In the summer of 2012, when Brennan Lewis was 15, he and best friend Lane Rosen co-founded QueerNC. As a first year student in high school, Lewis saw LGBT students struggling with unsafe home environments, bullying, and mental illness. Rural and urban students alike faced feelings of isolation, and it was difficult to find appropriate resources. The two felt they had to do something.
At first, QueerNC struggled with funding and organizational structure, so the leadership team scheduled a meeting with James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh. They showed up nervous, dressed in their best business clothes. “We marched into the LGBT Center and saw James sitting at his desk in a T-shirt and shorts,” Lewis recalls. “He was incredibly welcoming and kind and took our ideas seriously.”
Suddenly QueerNC had a budget, a place to meet and hold events, and adult mentors. Today, the organization serves 500 N.C. youth, some who travel to Raleigh from Greensboro, Fayetteville and Beaufort County for QueerNC events. Some have found the courage to come out to their parents.
It’s one of many success stories with the LGBT Center of Raleigh at its core. Miller describes the organization as a lightning rod for all things pertaining to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities, a clearinghouse for information on those demographics and a safe place for all people. With its extensive library, programs and services – including HIV testing and a crisis line – the LGBT Center of Raleigh is a lot of things to a lot of people.
Even in the South, where centers like this go under or are even harassed, the Center has thrived.
“It is extremely rare,” Miller says. There’s a center in Durham his organization helped get off the ground, as well as LGBT centers in Richmond and Hampton Roads, Va., and Columbia, S.C.: beyond that, there aren’t many such organizations in the region. “It’s not common to see an LGBT center, especially one like ours, thrive after five years. We are in a very progressive space and the Triangle is a super-welcoming space for everybody, not just L, G, B or T. The Southern colloquialisms stand – we invite people in. When you have too much, you don’t build a higher wall, you build a longer table.”
Appropriate to this inclusive vision, the Center works to reduce isolation and unsafe environments for the older gay community the same as for the younger. When Les Geller helped found the Center in 2010, one of his primary missions was to make sure LGBT seniors were included. This is often an invisible group, he says, and one that has lived through times when homosexuality was not only taboo, but could get one arrested – or even lobotomized. For many of these people, isolation and distrust of institutions – including medical establishments – was a survival mechanism.
“A lot of our seniors are socially isolated,” Geller says. “In many instances they’ve been alienated from their families because they grew up in a period when it was not acceptable to be gay.
Now, Geller heads the local chapter of Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), a national program that understands the gravity of its mission. Many LGBT people don’t have children, he says; accordingly, they can lack a support system as they age. He says hospitals and doctors need to understand that LGBT patients benefit from hospital visits from partners as well as close friends in the same way someone with kids would benefit from a family visit. LGBT seniors also face being misunderstood or ostracized in assisted living facilities – all very practical concerns for an aging population.
My love goes out to the greater Raleigh community. They just walk by the rainbow flag. They look at it, smile, and keep walking.
James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh
The LGBT Center’s inclusiveness doesn’t stop there or even limit itself to the LGBT community. It hosts NAACP and ACLU meetings, and the Center is closely involved with the Wake County Partnership to End Homelessness. The Center can always use monetary donations or volunteers to work its phones or run events, but it also accepts donations for the local homeless population, which it passes along to the appropriate organizations. Socks and feminine hygiene products in particular are needed, says Miller, his focus on using the Center’s success and high profile for the good of the many.
“Other centers like ours have been vandalized, they’ve been marginalized, they’ve been put in the paper saying they are an abomination,” he says. “My love goes out to the greater Raleigh community. They just walk by the rainbow flag. They look at it, smile, and keep walking.”
LGBT Center of Raleigh
324 S. Harrington St.
Raleigh, N.C. 27603
Contact: James Miller, 919-832-4484
Description: The mission of the LGBT Center of Raleigh is to strengthen individual and community development through social and educational activities; to facilitate the incubation of supportive services and groups; and to identify needs and advocate for resources benefiting the diverse population of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, their friends and supporters within and beyond central North Carolina.
Donations needed: Monetary and gift card contributions, new undergarments/socks, unwrapped toys for Christmas toy drive, cleaning supplies, coffee, random notes of kindness.
Volunteers: Managing the space, answering phones, cleaning, library duties, staffing meetings/organizational get-togethers, development, communications, marketing.
$10 would buy: Snacks and sodas for our youth programs.
$20 would buy: Copy and printing for our Trans* Initiative on name changes and legal rights.
$50 would buy: One Rapid HIV Test for a community member.