When I first began volunteering at the DC Center in 2002, I did so with a deep conviction that a world-class city like Washington, D.C., deserves a world-class LGBT community center. I believe that the LGBT residents of the District are underserved and that an LGBT community center could successfully improve the lives of its community, similar to how other successful community centers have in other major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Building such a permanent home for our LGBT community has been an elusive goal for the District, and one that predates me or our current organization. The establishment of a sustainable center remains a challenge and even more so as we must now vacate our current location within the next few months.
We knew when we moved to our current location at 1810 14th St. that we would eventually need to vacate as JBG Properties, the owners, would be developing the site for commercial and/or residential purposes. JBG Properties assisted us in finding this temporary home and we are thankful for their generous support.
The move to this location was a calculated risk, but it was a good decision. In just a few short months, we’ve shown the community and the city what a community center can look like. We’ve provided a home to seven LGBT organizations (including the Washington Blade, the Chamber of Commerce, DCCAN etc.) and each finds significant value in connecting to one another in common space. We’ve hosted meetings for dozens of other LGBT groups and town halls with organizations like the Department of Health and the GLLU.
Our Center is vibrant, our programs are flourishing, and the LGBT community has overwhelmingly embraced us and the programs and services we provide. The needs of the LGBT community are unique and we have worked to enable the community to work together through the DC Center. Successful examples include DC For Marriage, GLOV, HIV Working Group, Crystal Meth Working Group, and Elder Think Tank, (now SAGE Metro DC), among many others.
Our notice to leave this location has come, unfortunately, much sooner than any of us would have liked and our future is, at this moment, uncertain. Our vision and our passion, however, remain the same as when the DC Center was first incorporated: We seek a permanent, sustainable home for the DC Center.
We’ve made much progress toward this goal over the years not only in programs, but in funding as well. The DC Center has greatly diversified its funding sources by increasing individual donations, private foundation support and corporate support. The one challenge we have yet to overcome is financial support from our local government. Except for a targeted grant for outreach prevention of crystal meth, the DC Center has received no financial support whatsoever from the District of Columbia.
Unfortunately, we are not aware of any LGBT community center that can be sustainable in the long-term without the support of its local government. At this crucial moment, it is time for our local government to step forward and commit to fully supporting its LGBT residents and their needs, and doing its share to make sure this world-class city has a world-class LGBT community center.
We as a community have much more important work ahead of us to ensure our safety and progress. For example, the percentage of hate crimes based on sexual orientation was 74 percent of all hate crimes reported (2008) compared to a national average of 15 percent; recent NHBS data suggest that more than 14 percent of gay men are living with HIV/AIDS yet 40 percent of them don’t know it; and many LGBT youth in public schools still face an unsafe learning environment.
You can’t help but wonder what progress we could make and how we could help improve the lives of LGBT residents if we could rely on a long-term location from which we can coordinate and administer targeted programs and services.
To be clear, the DC Center will move forward and is not shutting down. With six short weeks until we have to vacate our current location, this is a crucial time in the life of our still very young organization. Now is the time to get involved. Now is the time to bring to the table your energy and ideas, your commitment and connections, your time and financial resources. And yes, now is the time to demand more from our elected officials. We will move forward, but we are counting on your help to do so.
Michael Sessa is president and board chair of the DC Center for the LGBT Community. Reach him via thedccenter.org.