Oakland’s first LGBTQ community center opens

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On a recent board game night at the new Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, a diverse group of people came together to play games like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, staying late into the night joking and talking. “I kept checking in to see if they were wrapping up, but they stayed past midnight!” said Joe Hawkins, the center’s co-founder and executive director. “It shows you how much people want to connect, away from the alcohol and away from bars, in a space that is neutral.”

The center opened on September 7 on Lakeshore Avenue, just around the corner from the Grand Lake Theatre. There, people can find services such as help finding housing, mental health and substance abuse counseling, workplace discrimination support and mentoring.

According to Hawkins, until now Oakland was the only major city in California that didn’t have a center for LGBTQ people (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer), despite the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metro area having the largest population in the United States—6.2 percent of the adult population compared to the national average of 3.6 percent, according to a 2014 Gallup survey.

“The fact that Oakland did not have an LGBTQ center—it was pretty embarrassing,” said Hawkins. Hawkins and his co-founder, Jeff Myers—a colleague from their days spent organizing the Oakland Pride festival—had both read a 2016 report from the California Department of Justice stating that hate crimes in California had increased 11.2 percent from 2015 to 2016, and that anti-gay hate crimes against men increased 40.7 percent in that same period.

“Post the presidential election, and post the report from the California Department of Justice, we knew that it was time,” said Hawkins.

At the center, there are a dozen offices, which are rented out to groups such as Spectrum Queer Media, a community engagement and media literacy/advocacy group, and LGBTQ Perinatal Wellness Associates of the Bay Area, a group of maternal health practitioners. Entrepreneurs and startups, such as a videographer and a commercial insurance company, also work out of the space.

The center offers a wide range of community events including board game nights, film screenings, community forums and fitness classes.

As they develop their priorities for programming, Hawkins and Myers are conducting a broad needs assessment survey so they can use the data to create Oakland’s first comprehensive report on the needs of the LGBTQ community.

At the moment, the founders are prioritizing connecting people with mental health services. “We believe that our community has experienced a lot of alienation and trauma,” said Hawkins. “We all need people to talk to who are from our community.” Through partnering with local organizations like Gaylesta, a nonprofit association of over 300 mental health professionals, they are working towards offering free therapy and counseling from “an army of diverse LGBTQ mental health providers,” said Hawkins.

Beyond providing services, Hawkins hopes the center will be a gathering space. “It’s like a lighthouse,” said Hawkins, referring to the large rainbow flags draped in the windows, which he said can be seen from the 580 highway across the street.

The idea for the center came about at a roundtable discussion that Councilmember-At-Large Rebecca Kaplan, Oakland’s first openly lesbian elected official, convened in 2009 with local leaders and organizers, including Hawkins.

Despite the prominence of LGBTQ activism in the Bay Area and the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2015 legalizing gay marriage, these communities are still facing issues such as discrimination and bullying. “Whether it’s the white supremacists marching in the streets or the Trump administration’s military ban against transgender soldiers, it’s important to remember that we have to continue to work for justice,” said Kaplan.

“One issue in Oakland that doesn’t get talked about enough as an LGBTQ issue is homelessness,” said Kaplan. “There is a hugely disproportionate degree of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. I’m hopeful that this is one of the areas that will continue to get more attention as we strengthen the LGBTQ community in Oakland.”

Although it has only been one week since the center’s opening, Hawkins said he has already observed a wide range of people coming in for services, including “elders who are shut in and want to have a space to go, homeless youth and immigrants seeking asylum services.”

The center has almost 20 leadership committees that are building out programming for these groups and others, such as transgender people and LGBTQ veterans. They are also establishing an advocacy, research and fundraising department to develop and create services for homeless youth in Oakland.

Hawkins said he is overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude for the support the center has received.  Earlier that day, he had spoken with an elderly gay couple that visited the center, and he was thoughtful as he reflected on their meeting. “Imagine what it was like for them going into a straight environment and wanting to show affection. Coming here they could do that and feel totally comfortable,” he said. “People just want a space where they can go and feel that who they are is respected.”

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