Nonprofit center works to support LGBT community

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Last spring, when high schools typically hold their proms, 125 teens from throughout the Triangle with a sexual orientation outside the mainstream, as well as their allies, gathered at the Community United Church of Christ on Dixie Trail in Raleigh for their own dance, known as the “Second Chance Prom.”

Sponsored by the LGBT Center of Raleigh, a nonprofit that serves 700 to 1,000 youth, adults and elders who identify as lesbian,  gay, bisexual or transgender, the event was one of a handful of programs that aim to create a sense of community and provide support for “sexual minority youth.”

In the wake of the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in October that let stand an appeals court ruling allowing same-sex marriage, the challenge now for the LGBT movement is to continue to work for the same rights and opportunities that most Americans take for granted, says James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh.

“Just because you have marriage doesn’t mean you are equal in the eyes of the law,” he says. “On the ground, we’ve been fighting for health  care, for employment, to make sure people have a place to live.”

Operating with an annual budget of $350,000, a staff of two people working full-time and one working part-time, and 150 active volunteers from a core of 500 volunteers who together clock over 12,000 hours of volunteer time a year, the LGBT Center is one of a national network of 125 LGBT community centers, and one of only a handful in the South that are thriving, Miller says.

Formed in 2008, the LGBT Center merged in 2010 with Triangle Community Works, a coalition of groups that was created in 1994 with the initial goal or improving health outcomes for sexual minority youth.

In addition to the Second Chance Prom, which is held each winter and spring, youth programs at the LGBT Center also include QueerNC, which focuses on positive youth development; social media outreach through Twitter and Facebook; ASPYRE, or a Safer Place for Youth to Reach Excellence, a leadership camp held in Greensboro over a three-day weekend each March; and a get-together that is held once a month in a different coffee shop and typically attracts 30 to 60 teens.

“We recognized that many youth, if they were queer or questioning, would not feel comfortable coming into the Center,” says Miller.

Research has found that 40 percent of youth who pass through homeless shelters throughout the U.S. identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, says Miller, 30, who says he did not disclose he was gay until he was in college.

“Every day of my life was being hidden,” he says. “I was afraid of losing a roof over my head.”

Through its SAGE Raleigh program for people age 50 and older, a national program known as Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, the LGBT Center provides a listserve with 150 subscribers, and serves about 300 people who visit the Center on a regular basis. It also host dances, meets-and-greets, and lunch-and-learn sessions on topics on a range of human-development issues such as health, retirement and marriage.

Its HealthWorks program provides outreach on health, financial, spiritual, physical, mental and environmental issues, as well as HIV testing provided at its offices twice a week by the Wake County Health Department.

And the Center provides mainly social and educational programs through its Transgender Initiative, which serves roughly 500 people a year.

A key focus for the Center, Miller says, is working with straight allies, supporting policies that are “informed finally by education and fact and not by fear,” and, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, “educating people that the fight is not over.”

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