The Mary Renault Society

The Triangle Area of North Carolina

The LGBT Center of Raleigh

Les Geller speaking at the 2013 Annual Awards GalaOn February 23, 2014, Les Geller welcomed eight MRS members to his second home, the LGBT Center, in its newly remodeled space at 324 South Harrington Street, open since the beginning of January. (Les also introduced his partner since 2007, Allan Feinstein, whose home is elsewhere.)

The new facilities, 2400 square feet in size, are a dramatic increase over the 1,690 square foot size of the previous 411 Hillsboro Street location (not to mention the 600 sq. ft. Cabarrus Street space, the first Center). They come at an incredible rent, and they were renovated at no cost to the Center.

In his talk to the group, Les traced the genesis of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, with a timeline of its growth and a look at some aspects of it today.

January of 2007 is when a group of about 10 naïve but well-meaning activists (including our speaker) got together as a development committee with a dream and a blank slate. Les was single and unemployed at the time; he wanted to make sure that a center, if it came about, would be sure to represent the interests of the senior population of the area (more on this later).

No one on the committee had experience with creating a non-profit organization; none had been part of an effort to create a service organization of any kind. But in spite of any lack of experience, they succeeded in creating a very successful, badly needed community asset.

The development committee first wrote the Bylaws and Mission statement, and they reviewed applications for a Board of Directors.

In May 2007 they issued a press release, in July they registered a domain name, and they began planning for their first event, an outdoor festival on Moore Square.

In August of 2008, the Center put up a booth at NC Pride, in survey mode (this was in Durham). Somewhat later it arranged a major fundraiser, the premier of the movie Milk at the Rialto Theater; this was a sold-out performance. The group began contacting other LGBT organizations to find out how all could work together, under the guidance of newly appointed Executive Director, Bobby Hilburn.

In May of 2009, non-profit status for the Center was approved, bringing credibility to its efforts. In doing this, Linda Snyder was its right-hand woman. There was, however, still no actual physical center facility.

It was May of 2009 when the Center got its first real home, in downtown Raleigh at 316 W. Cabarrus Street. To celebrate the occasion there was a Grand Opening Weekend, beginning on Friday, May 7, with its first gallery showcasing a gay artist (part of Raleigh’s First Friday Gallery Walk). The weekend also included a dance party and a “Tea Dance.” The 600 square foot space was a student union-type setup, with a meeting space for clubs and organizations and a conference room capable of seating up to 16 people.

At the time the relatively new Executive Director, Bobby Hilburn, set up a group called Founders Circle; by giving $100 to the center, an individual became part of the group. Over the period of a year, 375 people donated a minimum of $100 each.

In October 2009 the first outdoor festival, which was a huge success, was held. Despite the lousy weather, hundreds of people showed up. There was a stage, with bands and entertainment; the Triangle Gay Mens’ Chorus and the Common Women’s Chorus both sang.

Among its explosion of early creations was the Gay and Grey Initiative -- that Les founded (a charter member of the first Board of Directors, Les is now in his sixth year on the Board as its Vice Chair). This began in March of 2010 with focus groups and surveys. Its first social function was a dance in Durham. This was followed by News & Observer attention. It was Gay and Grey in April 2011 that arranged a screening of Gen Silent, with the director of the film present. (In 2013, Gay & Grey was merged into a national organization; more on this later.)

One of our speakers on March 23 2014 was also a member of the first Board of Directors.

SAGE Tours the Museum

A lot changed in May of 2011 when the LGBT Center moved out of its first home on Cabarrus Street and into more visible facilities at 411 Hillsborough Street; these seemed palatial by comparison. This new space, 2½ times larger than its predecessor, included a wall of built-in bookshelves, providing space for a community library. Donations began to pour in, and it is now the largest in the Southeast. Okay, so it was mostly one large space that required you to go through the executive office to get to the bathroom, it was big and it was great.

LGBT Center of Raleigh Community Library - Librarian Erin Iannacchione

The work that begin in 2008 to coordinate the Center’s work with other LGBT organizations paid off in the late spring and early summer of 2011 when the LGBT Center merged with Triangle Community Works (itself a union of several smaller groups to pool support and resources). TCW had been around for 16 years, and it became the Center’s youth program (adding its programs A Safer Place Youth Network, the GLBT Helpline, HealthWorks, and the M Club to the Center’s activities).

May 2011 was also the time the first OutRaleigh event was held, attracting about 20,000 people. It rained. It always does – though it was really great until the wind got up around 3:00.

The new space fostered Thursday morning drop-in hours, a special opening of the Center in the morning so people could come in for coffee and talk. On the last Thursday morning of the month, this included a walk to a nearby restaurant (something easier on Hillsboro St. but much less convenient at the new location). The city actually provided a grant for these.

One of the long-term goals of the Center for quite some time was to link Gay & Grey to a national organization known as Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. SAGE is a group born in New York City in 1978, formed by people who had realized that many older LGBT people lacked the support system to sustain good health and some level of financial security as they age. And since this was at a time when the percentage of elderly people in the population nationally was growing swiftly – thousands of whom die earlier than their straight counterparts – SAGE quickly became significant nationally as perhaps the major expert on issues of LGBT individuals and aging.

As of June 2013, our Gay & Grey group, after a lot of effort to satisfy pretty rigorous requirements, became a SAGE affiliate, the 27th group to affiliate (a group in Wilmington became the 28th). This wasn’t a financial deal – joining is cost-free (though AARP funded a grant for SAGE). We should get plenty of support from the group and a wealth of information about the successes of other affiliates.

A critical objective for any long-term acceptance of gays is to build a consciousness that we are normal people, their neighbors. One tool in doing this is via storytelling. So, when we joined, SAGE invited us to become part of SAGE Story – a national digital storytelling program about what it’s like to be an older gay person. The program is designed to improve storytelling skills used in capturing life experiences, unique because they come from LGBT people. The result will be to broaden public narratives, in particular those related to aging, the long-term care involved, and the rights of LGBT people.

What’s involved isn’t simply sitting down with a microphone in hand. There were four sessions on what a Story is and how to tell one, telling each other stories, and producing videos. Storytellers were already socially connected; ours chose to do it with video programs.

Les showed us a PowerPoint show: Sage Story, produced by SAGE Raleigh and directed by Joe Wheeler. This was Brad’s story, unusual because, when he came out in college, he was pretty well accepted by parents and friends. When he and his boyfriend walked across campus holding hands, there was no negative reaction. His realization was that, if you behave as if you are shameful, that will affect people’s reactions.

SAGE Raleigh has received grants from the City of Raleigh, the SAGE national organization, and most recently the Southeastern division of Macy’s, and it continues to expand its programming for senior members of the LGBT community. Les’s efforts as Program Chair have resulted in many programs and activities of value to seniors, and his aim is to increase the number of these programs as the need and the funding arise. Expect a bright and no less dramatic future.

Some things are in the Center’s future; some things aren’t. It can’t provide transportation for disabled people, but the City of Raleigh does have services for this. Part of the reason the Center has its large budget is that it does not use money any place where it doesn’t have to. The Board has, however, thought of having a program for gay singles (which hasn’t started yet). It would also like Equality NC to further civil rights development. Some of its dreams may not happen, but its track record in only seven years is impressive.

The Center’s fortunes have gone up and down over the years… but predominantly up. Growth has been incredibly fast (the budget is now $275,000/year). The range of services provided has grown geometrically. And a week ago Saturday, the new Center physically hosted its first dance, complete with a D.J.

The original, overall goal for an LGBT Center was to build a more gay-friendly capital city, and many people have worked tirelessly to see this idea come to fruition. How can the LGBT Center not be a major factor in this?

 SAGE Enjoying a Pot Luck Lunch at the LGBT Center of Raleigh on Hillsborough Street


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