of the city’s population identifies as transgender, bisexual, lesbian, or gay.  LGBT activists in the Asheville area have dreamed of a community center for decades, and, over the years, several attempts have been made but without success.  Blue Ridge Pride, the city’s annual LGBT festival in October, has experienced enormous growth, beginning with 2,500 attendees in 2009 to more than 11,000 last year.  In spite of a cold wind blowing from Raleigh, the community has become both stronger and more visible.

At this point the vision for an LGBT community center can be epic; ultimately, the reality may be modest.  Some question the need for such a facility at all.  Social, political, and support groups have existed in the city for decades, meeting in private homes, houses of worship, and at institutions of higher learning.  But the other side of the coin is that such charity makes the LGBT community an encampment of refugees, homeless, and in need of assistance from outside.  The planned community center would be built by LGBT people for LGBT people.

“Essential to the center is that it be self-sustaining,” said Yvonne Cook-Riley, board member of Blue Ridge Pride, “that it be able to produce enough revenue to fund the services it would provide.  And the GLBTQ community has to own it.”  Retail space and a café are obvious sources of income, sources that also acknowledge the success of LGBT entrepreneurs in the mountains.  However, there could also be office space—and a considerable market—for attorneys and for real estate and tourism professionals, among others.

Central to the center’s mission is service to the community.  Support may take many forms, from a mixed-use facility to on-site counseling.  A disproportionate number of runaways and throwaways are LGBT youth; added to that are people who have lost their jobs or homes because of a lack of state protections.  Counseling could address issues of self-esteem, of drug and alcohol abuse, and of coming to terms with coming out.  Similarly, the center could distribute information on HIV, breast cancer, and other health concerns and provide referrals to LGBT-affirming doctors and medical care.

The community center could offer a kitchen and meeting rooms for support and social organizations as well as a performance space for musical and theatrical groups.  Day care facilities for children and programs for the elderly, along with classrooms, a gallery, a research library, and computer access could all be available at the center.

Most importantly, an LGBT community center would furnish a largely invisible population with visibility.  To be sure, most LGBT adolescents and a large number of adults feel a strong sense of isolation; consequently, a community center becomes a beacon.  But the center is visible to the larger straight community too.  It is easy for the state of North Carolina to discriminate against an invisible minority, easy to deny basic human rights and even basic humanity to a people it never sees.  But an active and viable community center is harder to overlook, especially one funded and sustained by the community it serves.

Yvonne Cook-Riley is more cautious than optimistic about the new center, a project still in its infancy.  “Community input is essential at this stage,” she says.  “The community has to be part of the process of a needs assessment and must have an active voice in the concept of building a GLBTQ service center.”  As to her own vision, she opines, “If we build it, the community center will provide many amenities but it will be short on closet space.”


LGBT Services Center in Asheville

Please join us on Sunday, September 22, at 3:00 PM in UNCA’s Humanities Lecture Hall, Asheville, North Carolina, for a community forum to discuss establishing an LGBT services center in the city of Asheville. http://maps.unca.edu/campus-map

Rebecca Chaplin, L.S., M.A., Group Facilitator, Chair of LGBT Elder Advocates of Western North Carolina will be the forum moderator. 

Our objective is to have input for a needs assessment. Those who have expressed interest and representatives of LGBT support and social groups, as well as the general public, are encouraged to attend. Please come ready to answer this question: why does Western North Carolina need or not need an LGBT community service center?

Please invite people you know via Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail. RSVP to yvonne@blueridgepride.com

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